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If I’ve learned one thing in my life, it’s that nothing is static.
Periodically the meme surfaces that “the only place you can create a great software / Internet company is in the bay area.” While I think the bay area is a special place, anyone that knows me knows that I strongly believe there are several great entrepreneurial communities throughout the US and the potential for many more.
Boston has always been a great entrepreneurial community. Sure – it’s had it’s ups and downs, but when I lived here from 1983 to 1995 the entrepreneurial vector was awesome. I started my first company (Feld Technologies) here in 1987 and made my first angel investment (NetGenesis) here in 1994.
When TechStars opened a Boston program in 2009 there was definitely new energy around the software / Internet startup scene in Boston and TechStars was excited to be part of. When I say “Boston”, I actually mean “Boston/Cambridge” where the center of mass is really near MIT in Cambridge. The venture capital community has finally realized this (again) and much of the physical location of the VCs is shifting to the Cambridge / Kendall Square area with a little in Harvard Square (a 10 minute cab or train ride from Kendall Square.)
I spent the day at TechStars Boston yesterday meeting with all of the TechStars Boston 2011 companies. They are halfway through the program and are stunning. Three months ago I was super psyched about the quality of the TechStars NY 2011 companies as they were halfway through the program. The Boston program, under the leadership of Katie Rae, has taken it up another notch!
Last night at dinner I met a bunch of the TechStars Boston mentors. Katie has recruited some folks I’ve never met before and I asked her to put together a dinner with the people I didn’t know. It was just awesome – super food at Evoo, great conversation, and really impressive people. Tonight we have a TechStars Boston mentor happy hour so I’ll get to see a bunch of old friends and the rest of the TechStars Boston mentors.
At the end of dinner, Matt Lauzon, the founder/CEO of Gemvara, told me about this thing he and some friends had created called #RubyRiot. It’s a “pay-it-forward” event where everyone that comes asks for an introduction to one person (anyone on the planet) and everyone in attendance works together to make the introduction happen. Matt asked me if I’d sponsor the event – Fred Destin piled on and said he’d put up $1k if I did, then Reed Sturtevant did also, and Gus Weber from Dogpatch finished us off. I’m an easy mark so I jumped in the boat.
As I walked back to my hotel, I was buzzing from the day. I believe to my core that the entrepreneurs create and sustain entrepreneurial communities. Everyone else, including VC’s like me, are participants. And it’s just awesome to see the next generation of Internet entrepreneurs reignite the fire in Boston (well – Cambridge) and drag the last generation back into it.
I strongly believe that entrepreneurial education and community building is not a zero sum game. So when Jim Franklin, the CEO of SendGrid (one of our portfolio companies and a TechStars Boulder mentor) asked if I would write a post about the Founder Institute program in Boulder, I told him that I’d give him control of my blog to write a guest post on it. I have enormous regard for Jim and Jon Nordmark, his co-host of the Founder Institute Denver program and want to be supportive of anything they are involved in. So – following is Jim’s view on the value of Founder Institute, how it differs from TechStars, and a call to action if you are interested in it.
If you read Brad’s blog, you probably have some connection to the world of startups. Do you dream of starting a company, but you just can’t quit your day job right now? I may have just the thing you are looking for.
Last summer Founder Institute held its inaugural class in Denver. Jon Nordmark, CEO of usingmiles.com and founder of ebags, was the host. Jon brought in dozens of CEO/founder mentors and graduated a class of 15 companies including BookBrewer, JetJaw and CipherPoint. Also, the graduating founders have gone on to do joint projects together such as LocVox, which GlueCon recently selected for its “demo pod.”
What the graduates tell me is that they thought the education was worthwhile, and the camaraderie among the group is worth even more. Starting a business can be a lonely venture, and these graduates all have a meaningful connection to each other.
I had the opportunity to mentor a number of the participants and developed several great relationships in the process. I was impressed by the quality of the founders that we have in Denver and Boulder, and I’m looking for big things from graduated companies like BloomWorlds, and ZebraMinds.
For this year, I’ve joined Jon as co-host. We look forward to working with the generous mentors as well as another great group of founders. Founder Institute is a great way for Jon and I to ‘pay it forward’ and help the next generation of entrepreneurs to make Colorado a great place to start a business.
