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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Largest Startup Community In The World

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As Boulder Startup Week 2014 comes to an end, I have been reflecting on the power of startup communities today.

When I wrote Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I made some assertions about how to build startup communities and what the impact of them would be on society. As I sit here at the end of a week pondering everything that is going on in the world around startup communities, I believe I have vastly underestimated their potential impact. And this makes me feel very happy.

Startup Week is a great example of an activity and event that I talk about in my Boulder Thesis. It was also another creation from Boulder, just like Startup Weekend, Techstars, and the Boulder Thesis. Andrew Hyde, the founder of Startup Weekend, was also the founder of Startup Week. After a hiatus of a few years, Andrew came back to run Boulder Startup Week. But he is also about to do something magical with Startup Week – look for more on that soon. And, if you enjoyed Boulder Startup Week, go check out Fort Collins Startup Week which is happening from 5/20 – 5/25 and looks awesome.

This reflection led me to think about how to wire up the largest startup community in the world. Geography is one boundary, but the Internet allows us to create a global startup community that is a network of startup communities. UP Global, which I’m on the board of, is doing just that.

You might know UP Global by the names of the two organizations that combined to form it – Startup Weekend and Startup America Partnership. This combination happened about a year ago and the progress in the last year has been remarkable.

I encourage you to take a look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s 28 slides and when I looked at it early today it blew my mind. Here are a few key metrics:

  • 310,000 alumni and volunteers
  • 4,500 mentors
  • 132,000 businesses
  • 87,000 developers
  • 39,000 designers
  • 501 cities
  • 126 countries

Go look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s insanely wonderful how many people and startup communities this organization has touched.

The network is getting incredibly strong and powerful. I believe that networks are now more important in our society than hierarchies. Sure – we’ll have hierarchies forever, but I’m going to spend as much of my time as possible in the network. And for everyone who is part of the network of people engaging in startup communities, thanks for all your efforts on this mission!

NEXT by Startup Weekend in Boulder

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HiRes_GFExNEXT_Logo_RGB-[2100x1828]-5_10 (1)I’ve been a big supporter of Startup Weekend, locally and nationally, since the very beginning and I’m continuing to do so by both sponsoring and mentoring in the NEXT Boulder program. NEXT by Startup Weekend is a wonderful next step for entrepreneurs looking for feedback on their idea or early business, while heavily leveraging the Lean methodology. Below are the words of Ken Hoff, an up-and-coming leader in the Boulder startup community. As the City Coordinator of the NEXT program, check out what he has to say about why he thinks the program is valuable. Ken can be found at @ken_hoff or thekenhoff@gmail.com. Following are Ken’s thoughts on NEXT Boulder.

NEXT Boulder is a 5-week pre-accelerator program, beginning on 10/15. Entrepreneurs will be immersed in the skills and tactics their startup needs and will get consistent advice and feedback from the best mentors in Boulder. Sign up here!

As a recent graduate of the Computer Science department at CU Boulder, I’m really lucky to have found what I want to do for the rest of my life, even if it was only recently. During my senior year, I took “Startup Essentials for Software Engineering” (taught by Zach Nies of Rally Software) and I can confidently say it was the best class I ever took at CU.

We learned how to take an idea and turn it into a company the right way using the Lean Startup process. We learned how to do customer development, conduct empathy interviews, and build a real MVP (not just an alpha version). We learned hands-on, functional, pragmatic skills for building a startup; not high-level theory or “how to write a business plan.” We got off the ground and out of the building right away.

Not everyone gets to have this experience – I was lucky to be a student at the time it was offered. For those of us who aren’t in school, you can try to do it all on you own, but you have to rely on the generosity of mentors to give you their time and their feedback. Accelerators and incubators can offer this, but they require you to have your business already in motion and are difficult to get into.

