Aug 21 2013

Where Will Techstars Fit Into The Narrative of the Boulder Entrepreneurship History?

I was having a conversion on Friday with Brad Bernthal, an Associate Professor at Colorado Law School who directs the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. Brad and I – in addition to sharing a first name – are close friends. We were talking about the recent amazing Techstars Demo Day that we had just had in Boulder, and Brad – in a professorial tone – started hypothesizing about the importance of Techstars in the Boulder startup community. We went back and forth a little and I encouraged him to put it in writing so I could use it as fodder for a blog post. He did me one better, and wrote a guest post. It follows.

It is time to consider the following question:   When we look back, where will Techstars fit into the narrative of Boulder entrepreneurship history? 

This question will not keep many of the entrepreneurs in Boulder up late at night. Looking forward – not back – is the Boulder startup community’s natural disposition.  But sometimes we need to understand where things fit in and what they mean in the bigger scheme.  During Techstars 2013 Boulder Demo Day, led by Managing Director Luke Beatty – who skillfully took the baton from Nicole Glaros –  it occurred to me that reflection is now warranted.

Full disclosure:  I am a Techstars mentor as well as a CU Associate Professor of Law, which makes me a weirdly situated participant/observer, and I’m admittedly rooting for Boulder.  I am also not a historian and, from time to time, my prognostication skills  are suspect.  (Indeed I five years ago predicted the return of short shorts – 1980s style – in the NBA.  No players appear to have received that memo.)  With that, here some thoughts on how Techstars will be viewed in Boulder startup history.

Is it time to think about Techstars as historically significant in Colorado?  Yes, it is.  Techstars was one of the pioneers of the mentor-driven, time limited, entrepreneurial supercollider known as the Accelerator.  Techstars now belongs in the company of other Front Range pioneers who helped craft an industry, a list which includes natural foods leaders folks – who built companies such as Celestial Seasonings, Wild Oats, and Alfalfa’s – and early movers in the disk storage industry, most notably StorageTek and its progeny.   The first Techstars class matriculated in 2007.  Six years later,  TechStars is a global operation and, more fundamentally, the accelerator model is among the decade’s most important entrepreneurial innovations.  Irrespective of what happens to Techstars ahead, development of the accelerator as a global industry ensures that Techstars will remain historically relevant.

How important is Techstars’ economic impact? TBD, but traditional metrics won’t capture its benefits.  It is premature to say where Techstars will rank, in terms of regional economic impact, on a historic scale in Colorado’s Front Range.  Techstars is a magnet for creative class talent.  But it is not itself a huge employer relative to other area homegrown companies like Level 3 or StorageTek, or even rising companies like Zayo, Rally, LogRhythm, and SendGrid.  Techstars’ geographically dispersed structure shares the wealth across multiple startup communities spanning Seattle to London.  As a result, as Techstars scales up, its direct local economic benefits– unlike a Microsoft in Seattle, Google in Mountain View, or Dell in Austin – are realized in several locations, not primarily one.

My bet is that the geographically networked aspect of Techstars will emerge as its long term gift to Boulder.   Traditional metrics of employees and annual revenues won’t capture Techstars’ most important impacts.  In reputational benefits to Colorado, the near term impact is already outsized.  Long term, as Anno Saxenian explains, the value of  cross-regional connections – whereby one location is closely tied by personal relationships to other geographic startup locations – is a crucial advantage for 21st Century innovation hubs.  Boulder is comparatively not well situated to have large scale immigration ties a la Silicon Valley or New York.  But Techstars generates tremendous cross-regional connectivity for Boulder to other startups communities.  My prediction is that cultivation of cross-regional networks will be Techstars’ biggest economic impact.

What will TechStars mean?   Intergenerational connections in entrepreneurship.  Techstars as a movie script pitch:  company attract wicked smart next generation talent and pairs them with their elders.  Mr. Miyage / Daniel with mouse clicks.  Sparks ensue. Like many successes, this formula seems obvious in the rear view mirror.  But building trusted networks is hard work that takes a deft touch.  And the intergenerational network at the heart of Techstars sets a community norm that those who have success should pay it forward to the next generation.  This resonates as Techstars’ long term significance.