Because I am Boulder-based and also a TechStars mentor, I am often asked about the differences between TechStars and the Founder Institute. Scott Yates, an FI graduate and founder of BlogMutt, wrote an excellent post on this topic last year, and tells me that looking back as a graduate he thinks his analysis still holds up.
The key difference I see between the two programs is the overall goal: at TechStars your team will be in Boulder full-time and demo your work at Investor Day. All TechStars participants form an operating company by the end of the program. With the Founder Institute you will get an education on what it means to be a founder from others who have been there and done that. Most of the participants are operating a new company by the end, or shortly thereafter, but some just keep working their day job until the moment is right for them.
In addition to TechStars, we have many resources for entrepreneurs in Colorado, and all of them have their differentiating points. Here’s what I see as unique aspects of the Founder Institute:
- You can keep you day job.
- You don’t have to relocate to Boulder.
- If you graduate you contribute 3.5 percent of your company to a pool that is owned by you and the other graduates and mentors from your class. You are quite literally invested in the success of your peers.
- The mentors are exclusively experienced CEOs and founders – no service providers.
And whether or not you launch your business, you will be a much better-informed founder when the time is right.
I’d like to thank Brad for the chance to blog in his space, and I’d like to thank Jon for his continuing effort to help the Colorado entrepreneurial ecosystem, because we all benefit when we have more, better founders in our universe.
I’m back home in Boulder about to head out for a long run in the mountains. As I was catching up on email from last week (not quite done yet) I was reflecting on the awesome week I had in New York. I had a couple of board meetings, spent a bunch of time at TechStars, gave some talks, had a pair of really fun late night dinners, had two strong runs (including one amazing one) along the east river, and stayed up until 1am drinking scotch with my partner Seth one night who was also in New York for a few days this week.
On Thursday night I gave a talk at NYU Startup Week. I followed Nate Westheimer, who runs the incredibly vibrant NY Tech Meetup. Nate led off by asserting that NY was the best place in the world to start a company and hypothesized that in the past year I had probably spent more time in NY than in the bay area. Since I track where I sleep every night (and have since 1/1/09), I was able to quickly answer this question going back 29 months.
And the winner is – New York – by seven days.
In the endless “where is the best place to start a company” argument, I think many of the ones on this list (Boulder, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle) are amazing places to create a company. They all have different strengths and weaknesses but reinforce my belief that many cities in the US can build long term durable entrepreneurial communities.
On Wednesday and Thursday I spent two awesome days with my long time friend Martin Babinec (the founder of Trinet), his partner at Upstate Venture Connect – Nasir Ali – and about 1000 members of the Upstate New York entrepreneurial community.
Martin and I first met around 1991 when we were both building our first companies. We were participants in the inaugural Birthing of Giants class sponsored by Inc., Young Entrepreneurs Organization, and the MIT Enterprise Forum. It was a four day retreat at MIT’s Endicott House for entrepreneurs who were under 40 who had founded companies doing over $1 million in revenue at the time. I had barely crossed the threshold (Feld Technologies has 12 employees and was slightly bigger than $1m) and for the first time as an entrepreneur I spent a concentrated chunk of time surrounded by 50 of my peers. Looking back, it was a remarkable collection of people including my roommate at the program Alan Treffler (CEO of Pegasystems) and Ted Leonsis (then CEO of Redgate – acquired by AOL – where he was then vice-chairman for many years as he worked closely with Steve Case to turn AOL into the amazing company it was in the 1990′s.)
Enough reminiscing – when Martin came to Boulder last year to learn more about TechStars and tell me how he was planning to help rejuvenate the Upstate New York entrepreneurial community with his newest venture Upstate Venture Connect, I immediately committed to come spend a day or two with him talking about entrepreneur communities when I had some time. I don’t remember thinking hard about the early February date when we set the date last fall, but on Tuesday I found myself on a train from New York City to Albany as an effort to get to Upstate New York before the impending snowpocolypse.
Since Upstate New York had gotten so much snow so far this year, everyone was freaked out and all of the events on Wednesday were turned into conference calls that I was going to do from Martin’s house. Martin and I woke up Wednesday morning to a mild overnight snow and the gang involved hustled to get everything back on track. Over two days, I participated in nine meetings in Syracuse, Ithaca, and Rochester and met around 1000 people involved in Upstate New York’s entrepreneurial community, including entrepreneurs, angels, a few VCs, students, university people (profs, admins, and entrepreneurial leaders), more entrepreneurs, and a bunch of local and regional government folks.
