Tag: startup communities

Jul 18 2018

Binary Star Startup Communities

I had dinner with Ian Hathaway a few weeks ago when I was in London. It was a delight to see him in person. While we’ve been collaborating on Startup Communities 2 (which we are now calling The Startup Community Way), which will come out at the “end-of-the-year-ish,” having dinner was a delight and reminded me how much I like him.

A few months ago he wrote a post on Waterloo, and activity in Canada in general, titled The North Star. It’s a good post worth reading but reminded me of a concept that we are weaving into The Startup Community Way.

There is an increasing number of “binary star” startup communities. If you aren’t familiar with binary stars, they are a system of two stars in which one star revolves around the other or both revolve around a common center.

Boulder and Denver is a canonical example of this, where each city has developed a strong startup community, but the relationship between the two makes each stronger as they grow and develop.

Other examples that I’m familiar with that jump out at me include:

  • Toronto – Waterloo
  • Detroit – Ann Arbor
  • Provo – Salt Lake City
  • Cleveland – Akron
  • Brisbane – Ipswich
  • Wellington – Auckland
  • Vancouver – Victoria
  • Tampa Bay – St Petersburg

If you know of other binary star startup communities, especially if you are a participant in one, leave a note in the comments.

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Apr 4 2018

CU Boulder’s New Venture Challenge 10th Anniversary

Tonight, the New Venture Challenge at CU Boulder is having its 10th anniversary. It’s happening at the Boulder Theater from 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm and is open to the public. Register here to attend if you are interested.

My partner Jason is leading the judging panel, which includes:

  • Abby Barlow, partner and director of Investment Research at Crestone Capital
  • Stephanie Copeland, former president of Zayo Group and current executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade
  • Anthony Shontz, managing director of Private Equity at Partners Group

Dan and Cindy Caruso and Amy and I contributed the prizes, which total $100,000.

A decade ago the creation of the NVC was inspired by the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. I was involved in the early years (1992 – 1996) as a judge and funded a number of companies that went through the MIT $100K (which was called the MIT $10K at the time.) The entire experience was foundational for me, both as an entrepreneur and an early angel investor (I started investing in 1994 after I sold my first company at the end of 1993.)

Over a decade ago, Brad Bernthal and Phil Weiser were putting real energy into Boulder Startup Community. I discuss their efforts, and impact, in my book Startup Communities (which was published in 2012). One of the things I suggested was doing something like the MIT $100K. I remember a longish discussion with Brad Bernthal and my partner Jason about the history of it and how it unfolded over the first decade.

Bernthal and Jason grabbed this and ran with it. A decade later, that discussion now seems like ancient history. But, for anyone who knows my rant about having a long-term view around startup communities (at least 20 years), we are now 10 years into the NVC journey. And, it has really hit its stride.

I’m excited about tonight’s event and am really looking forward to seeing the companies compete! I hope to see you there if you are in Boulder.

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Mar 6 2018

Hyperbolic Headlines About Silicon Valley

The hyperbolic headlines are once again accompanying the articles about Silicon Valley. A Sunday NY Times article titled Silicon Valley Is Over, Says Silicon Valley kicks off what I expect is another wave of this. It references a recent Wired article titled Everyone Hates Silicon Valley, Except Its Imitators,

Go read them all and then tune back in here. I’ll wait.

Buried deep within the NYT article is an admission. “Complaints about Silicon Valley insularity are as old as the Valley itself” followed by an anecdote about Jim Clark moving to Florida during the dotcom era. Blink twice if you don’t know who Jim Clark is; blink once if you downloaded Netscape from an FTP site somewhere when it was still called Mosiac. And, blink three times if you realize that Netscape is now owned by Oath, which is a subsidiary of Verizon, which is headquartered in New York, and is the merger of Bell Atlantic (Philadelphia), NYNEX (New York), and GTE (which, awesomely, bought BBN, created GTE Internetworking, spun it off as Genuity after the Bell Atlantic merger, which was then acquired out of bankruptcy by Level 3 (Broomfield, Colorado – adjacent to Boulder) which is now owned by CenturyLink (Louisiana)). Blink four times if you are still here and followed all of that. Kind of entertaining that Netscape led us to Monroe, Louisiana.

