Feb 5 2011

Two Days of Entrepreneurial Community Building In Upstate New York

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.”