That’s why when NEXT decided to hold an event in Boulder, I jumped at the chance to help. I want to give entrepreneurs the same awesome resources I had as a student. NEXT can give aspiring entrepreneurs three major tools:

1. A cohesive, comprehensive curriculum on how to build your startup, with clear, pragmatic directions on what steps to take next.

2. The ability to work on your idea – something that you’re vested in and passionate about – and the confidence to take that idea to a competition or accelerator.

3. Copious advice and feedback about your company from the best mentors available, like Brad Feld, Nicole Glaros, Brad Bernthal, Robert Reich, and more!

NEXT Boulder runs from 10/15 to 11/12, and consists of weekly 3-hour sessions on Tuesday nights at the Silicon Flatirons Center in CU Law. Single founders can sign up, but co-founders are encouraged to attend together.

If you’d like to:

Attend NEXT, head over to NEXT Boulder to get your tickets, or contact me at boulder@swnext.co for more questions.

Sponsor NEXT, contact me at boulder@swnext.co for more information. It’s a great way to get your product or brand in front of lots of early-stage entrepreneurs and great mentors from Boulder.

Mentor for NEXT, contact me at boulder@swnext.co for more information. This is a great chance to give back to the Boulder startup community and see what the next generation of entrepreneurs has to offer!

A big thanks to Brad Feld for his generous donation, as well as Silicon Flatirons Center for the use of their space. NEXT provides entrepreneurs with the right combination of everything they need: skills, feedback, and the motivation to keep it going. I’m really looking forward to seeing a lot of great companies come out of the program!

Investing in and Joining the Board of Rover.com

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Brooks and KenaiWoof! We just announced Foundry Group’s investment in Rover.com this morning. We led a $7m financing in the leader in digital dog boarding that connects dog owners with approved, reviewed, and insured sitters. Rover.com is part of our marketplace theme, which now includes investments in SideTour and PivotDesk. I’m psyched to be joining the board, working with my good friend Greg Gottesman at Madrona on another Seattle-based company.

Two years ago we probably wouldn’t have considered Rover.com as it would have fallen outside our active themes. Marketplace is a good example of how our themes evolve. Seth and I worked together on ServiceMagic in the 1999 – 2004 time frame (IAC acquired it in 2004 for $180m) so we had a deep understanding of how a heavily metric-based buy/sell marketplace worked. However, at Foundry Group, we didn’t start paying attention to this theme again until we made a seed investment in SideTour coming out of the TechStars New York program. In this case, Seth had been SideTour’s mentor and we classified it as “other” as we sometimes make exceptions and invest in companies outside our themes when (a) we love the founders and (b) we are interested in what they are doing.

Last summer, Jason mentored the founders of PivotDesk as they went through TechStars Boulder. At the end of the summer, we decided to invest as well as categorize SideTour and PivotDesk together in the same theme, which we originally named RAM, after Ryan’s initials, which happened to be the same as the abbreviation for “remnant asset monetization”, the key element of each of these companies that we were interested in.

Specifically, we aren’t interested in investing in any two-sided marketplace. Instead, we are looking for ones that have a very clearly defined inefficiency around “remnant assets”, or assets that expire if not used in a timely fashion. We’re also looking for ones that have huge under-accessed supply or demand, where mobile and location have an immediate impact on utilization, and where existing transaction friction – either as a result of process or trust – exists.

Rover.com was the first of over 100 companies we’ve seen in the last three months that fit these criteria. As a bonus, we loved the entrepreneurs and the domain, as three of the four of us are dog lovers (Jason, sadly, goes for cats, but we have Cheezburger for that.) Furthermore, it’s our fifth investment in Seattle, joining SEOmoz, Cheezburger, BigDoor, and Gist (now part of RIM). And it’s got two linkages to Startup Weekend (where I’m a board member) – they are both Seattle-based and Rover.com was conceived at a Startup Weekend.

I’m psyched to be an investor. And, every time I get in my Range Rover, I’ll think of Aaron. Especially when I’m with my golden retriever Brooks.