Now, go read Ian Hathaway’s post titled Silicon Valley is Not Over. He nails it.

Dan Primack waded in with a tweet.

It’s worth clicking through and reading the comment thread. It’s delightful.

Silicon Valley is not over. Over 100 years since its notional inception, it’s a fascinating and amazing ecosystem. But it’s also not the only place you can create technology companies. I’m sitting in a hotel in New York and, according to a recent article from Bloomberg, New York Will Never Be Silicon Valley. And It’s Good With That.

The real story is that you can create startups, and thriving startup communities anywhere. Imagine the NYT article was titled “In a Moment of Introspection, Silicon Valley VCs Realize That There Are Tech Startups Outside of Silicon Valley.” Nah – that wouldn’t get as many clicks.

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Oct 2 2017

Book: The Innovation Blind Spot

Recently, my friend Ross Baird came out with a new book, The Innovation Blind Spot. In the book, Ross outlines and diagnoses a problem that I’ve been exploring for over a decade: our innovation economy neglects many people and ideas.

Ross kicks off the book with some pretty stark statistics: despite the fact that promising startup communities (such as my hometown of Boulder) are thriving, in most communities in America, firm creation is the lowest it’s been in a generation. With women making up less than 10% of new startups that are funded and African-Americans and Latinos making up less than 1%, it’s obvious we’re not seeing the best ideas in our innovation ecosystem.

Ross’ book is important because he focuses on solving this problem through HOW we invest, not just WHAT we invest in. It’s not enough for tech firms to say “we need more diversity – let’s go find different founders!” The design in how we find companies, perform diligence and make investments have unintentional side effects that cut many people out. One example highlighted in the book is that the very act of “pitching” a business tends to favor men (a Wharton study showed that men were 60% more likely to raise money pitching the exact same business as women.)

I’ve been thinking about ways to design startup communities to be more inclusive. A classic investor problem is a tension between wanting to be accessible to new founders while at the same time giving existing portfolio companies the time they deserve. When you’re getting a thousand pitches a year, you often tend to gravitate towards the people you already know and ideas that are familiar. Techstars has been a key part of addressing this issue for us as we’ve met thousands of companies we wouldn’t have otherwise and have invested – both directly and through our investment in Techstars – in a wide variety of founders all over the world.

Ross’s book also explores ways to build a stronger pipeline of different types people. As I’ve dug further into the problem, I’ve seen consistent ways that many people are excluded. For example, entrepreneurs go to conferences and network in order to find customers and investors. If you don’t have personal savings or family members who can help support you, you can’t afford that plane ticket. Organizations like the Techstars Foundation are working on addressing problems like this.

My favorite part of the book is when Ross talks about how places and communities can support their own founders. Ross’ final section is titled with one of my favorite words: “Topophilia“, or “love of place”. It’s a phrase I’ve embraced as we’ve built our startup community in Colorado and have tried to share with other communities around the world, both in my travels and through my book, Startup Communities. Whether you live in Cincinnati or Jakarta, you are far better able to help the entrepreneurs in your hometown than I am. I think that in order for us to ensure that entrepreneurs flourish everywhere, communities need to embrace them, and I’ve enjoyed being part of a community of folks like Ross who are trying to help communities do this worldwide.

Ross’s book is a quick, entertaining, informative read that diagnoses how we can do better as a startup community, and more importantly, focuses on the HOW. I encourage everyone in the innovation economy to read it.

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Dec 29 2016

The Year of Startups Everywhere

I’m not a predictor so you won’t find me participating in the “best/worst of 2016” and “predictions for 2017” lists. But there is a trend that feels inevitable to me: “Startups everywhere.”

