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?
Last week I posted an article on peHUB titled How to Create a Sustainable Entrepreneurial Community. Here it is in its entirety.
I’ve lived in Boulder for 15 years after living in Boston for a dozen. While I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley — both as an angel and venture capital investor — I’ve never lived there. While the firm I’m a partner in — Foundry Group — invests all over the United States, I regularly hear statements like, “The only place to start a tech company is in Silicon Valley.”
When David Cohen (CEO of TechStars) and I co-founded TechStars in Boulder, Colo., in 2006, we had two goals in mind. The first was to energize the early stage software/Internet entrepreneurial community in Boulder. The second was to get new first-time entrepreneurs involved more deeply in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. Four years later, we feel like we really understand how entrepreneurial communities grow and evolve.
First is the recognition that Silicon Valley is a special place. It’s futile to try to be the next Silicon Valley. Instead, recognize that Silicon Valley has strengths and weaknesses. Learn from the strengths and incorporate the ones that fit with your community while trying to avoid the weaknesses. Leverage the natural resources of your community and be the best, unique entrepreneurial community that you can be. Basically, play to your strengths.
Next, get ready for a 20-year journey. Most entrepreneurial communities ramp up over a three- to five-year period and then stall or collapse, with the early leaders getting bored, moving away, getting rich and changing their priorities, or just disengaging. It takes a core group of leaders — at least half a dozen — to commit to provide leadership over at least 20 years.
But these two things — playing to the strengths of your community and going on a 20-year journey — are table stakes. Without them, you won’t get anywhere, but you need more. In Boulder, we’ve figured out two critical things for creating a sustainable entrepreneurial community.
First, do things that engage the entire entrepreneurial community. Over the years I’ve been to many annual entrepreneurial award events and I’ve gone to endless cocktail parties for entrepreneurs. These are nice, but they get boring quickly. More importantly, these types of events don’t actually engage anyone in anything functional — you end up seeing the same old people and saying the same things to each other.
You need to take the next step and create real events that have entrepreneurs work together on a regular basis. Meetups and Open Coffee Club type events that occur on a regular basis are a great start. Hackathons, Startup Weekend, and Open Angel Forum events are the next level. Events at the local university, such as CU Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons programs, including Entrepreneurs Unplugged and Entrepreneurial Roundtables, involve the entrepreneurial community with students who are the future entrepreneurs in the community. And programs like TechStars — which engage the entire entrepreneurial community for 90 days a year — are the icing on the cake.
Next, you have to continually get fresh blood into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. It has to be easy for a new entrepreneur to emerge in your community and get connected with the experienced entrepreneurs and investors. If someone moves to your community, it has to be easy for him or her to engage. Experienced entrepreneurs and investors should want to work with new entrepreneurs and new entrepreneurs should have their minds blown when they move from their otherwise dull and disengaged community to your exciting, welcoming and engaging community.
We are in the midst of an entrepreneurial revival across the United States (and the world) right now. Hopefully we’ll learn from the past cycles and do things to keep things going this time around so that in 2025 there are numerous strong entrepreneurial communities throughout the United States. My partners and I at Foundry Group look forward to helping nurture many of these communities with investments and our engagement over the next 15 years.
During the Tahoe Tech Talk three hour Q&A segment with the panelists, someone in the audience asked about how to create a stronger entrepreneurial community in their city so that it could be “more like Silicon Valley.” After a little banter, Chris Sacca and Dave Morin called me up onto stage to do a short riff on what we’ve done in Boulder and what makes it special. Damon Clinkscales recorded it on his iPhone – the three minute video is embedded below.
The key points are:
There’s a lot of stuff about this in our new book Do More Faster in case you want to go deeper on this topic.
Entrepreneurial communities grow up around smart people. Whenever someone in state or local government asks me what they can do to accelerate entrepreneurship, I always tell them to put as much money and energy as they can into education. If you build a broad base of smart, inquisitive, curious people that are long term members of your community (e.g. they don’t move somewhere else), you’ll be delighted with the results over a long period of time (think 20+ years).
Richard Florida, one of the most thoughtful writers and thinkers about entrepreneurial communities, recently identified Boulder as the “brainiest city in the US.” Richard Florida’s first book, The Rise of the Creative Class, is a must read for anyone that cares about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial communities. It forms the basis for his body of work around the notion of a creative class and has influenced plenty of my thinking in this area.
To get a feel for the data and description that names Boulder as the Brainiest City in the US, there’s a quick slide show (that I can’t embed) that has the following data on it.
This reflects nicely on my post about Entrepreneurial Density from a week ago. 25% of the population in Boulder has a graduate or professional degree. Don’t forget that about 20% of the population of Boulder are undergraduate students. That’s a remarkable number.
I’m heading to Chicago early tomorrow morning to participate in a two day event around this years Excelerate program. Monday is Angel Excelerator 2010 and Tuesday is the Excelerate Demo / Investor Day. David Cohen and I are doing a talk together and we get to watch our friend Dave McClure juggle 500 hats. There are plenty of smart people in Chicago – I look forward to spending a couple of days hanging out with some of them.
Last week I co-hosted a lunch for Jared Polis with Kyle Lefkoff at Boulder Ventures which Jud Valeski covered nicely in his post titled Luncheon with Jared Polis. Jared was one of the first people I met when I moved to Boulder (thanks to an introduction from my long time friend Dave Jilk) and we’ve been great friends and partners on a number of fronts ever since.
The attendees at lunch were a bunch of Boulder entrepreneurs in three areas – software / Internet, biotech, and natural foods. While I spend almost all of my time focused on software / Internet, it’s always interesting to hang out with some of the Boulder entrepreneurs in other segments to hear what they are thinking and working on.
During lunch, I reflected some on the number of times I’ve heard in the past year from people outside of Boulder about how Boulder has become a nationally known entrepreneurial center. The comments come from all over and are often followed by the question “how can we do what you guys have accomplished in Boulder in our city?”
While I was listening to everyone and being proud of the little 100,000 person town I call home, I thought of a new phrase that I hadn’t used before: “entrepreneurial density.” I wondered out loud if Boulder was the “highest per capita collection of entrepreneurs in the US.” I have no idea if this is true but from my travels around the US it feels like something that might be true.
On Saturday morning as I was filling my car up with gas, I ran into someone I know that works at Rally Software. This kind of thing happens all the time – I’m constantly running into, sitting next to, or just saying hi as I wander down the street to people that work at startups in Boulder.
Entrepreneurial density isn’t just the “number of entrepreneurs per capita”, but it’s the “number of people that work at entrepreneurial companies per capita.” It gets even bigger when you include students and calculate the “(number of people that work at entrepreneurial companies + the number of students) per capita.
As ED = ((entrepreneurial_emps + students) / adults) approaches 1, you get complete entrepreneurial saturation. I’m going to guess that Boulder’s Entrepreneurial Density using this equation is somewhere between 0.50 and 0.75, but this is just a guess. I’m curious if anyone out there has a real way to calculate this.