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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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Startup Communities Are Up To The Entrepreneurs

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Startup CommunitiesAs I continue to talk about Startup Communities, I say over and over and over again that the leaders have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else – who I call the “feeders” (government, university, non-profits, big companies, VCs, angel investors) – have an important role, but the leaders must be entrepreneurs. Now – members of feeder organizations can play a leadership role, but in the absence of a critical mass of entrepreneurs, the startup community won’t ever develop into anything meaningful.

I was interviewed recently in MIT Technology Review in an article titled It’s Up to You, EntrepreneursIt’s part of a series they are doing titled The Next Silicon ValleyIt was a long interview by Antonio Regalado who boiled my rambling down into a bunch of coherent answers to specific questions.

For example, when he asked,  “What’s the most important step an entrepreneur can take to create a startup community?” I answered:

“Just do stuff. It’s kind of that simple. It’s literally entrepreneurs just starting to do things. If you’re in a city where there’s no clear startup community, the goal is not raise a bunch of money to fund a nonprofit, the goal is not get your government involved. The goal is start finding the other entrepreneurial leaders who are committed to being in your city over the next 20 years. Then, as a group, get very focused on knowing each other, working together, being inclusive of anyone else who wants to engage, doing things that help recruit people to that geography, and doing selfish stuff for your company that also drives your startup community.”

He got underneath some great key points about startup communities with his questions, which follow.

  • People talk about technology clusters. You talk about entrepreneurial communities. What’s the difference?
  • What’s the most important step an entrepreneur can take to create a startup community?
  • Let’s say you are the mayor. Would you rather bring Boeing to your city or have a startup scene?
  • You seem to think a top-down approach is pretty toxic.
  • What’s the evidence that startup communities can happen outside of traditional technology hubs?
  • In your book, you say entrepreneurs need to make a 20-year commitment to a place. Does anyone really think in those time scales?
  • How would you measure the success of a startup community?
  • In Kansas City you bought a house and handed it over to some programmers. What’s the idea?

If you want the answers, go read It’s Up to You, Entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurial Density and Venture Capital

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Richard Florida continues to write amazing stuff about Startup Communities in The Atlantic Online. Two of his latest articles talk about entrepreneurial density and venture capital.

For a long time I’ve suggested that an interesting measure of entrepreneurial density would be ((entrepreneurs + employees of startups) / total population). I asserted in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City that I thought Boulder had the highest entrepreneurial density in the world. I qualified this by staying I had no real empirical data – it was merely an assertion based on my experience.

Richard took this notion a step further in his article High-Tech Challengers to Silicon Valley and actually did some math. In it, he looked at Venture Capital financing (total dollars and number of deals) on a per-capital basis. Boulder came in third, behind “San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA” (what most of us think of as “Silicon Valley”) and “San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA” (what most of us think of as San Francisco.)

Venture Capital investment per capita

 

The comments are fascinating and generally miss the point. One in particular, called Richard unethical, although it was from “WithheldName” (also known as Anonymous Coward).

“It’s totally unfair to make Boulder separate from Denver. Combine Boulder and Denver. It’s called the Denver-Boulder Metropolitan Statistical Area for a reason. Was Cambridge separated from Boston? Of course not. The author was from Boulder. This data was slanted to Boulder. It was totally unethical.”

This particular person doesn’t understand that Boulder and Denver are separate startup communities. In contrast, Cambridge and Boston are one startup community, consisting of six startup neighborhoods (three in Cambridge, three in Boston, all within a 15 minute drive of each other, even in traffic.)

More importantly, the author of the article wasn’t from Boulder. I’m from Boulder. I didn’t write the article – Richard did. And – he was pretty clear about all of that, so our friend needs to rethink his definition of the word “unethical.”

That said, the more interesting study is by zip code, not by city or MSA. Mixing MSAs and cities creates a comparison that isn’t precise. And Richard acknowledges this:

“I’ll continue to track the evolving geography of start-ups and venture capital in future posts. Next week, I’ll look at the economic, demographic and social characteristics of metros that are associated with venture capital and start-up activity. In future posts, I’ll delve more deeply into all of this, using detailed data by area code and zip code level to tease out the changing geography of venture capital and start-up activity and its distribution across cities and suburban areas.”

I think the real magic in the analysis around entrepreneurial density will happen at the zip code level on a per capita basis. Look for 80302, 02139, and 10003 to show up high on the list along with some starting with 94xxx.

Book: Tech and the City: The Making of New York’s Startup Community

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On Digital Sabbath #5, I read Tech and the City: The Making of New York’s Startup Community. I got through half of it on my flight home from New York on Saturday morning; the balance laying on the couch next to Amy on Saturday evening.

I gave a talk with Alessandro Piol on Tuesday night at the Apple Store on Prince Street that was sponsored by the Women Innovate Mobile accelerator. We had a fun hour long talk with Q&A, a lot of it about Startup Communities. I hadn’t read Alessandro’s book in advance (but I did have it on my Kindle) so I was inspired to gobble it down this weekend.

It was excellent. If you are involved in the New York startup community, this is a must read book. If you are interested in startup communities in general, it’s a substantive history and current explanation of what is going on in New York.

One thing that jumped out at me that Alessandro segmented the New York startup community into six neighborhoods.

  • Flatiron / Union Square: The Heart of Silicon Alley
  • The Meatpacking District and Chelsea: Tech and the City
  • East Village, Soho, and Lower Manhattan: The Boheme of the Third Millennium
  • Brooklyn: The Do-It-Yourself Revolution
  • The Bronx: Sunshine Fortress
  • Long Island City in Queens: The 3D Generation

If you’ve heard me talk about startup communities, you’ll recognize this as the same approach I take when talking about larger communities like New York, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Boston/Cambridge. In these cases, the startup neighborhoods look similar to a startup community like Boulder – there is an incredible density of startup activity in a small geographic area. In a city like New York, rather than having everything in one place, you have a series of neighborhoods that have this entrepreneurial density, but are connected together to form the overall startup community.

