Tag: entrepreneurial communities
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.
On Monday I was at the White House to help announce the Startup America Partnership. As part of this, TechStars announced the TechStars Network, an affiliation of TechStars-like programs across the country along with our commitment to the Startup America Partnership to help 5000 experienced mentors work with 6000 entrepreneurs to create 25,000 new jobs by 2015. For an awesome description of Startup America, please read Aneesh Chopra’s (the United States CTO) post on TechCrunch titled Startup America: A Campaign To Celebrate, Inspire And Accelerate Entrepreneurship. By the way, I think it is awesomely cool that the CTO of the United States blogs on TechCrunch!
Over the past eighteen months I’ve gotten to know a number of people in the executive brand of our government, especially at the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council. In general, I don’t engage that much with government, but I have with issues that I care deeply about like the Startup Visa and entrepreneurship. In this case I’ve been blown away by the intelligence, thoughtfulness, tirelessness, and capability of folks in OSTP and the NEC. When I was first involved in discussions around entrepreneurship that later evolved into the Startup America Partnership, I was originally skeptical about what I was hearing. Nine months, and a bunch of discussions later, I think the White House has approached Startup America in a very smart and powerful way and I believe that everyone involved has a major clue about entrepreneurship, the importance of it to our economy and our country in general, and how to help celebrate, inspire, and accelerate entrepreneurship across America.
When I was first approached to talk about how the White House could help entrepreneurs, I focused most of my comments on trying to help the folks I talked to understand the difference between high growth entrepreneurs and small business people. They are both important to our economy, but have very different needs and until recently I didn’t feel like the White House, or other branches of government, really understood the difference between the two.
Fortunately, the White House listened to a number of smart people, including the amazing folks at the Kauffman Foundation. I worked closely with the Kauffman Foundation in the mid-to-late 1990’s both through their partnership with the Young Entrepreneurs Organization as well as being an “entrepreneur-in-residence” (a fancy word for “one day a month consultant”) where I worked with a team on better understanding high growth entrepreneurs. I continued to spend time with the Kauffman Foundation over the past decade, but lost touch with many of the people I’d worked with as the organization evolved. In the past few years, under the leadership of Carl Schramm, the Kauffman Foundation has reasserted itself as the most significant organization thinking about, researching, and advocating for entrepreneurship as part of its mission to accelerate entrepreneurship in America. I’ve gotten to see them in action first hand through work that I’ve done with Lesa Mitchell, Paul Kedrosky, and Bo Fishback and I can confidently say that Mr. K’s legacy is in great hands.
Along with Kauffman, Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, his wife Jean and the Case Foundation, has been working hard to help the White House craft a public / private partnership to shine a bright light on entrepreneurship and help accelerate it across the country. I’ve never worked closely with Steve but have always admired him from afar and love the leadership team of Steve and Carl heading up the Startup America Partnership.
As David Cohen and I talked about the idea for the TechStars Network over the past few quarters, it became obvious to us that it would be a natural part of the Startup America Partnership as we both strongly believe that mentorship is a core attribute of growing entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. We both believe that TechStars like programs can existing in over 100 cities in the US, covering many different industry segments (not just software and Internet), and the value of coordinating the mentor, entrepreneur, and investor activity across the entire country is extremely powerful. We had already identified over 100 different accelerator programs in the US that were modeled after TechStars and had helped a number them get started, so as we put together the original members of the TechStars Network, we were psyched that 16 high quality accelerator programs joined us at launch.
It’s important to realize that each of the TechStars Network member programs will be locally owned and operated. We strongly believe in the power of a network model in the construct of expanding entrepreneurship, not a hierarchical centrally owned and controlled one. We think entrepreneurship across the US is not a zero-sum game and we want to play our part in expanding it. TechStars will still run programs that it owns and operates in Boulder, New York, Boston, and Seattle, but we’ll continue to aggressively expand the overall network across the US as well as the world.
I’m extremely excited to play my small part in the Startup America Partnership. For those of you out there questioning how government and entrepreneurs intersect, I encourage you to give the Startup America Partnership a chance. Start by looking at the 27 private organization commitments to the partnership. And, if you want to engage in any way, just email me and I’ll try to figure out how to get you plugged in.
I had never heard of the organization called Downtown Boulder, Inc. until I was asked to keynote at the annual meeting which I did a few weeks ago where I talked about “entrepreneurial communities and why Boulder is such an awesome one.” I got plenty of positive feedback and met a number of owners of businesses – most of them retail – based in downtown Boulder.
A week or so later Dave Jilk, the CEO of Standing Cloud, forwarded me a newsletter where Downtown Boulder was endorsing HR 5660 – Main Street Fairness Act which is yet another poorly thought out Internet-related tax aimed at online retailers not operating within the state asserting the tax. I’ve written about the stupidity of these types of taxes before in posts like Amazon Fires Its Affiliates in Colorado Because of Colorado HB 10-1193. I blew this off (incorrectly, I might add) because I’m just so annoyed by all of this sort of stuff since it’s just evidence that organizations like Downtown Boulder, Inc. don’t really understand the actual business economics of having a vibrant entrepreneurial community in their downtown.
Dave ignored me and sent out a note to me and a dozen other Boulder-based entrepreneurs. This started a very engaged conversation between us (up to 35 emails in my Gmail conversation as of right now) and eventually looped in the folks from Downtown Boulder, Inc. They acknowledged that it is important for them to better engage and understand the “Second Floor Businesses” (e.g. non-retail) in downtown Boulder and how they impact downtown Boulder.