When I do things like this, I don’t have a standard presentation. I hate giving powerpoint presentations – I think the world has already had too many of these, so I try to understand the audience in advance and tailor my talk to them. I try to do half talk and half Q&A so if I miss the mark there’s still plenty of time to go where the audience wants to take me. Plus I get bored listening to myself talk and want to just do random questions after a while.
Martin and Nasir arranged an incredible group of people. The two main themes were “building entrepreneurial communities” for events where there weren’t students and “Do More Faster: The Entrepreneurial Life” for the events with students. While I did plenty of storytelling about Boulder, TechStars, The Startup America Partnership, Do More Faster, and random entrepreneurial experiences I’d had, I found the dialogue and Q&A around building entrepreneurial communities to be extraordinary.
I’m a believer that there is the potential for over a hundred entrepreneurial communities across the United States. While Silicon Valley epitomizes an entrepreneurial community, there are natural resources everywhere in this country that can support continuous entrepreneurship – especially high growth entrepreneurship and innovation – over many years. I encouraged everyone to take a long view – 20 years from today – as they went about building their entrepreneurial communities. I also hammered home the point that entrepreneurs have to lead the entrepreneurial communities and that its a collaborative effort across all constituents, not a zero-sum game of one organization vs. another, and the entrepreneur has to be at the heart of it.
I came away optimistic about the potential for the Upstate New York region. I hadn’t realized that there were 500,000 students in Upstate New York universities (about 100,000 new students, or “fresh meat for the entrepreneurial community”, every year), which is a tremendous natural resource to build on.
Martin, Nasir, and everyone else who hosted and met with me while I was in Upstate New York – thank you for the hospitality. I had a blast and hope it was useful for you. As our friend Arnold once said, “I’ll be back.”
On Tuesday, I spent the day at TechStars New York. After spending Monday in Washington DC for the launch of the TechStars Network, it was really fun to spend the day and go deep with the first TechStars NY class.
By the time I got to NY on Monday night I was exhausted. My day started at 5am with email, followed by a run, a few conference calls, and then the big announcement at the White House. Several other meetings followed with a final event at the Case Foundation. David Cohen and I then hopped on a train, cranked on emails and interviews all the way to New York, and then I finished the night (after some more email) with a one hour lecture by Skype to a class of San Diego based students.
I usually have no trouble getting up at 5am, even when I’m tired, but on Tuesday I couldn’t pry my eyes open so after a few tries I just slept until I had to get up for my first call. By 10-ish I was at TechStars. I then spent 20 minutes with each company doing what I call the “top of mind drill.”
Having met with every TechStars company at least once, I’ve found that it’s not terribly useful for me to have the team members spend the 20+ minutes we have in our first meeting introducing themselves. I’m already familiar with the companies through the selection process and I just want to get into the mix with them. It’s week four so by now they’ve had tons of mentor meetings (my understanding is that at least 70 mentors have rolled through the TechStars NY offices at this point – thank you mentors!) So – I look for a quick under five minute introduction (“just explain what your business does and how it works”) and then spent the next fifteen minutes talking about whatever is top of mind.
I love the top of mind drill. It starts off with the simple question from me: “What’s on the top of your mind?” Some of the TechStars founders get it immediately and dive into a very specific issue that they are wrestling with. Others ramble around for a few minutes at which point I stop them and suggest they focus on what they think their biggest current issue is. They almost always get it the second time and we end up with ten solid minutes on one or two things that I can give them actionable feedback on.
I was planning to come back on Friday but I decided to detour to Miami Beach to spend the weekend in the sun with Amy. As a result, we cranked through all 11 companies during the day. I bought a purse on ToVieFor (don’t tell Amy – it’s a surprise), agreed to be an early alpha publisher for OnSwipe, and overall had a great time. I’m super psyched about all the teams I met – it feels like the TechStars New York program is very high quality and off to a great start.
We finished up with me giving a talk and doing some Q&A. Given that I had just been at the White House for the Startup America Partnership, we talked about that some. I gave my view of the overall cadence of the TechStars program now that the first month was coming to an end, and then I finished with a story about one of my biggest failures (Interliant) and some of the lessons that I learned from that experience.
I’m writing this from a plane Thursday night heading to Miami where I’m going to try to catch my breath after four deliciously intense days. You’ll hear about the other two – my whirlwind tour of Upstate New York – in a future post.