While Agent Smith was wrong, I don’t think I am. When the phrase “Startup Communities” started to become mainstream around 2012, I made the strong assertion that you could create a startup community in any city with at least 100,000 people. I used Boulder as a canonical example of it in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City and have been beating the drum about startups everywhere ever since.

While the meme that the only place to build a company is in Silicon Valley has softened, there’s still a strong belief that the best place to be if you are a first time entrepreneur is Silicon Valley. My argument is, and has never been, against Silicon Valley, but rather for the rest of the planet.

I saw three articles yesterday that reinforced the inevitability of startups everywhere.

When I reflect on where some of our investments are, they are in cities like Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Minneapolis, Boulder, Denver, Charlotte, Lexington, New York, and Boston. And then there’s Techstars which is now all over the world.

Sure – we have plenty of investments in Silicon Valley, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve asserted for a long time that Silicon Valley is a collection of startup communities, which includes San Francisco, Marin (the first board I was on – in 1994 – was for a company in San Rafael), Oakland, Redwood *, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, and Sunnyvale. Or you can just call it San Francisco, Oakland, and the Peninsula. Or maybe toss SOMA in. Or, well, does it really matter?

As a bonus, I’ve been hearing Amazon referred to regularly by mainstream media (and some people in the tech world) as a Silicon Valley company. Having invested in and spent a lot of time in Seattle over the last 30 years, I smirk whenever I hear this. I love seeing articles like How Amazon innovates in ways that Google and Apple can’t which should prompt entrepreneurs to Think Different (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

As a bonus, I leave you with Amazon’s patent for a flying warehouse.

While Silicon Valley is an amazing thing, if you are in the rest of the world, you are in a special and interesting place. Don’t lose sight of that.

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Nov 27 2016

John Lilly On The Role of Simplicity and Messaging

Yesterday I talked briefly about taking a break from media. However, I wasn’t precise, as the one thing I read each week is the New York Times Sunday paper. When Amy and I lived in Boston we started reading it every Sunday morning and continued whenever we travelled. Several years ago I started having it delivered to our house on Sunday morning and it is a delightful Sunday morning ritual for us.

Some Sundays I read it quickly – other Sundays I savor it. I generally spend most of my time in The New York Times Book Review, Sunday Business, Sunday Review, and The New York Times Magazine. I turn all the other pages, only stopping when I find a headline that interests me. For example, I learned today from “Jogging the Brain” that running increases neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, which is good for recovering from a night of too much drinking. I’m not drinking alcohol right now so this doesn’t apply, but it reminded me of something that I know from experience for some day in the future when I drink too much.

One of my favorite sections is the Sunday Business Corner Office by Adam Bryant. I read them all and almost always learn something or have an idea reinforced. I also learn about people I often know – either directly or by one degree of separation.

Today’s Corner Office is with John Lilly, a partner at Greylock Partners, is titled Simplify the Message, and Repeat OftenI’ve only met John once in person (for breakfast at the Hotel Gansevoort in NY) but have long followed him on Twitter and occasionally exchanged messages with him. From this near distance, I respect his thinking a lot.

Under the question “Early leadership lessons for you?” he reinforced something I strongly agree with.

“So my big lesson was the importance of a simple message, and saying it the same way over and over. If you’re going to change it, change it in a big way, and make sure everyone knows it’s a change. Otherwise keep it static.”

I think it’s worth repeating.

“So my big lesson was the importance of a simple message, and saying it the same way over and over. If you’re going to change it, change it in a big way, and make sure everyone knows it’s a change. Otherwise keep it static.”

Did you see what I did there?

When we raised the first Foundry Group fund in 2007 we took over 100 first meetings. We told our story several hundred times. As part of it was a slide called “Strategy.” I still repeat the elements of that slide regularly, a decade later, as our core strategy has not changed. Sure – we’ve modified the implementation of parts of the strategy, and learned from what has worked and what hasn’t worked, but the fundamental strategy is unchanged.

When I wrote Startup Communities in 2012, I came up with a concept I call The Boulder Thesis. I have described it in similar language over 1,000 times in various talks and interviews I’ve given since then. If you want the three minute version, just watch the video below.