Independently I had a meeting set up with Sean Maher, the Executive Director of Downtown Boulder, Inc. in a few weeks. Niel Robertson, the CEO of Trada (now occupying the Daily Camera building) rallied and put up a database to collect information about any downtown Boulder technology company (name, address, contact, # employees, and # sq. feet occupied) where downtown Boulder is defined (by DBI) as 8th Street to 21st Street, Pine to Arapahoe.
I then suggested that we all join DBI since my experience is an organization like DBI takes you a lot more seriously when you are members. Their fee is only $149 / year, which is affordable for most tech startups. Jud Valeski, the CEO of Gnip, suggested that everyone give me the application form and check for me to deliver in one big thud (sound of pile of checks landing on desk) to Sean Maher when we meet.
So – if you are a downtown Boulder-based tech company, I have three requests:
1. Please fill out the Downtown Boulder Technology Company Impact Survey (it’ll take 60 seconds).
2. Consider joining Downtown Boulder, Inc. If you are game, drop off a check for $149 made out to Downtown Boulder, Inc. at my office (1050 Walnut Street, Suite 200) along with the information on their application form.
3. If you aren’t willing to join Downtown Boulder, Inc., that’s fine, but please do #1 AND consider leaving a comment why you don’t want to join (or send me a separate email with this information.)
Help us make Boulder an even better entrepreneurial community by linking us up with the downtown Boulder business community more directly.
I feel strongly that the one of the important elements of building a sustainable entrepreneurial community over a long period of time is for the entire existing entrepreneurial community to be extremely welcoming to young college graduates. For the folks with a knee jerk reaction to call me ageist, please note that I said “one of the important elements …”
There was a solid article yesterday in the Northern Colorado Business Reporter titled College grads make their own jobs. If you follow this blog, follow TechStars, or have read Do More Faster, you know that I have put a lot of energy into the Boulder entrepreneurial community, but have also spent a lot of time helping other entrepreneurial communities that I invest in (such as Seattle, Boston, and New York.) And, like Caine from Kung Fu, I’ve recently been wandering around the US (next week – Upstate New York) spreading my views, philosophy, and advice on creating and sustaining entrepreneurial communities. I continue to study and think hard about the dynamics of entrepreneurial communities around the US and believe that there are at least 100 cities in the US that can have strong, significant, healthy, 20 year plus sustainable entrepreneurial communities.
In the short term, welcoming young college graduates into your entrepreneurial community has a huge impact on local economies. If young college grads start up new companies rather than take jobs at existing companies, they create obvious short term job growth. If any of these new companies grow, they create additional job growth. In addition, it keeps smart, well educated people (college graduates) in the local community.
This is not a zero sum game – these recent college graduates are not taking jobs away from other companies, especially entrepreneurial ones. Instead, they are creating entrepreneurial job expansion in the local community. As a result, existing experienced entrepreneurs and everyone around the local entrepreneurial ecosystem should welcome the young college graduates into the entrepreneurial community, mentor them, give them low cost excess resources (such as let them camp out in your office if you have extra space), and help them by being an early customer or partner. Namely – make a bet on them of whatever kind you can.
I’ve seen this play out in Boulder for over 15 years. It’s just awesome to watch it build – there is a strong cumulative effect. Many of the 22 year olds that I met in the mid 1990’s are now in their mid to late 30’s and are playing key roles in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. And the folks like me who were in their 30’s in the 1990’s are now in their 40’s and 50’s and are continuing to play it forward aggressively to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Oh – and it’s a ton of fun. Don’t ever forget that. As a 45 year old, while I might not be able to stay up until 2am anymore, I love hanging out, working with, learning from, and mentoring 22 year olds.
If you want to participate in building a long term entrepreneurial community in your city, spend a few minutes right now figuring out one thing you are going to do for one upcoming college graduate in the class of 2011 and put it in motion today.
Last summer, my long time friend Martin Babinec and his colleague Nasir Ali asked me if I’d come spend a few days in Upstate New York talking about TechStars and entrepreneurial communities. I first met Martin around 1990 at one of the very first Birthing of Giants events and we were both early YEO members together. At the time, Martin had recently started a company called Trinet which today is a large and successful PEO. We’ve been friends for 20 years so it was easy for me to say yes to spend two days with Martin in Upstate New York and help him further his mission of expanding the entrepreneurial communities throughout the region.
Martin’s organization, Upstate Venture Connect, is hosting me on February 2nd and 3rd in Ithaca, Rochester, and Syracuse. The full agenda is on the website and the public events include:
2/2/11: 4:30p – 5:30p: Sage Hall Room B9, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
2/2/11: 6:00p – 8:30p: UVANY Capital Forum, Ithaca Country Club, 189 Pleasant Grove Road, Ithaca
2/3/11: 11:30a – 1:30p: Somewhere in Rochester (TBD, hopefully by 2/3/11!)
2/3/11: 3:00p – 4:30p: Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester
If you are interested in getting together, go check out the agenda which lists who to contact and how to register for the various events. If you bring a copy of Do More Faster, I’ll happily sign it. And yes, I realize that it is very cold in Upstate New York in February. Hopefully we’ll generate some entrepreneurial heat together.
Over the past few months I’ve had a number of people ask me if I know of any TechStars like accelerator programs for people creating non-software / Internet products and services. Some of the obvious vertical markets have been around cleantech and bio / life sciences but some of the more subtle ones have been around government services and non-profits.
I’m interested in examples of accelerator programs in the areas such as cleantech, bio / life sciences, medical devices, university R&D, inner city development, natural foods, women, and non-profit entrepreneurship. I’m also interested in people in these areas that already providing leadership in their entrepreneurial communities, especially in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, and New York (the cities where TechStars operates.)
If you fit in this mix or know someone or an organization that does, can you leave a comment on this post?