I experience this all the time in New York. But I got a new taste of it on Thursday. I went to Brooklyn after an early meeting near Greeley Square Park. I started off at 20 Jay, saw NYU Poly Incubator, went for a long walk around DUMBO with Charlie O’Donnell, had an awesome lunch with Chad Dickerson (Etsy CEO), and then walked to MakerBot and hung out with the team there for a while. I did all of it on foot – including the back and forth from Manhattan.

The last third of the book is forward looking, talking about where things can, and are, going in the New York startup community. Finally, while there are plenty of VCs and government folks involved, it’s very clear that this is an entrepreneur led phenomenon, and Alessandro does a good job of balancing all the players.

Oh – and Digital Sabbath #5 was excellent. Even though I was on a plane for four hours, I woke up Sunday once again feeling refreshed and as though I had a weekend stretching out in front of me.

Government Shouldn’t Be In The Accelerator Business

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This article originally appeared online at Inc.com in an article titled Government Shouldn’t Be In The Accelerator Business. I talk more about this and lots of other topics in my recent book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City

As a co-founder of TechStars, I’m a huge believer in the mentor-driven accelerator model. But I don’t think government should be funding these accelerators, nor do I think they need to.

A good accelerator can be run in any city in the world for $500,000. Entrepreneurs with a compelling track record and approach should be able to easily raise, or even provide this capital. As evidence of this, there are already hundreds of accelerators in the U.S., without government funding, being run as entrepreneurial ventures for profit by entrepreneurs.

When we started TechStars in 2006, the idea of an accelerator was brand new. We funded the first TechStars program in Boulder in 2007 with $230,000. There were four investors – me, TechStars CEO David Cohen, David Brown, and Jared Polis. All four of us had been successful entrepreneurs and we decided to try TechStars as an experiment to help create more early stage start-ups in Boulder. We figured out the downside case was that we’d spend $230,000 and end up attracting 20 or so new, smart entrepreneurs to Boulder.

That first program went great and has already returned over two times our invested capital with several of the companies still having future value. We ran the second program in 2008, expanded to Boston in 2009, and adopted a funding strategy for each local program which we continue to use to this day. TechStars surpassed our wildest expectations and now runs over 10 programs a year for over 100 start-ups around the United States. We’ve begun expanding internationally with our first program running this summer in London. And there are many other accelerators around the world using the TechStars mentor-driven model that are members of the Global Accelerator Network.

All of this is privately funded. We’ve never taken a dollar of government funding, nor do we plan to.

While the amount of money required to run a program has increased from the original $230,000, it’s still well under $1,000,000 per program cycle. As a result, the amount of capital we need to raise to run a TechStars program is modest, and since we run it to make a financial return, it is actually an investment, rather than an expense. And, by being focused first on the financial return as well as playing a long-term game (we expect to be running TechStars accelerators for a long time), we are very thoughtful about how we allocate capital.

If entrepreneurs can’t figure out how to fund it, why should the government do it? That just seems like a situation where capital is going to be allocated poorly and the incentives won’t be tightly aligned.

Concentrate Mostly On One Company

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This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series.

A few our entrepreneurial heroes work on more that one company at a time. Steve Jobs (Pixar, Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square), and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn, Greylock). And we regularly hear of entrepreneurs who are working at companies that acquired their first company who are now working on new companies while still at their acquirer.

It’s takes an extraordinary talented entrepreneur to be able to do this. So, should you try to emulate this? “Mostly” no.

If you are working on your first company or you don’t have a clear track record of success, put all of your energy into your first venture. Go all in, unambiguously. Your employees will expect, and respect this. Your customers will hope for this. Your investors will require this. And, the likelihood of your success will increase.

That said, I encourage every entrepreneur to have their own equivalent of Google 20% time, where you spend 20% of your time on something other than your primary company. If you are a first time entrepreneur, invest this energy in things that directly benefit your company. Find a peer group like Entrepreneurs Organization and invest time and energy in learning from and giving to your peers. Invest some of your 20% time in your local startup community, taking lessons from my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, which will have immediate positive impacts on you and your company’s reputation in your local ecosystem. Or invest actively in your own personal development as an entrepreneur through reading, spending time with other entrepreneurs, and actively engaging with accelerators like TechStars.

Once you’ve had some success, even if you are still running your first company, start expanding the definition of what “mostly no” means. I encourage every CEO I work with to serve as a director on another entrepreneur’s board. If you’ve made some money, don’t be afraid to make some angel investments in other companies. But stay focused on your business or else you might find yourself in a position where you suddenly don’t have the success you think you do.

Once you’ve sold your first company, or taken it public, you can start diminishing the definition of the word “mostly.” Some entrepreneurs love to be involved at the inception stage but don’t want to run companies. Others like to have a portfolio of companies they are working on at the same time, with one being the primary company. An example of this is my long-time friend and entrepreneurial collaborator Rajat Bhargava. We’ve now done nine companies together, with four of them currently active. Rajat is CEO of one of them (StillSecure) and a major shareholder and board member of three others that he’s helped co-found that I’ve funded (Yesware, MobileDay, and SafeInstance.) But this is an exception, build on a collaboration between entrepreneur (Rajat) and investor (me) over almost 20 years.

While it’s often tempting to start multiple companies, especially as you start to have some early success with your first company, resist this temptation, mostly.

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