Business Plans Are An Historical Artifact

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This article (Business Plans Are An Historical Artifact)  first appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal The Accelerators Column, which I’m contributing to on a regular basis. 

In 1987 when I started my first company (Feld Technologies), I wrote a business plan for a course at MIT that I was in called 15.375: New Enterprises. The textbook for the course was Jeffry A. Timmons’ classic book “New Venture Creation” and the course ended with the submission of a written business plan.

I went on to create a company, with my partner Dave Jilk, that bore very little resemblance to that business plan. When I reread the plan several years ago for amusement, it motivated me to go dig up plans for other successful companies that I was a co-founder of or early investor in, including NetGenesis and Harmonix. In each case, the business plans were big, long, serious documents that had only a minor semblance to actual business that got created.

In the 1990s, business plan competitions were all the rage. I was a judge early on at the MIT $10k Competition (now the $100k Competition) and read lots and lots of business plans. By 1997, when I started investing as a venture capital investor, I was no longer reading business plans. And I don’t think I have since then.

Today, it’s clear to me that business plans for startup companies are a historical artifact that represented the best approach at the time to define a business for potential investors. In the past decade, we’ve shifted from a “tell me about it” approach (the business plan) to a “show me” approach (the Lean Startup). Rather than write long exhaustive documents, entrepreneurs can rapidly prototype their product and get immediate user and market feedback. They can use Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad approach to get out of the building and actually incorporate customer development early into the definition of their business. And they can learn the lesson we teach over and over again in TechStars – “show don’t tell.”

While “business plan competitions” are still around, some are rapidly evolving into “business creation competitions.” CU Boulder is at the forefront of this with their New Venture Challenge, which is experimenting with new things each year. And activities like Startup Weekend are teaching a new generation of entrepreneurs how to envision, create, and launch a startup in a weekend, and then incorporating Blank’s Lean LaunchPad into a month-long process called SWNext.

As an entrepreneur, I encourage you to reject the notion of a classical business plan from the 1970′s. You should still thinking deeply about the business you are creating and communicate clearly what you are doing to investors – just use contemporary approaches that are much more deeply incorporated into the actual creation of your product and business.

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Changing How We Think About Education

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On Friday I spent three hours at Tufts University meeting with Chris Rogers and a few of his colleagues at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.  We had an awesome, wide ranging conversation about what they are doing, how the accelerator model could apply, and how education, especially around engineering and computer science needs to radically change, as well as some concrete suggestions about how to change it. I also got a tour of the research lab which had an enormous number of legos everywhere as one of their key sponsors is Lego.

James Barlow, the Director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program for The Gordon Institute at the Tufts School of Engineering was also in the meeting. He was as awesome as Chris and was able to speak from experience around a lot of accelerator activities, especially in Europe.

Yesterday, he emailed me a brilliant RSA Animate talk by Sir Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms. I just watched it and found myself nodding my head up and down for most of the 11 minutes it took to watch the video.

I encourage you to invest 11 minutes of your life and watch it right now if you are interested in getting an insight into why much of our current approach to education is broken (the “why”) along with some of how it can be fixed (“the what”).

I believe strongly that accelerator programs like TechStars have become a very effective “education program” for entrepreneurs. While we’ve figured out pieces of it, we are now taking it up a level by trying to figure out the longer term arc around multi-year programs, along with additional programs linked to entrepreneurship, but not necessarily for entrepreneurs, such as Boston Startup School. Academic accelerators, like the one that MIT ran this summer called the MIT Founders Skills Accelerator, are introducing and experimenting with this in an academic setting. Finally, my friends at Startup Weekend are working on something called SW Next that they’ll be rolling out soon – we talked about it extensively at our board meeting ten days ago.

When we look back in 40 years, I expect another dramatic impact of the Internet and the web will be a massive shift in the way education is packaged and delivered. And that’s a good thing.

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