While I’ve learned a lot about startup communities over the past four years, my fundamental thesis has not changed. When I come out with the book Startup Communities – The Next Generation (or whatever I end up calling it) in 2018, it’ll incorporate all of these new ideas and things I’ve learned, but will be built on a simple message that I expect I’ll say another thousand times.

I regularly see leaders change what they say because they get bored of saying the same thing over and over again. It’s not that they vary a few words, or change examples, but they change the message. As John says so clearly,

“So my big lesson was the importance of a simple message, and saying it the same way over and over. If you’re going to change it, change it in a big way, and make sure everyone knows it’s a change. Otherwise keep it static.”

Enough said, for now.

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Jul 19 2016

Berlin: Startup Home As A Service

I thought this was outrageously brilliant. Thanks to Andrew Hyde for sending it to me.

For a long time I’ve ranted against naming your startup community “Silicon Whatever.” Instead, I believe every startup community already has a name. The Boulder startup community is called Boulder. The LA startup community is called LA. The Washington DC startup community is called Washington DC. The Seattle startup community is called Seattle. You get the idea.

I expect many people in the San Francisco startup community tire of being told they are in Silicon Valley, or maybe they enjoy the halo effect enough to overlook it.

Regardless, Christoph Sollich totally nails how to brand a startup community – in this case his home town of Berlin.

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Aug 20 2015

Vanishing Mediary

I love the phrase vanishing mediary. This is what I aspire to be. It’s the opposite of a visible intermediary.

In our ego-fueled world, many people want to be front and center. Leaders are told to lead from the front, even if all they do is get up on a white horse and exit stage left as soon as the battle starts. We all know the leaders who are more about themselves than about the organizations and the people they lead. Many of us interact with this type of leader on a daily basis and, while it can be invigorating for a while when things are going well and there are bright lights shining all around you and celebrations around every corner, it’s often complete and total misery when things get tough.

The media wants hero stories. It also wants goat stories. The most glorious media story arc is rags to riches to rags with redemption back to riches. None of this is new – it’s been going on since the beginning of time. Just look at the covers of magazines going back 100 years. And I find it completely boring and tedious.

I can’t remember who first shared the word vanishing mediary with me (if it was you, please tell me so I can update this post) but I instantly loved it. It’s the notion of a leader who helps get things started and gets out of the way. She’s available if needed, and continues to lead by example, but doesn’t need to be front and center on a daily basis. When needed, especially when things are difficult, complicated, or a mess, she shows up, does her thing, and then gets out of the way again.

When I reflect on how I like to lead, it’s very consistent with the notion of a vanishing mediary. As an investor, as long as I support the CEO, I work for her. If I’m not needed, I hang out in the background and offer thoughts and data without emotion when I encounter things. If suddenly I’m needed for something, or get an assignment from the CEO or anyone else on the leadership team, I get after it. If there’s a crisis, I’m there every day for the CEO for whatever she needs.

My role with Techstars is similar. While I have some visibility as a co-founder, I offer it up to David Cohen, David Brown, Mark Solon, and the rest of the Techstars leadership team to use however they want. If they need me, I’m there. If they don’t, that’s cool. I’m a resource that can appear on a moments notice and provide any kind of leadership they need but I don’t have to be front and center.

Great startup communities work the same way. Whenever someone introduces me as the leader of …, the king of …, or the creator of the Boulder Startup Community, I cringe and go into a rant about how I’m not that. I’m just one of the many leaders in the Boulder Startup Community. I’ve helped create a number of things that contribute to it and I play an active role in it. But, like many others, including serial creators like Andrew Hyde (Startup Weekend, Ignite, TEDx Boulder, Startup Week, now at Techstars) I am most happy when I can hand something off that I created to someone else to take it to the next level (Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado is a great example of this – thanks to my co-founder Ryan Martens and my partner Seth Levine for providing leadership that has made it what it is today.)

In the 1990s, I ended up being a chairman or co-chairman of a bunch of companies, including two that went public. Today, even though I’m asked, I don’t want to hold the title of chairman for anything (there are a few exceptions – all non-profits). I don’t want to be at the top of the organizational hierarchy. I can play a strong leadership role through my actions, rather than by a title that anoints me.

Most of all, I want to provide leadership through doing. And I think I can best do that by being a vanishing mediary.  And, I recognize that mediary isn’t a well defined word, or may not even be an official word, so hopefully we’ll get an urban dictionary definition of vanishing mediary soon.

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Aug 6 2015

A16Z Podcast on Startup Communities

Last week I participated in a podcast hosted by A16Z titled How Innovation Ecosystems Grow Around the Globe.


I got to talk with AnnaLee Saxenian, the Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Innovation. Her book, Regional Advantage, had a huge impact from on my thinking around Startup Communities. From a 2010 blog post of mine about a bunch of books that I had read on a week off the grid.

Regional Advantage: A+: I’ve read bits of Annalee Saxenian’s seminal book about the differences between the evolution of Silicon Valley and Route 128, spent a tiny bit of time with Annalee at a Silicon Flatiron event, and have thought hard about this, but I had actually never read her book. It’s awesome – anyone that cares about how entrepreneurial communities work must read this.

The other guest was Chris Schroeder who recently wrote a book titled Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East. I’m definitely going to spend more time with Chris in the future – he’s been spending a lot of time in the Middle East exploring entrepreneurship and has deep current experience and ideas that I’m interested in.

If you are interested in startup communities, I hope you will listen to this podcast. It’s one of the better ones I’ve done around the topic.

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Aug 2 2015

The Importance of Young People In Your Startup Community

From Chattanooga to Omaha to Las Vegas, many cities in the US – and around the world – are building startup communities. An important part of doing this to attract, retain, and mentor more young people.

Behind every successful startup community is a group of young people with their entire life ahead of them. These youngsters aren’t afraid to take on projects bigger than themselves and won’t take no for an answer. They come from all different walks of life, places around the globe, and with varied experiences and knowledge. And they all come with enthusiasm and a desire to learn. Over time, as they learn who they are as young adults, they grow the communities they are a part of into something unique.

A new book that just came out, 2 Billion Under 20: How Millennials Are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World, highlights the stories of young kids across the globe who are creating ripples in their own communities.One of the millennials highlighted in the book is Fletcher Richman, now the platform manager at Galvanize Ventures.

As a University of Colorado at Boulder student, Fletcher Richman co founded Spark Boulder, Colorado’s first student coworking space, which Amy and I have financially supported (check out the bathrooms the next time you are there.) In his junior year in college, he largely directed and oversaw the fundraising, construction, and day-to-day operations of Spark. Fletcher could always be found meeting student entrepreneurs and would regularly seek out and offer other promising students internships at growing Boulder startups. He also helped create a set of classes at Spark that help students learn iOS Development, growth hacking, and front end web development.

Fletcher is constantly thinking about new ways to grow our startup community and young people like him that have made an enormous contribution to Boulder’s growing startup scene. But they’ve also made contributions like Fletcher’s all over the world. The book 2 Billion Under 20 has great examples of millennials from Iowa to Israel doing things similar to what Fletcher does to make their startup communities more successful.

Young people have the opportunity to move and build their life anywhere they want. So how do growing communities retain them? When I asked Fletcher why he chose to stay in Boulder, he said “everyone is very supportive and wants to help mentor you, so you learn a lot and have the ability to grow without feeling like you’re in a rat race.” Young people want to constantly be learning, contribute in a meaningful way and have the work they do be personally relevant and important to them.

It’s easy to talk about attracting more talent to your city, growing your community and creating a new spot on the map for startup innovation. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers of how many companies your community has launched, how many have raised capital, how many jobs they’ve created, and how many have exited. But to do any of this over a long period of time you need to pay attention to those young dreamers who are already in the community and engage and mentor them to reach their full potential.

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