I’m finally home after three solid weeks on the road which included Austin, Dallas, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. It’s delightful to sit in my green zebra chair in Amy’s upstairs office, with a cup of tea, the Diana Krall channel playing on Pandora, and just catch up on stuff.
The extra points from my trip was getting to spend some face time with close friends and family that I haven’t seen in a while. Amy joined me in LA and we had dinner with Fred and Joanne Wilson and then went art shopping with Fred on Sunday. I spent a weekend in Dallas with my parents and went to Dairy Queen for Blizzard’s three times with my dad (my mom tagged along and even had a Blizzard one night.) I had dinner with my Uncle Charlie, Aunt Cindy, Cousin Jon, and his son Jack. You get the picture – even though the travel was intense I got some time with humans I love and don’t get to smell as often as I’d like to.
At the end of the trip, I spent two days at the Upfront Summit in LA. This comes on the heals of Upfront managing director Mark Suster’s great post titled Embracing Your Community as a Strategy which I encourage you to read as it is magnificent.
I have a long relationship with LA. In my first company (Feld Technologies) my first large client was in LA (Bellflower Dental Group). While the company – a large 100 person dental practice – was based in Bellflower, the dentist that owned it lived in Mandeville Canyon and I usually stayed at his house when I was in LA (he was the step-father of a fraternity brother, which is how we got connected in the first place.) I drove a lot in LA and learned things like how the 10 connects to the 5 to the 605, or the 405 to the 605. I learned that if you left at the right time, each route was only 30 minutes, but if you left at the wrong time, it was over two hours. I heard about Wolfgang Puck before he was in airports everywhere. I enjoyed the non-meat dishes at Hamburger Heaven, went to The Palm when there was only one location, and hung out in Santa Monica before it was techie cool and the only thing around was Peter Norton.
Today, our current investments in LA include Oblong, Nix Hydra, and recently Two Bit Circus. In the last five years, there has been an explosion of startup activity in LA that continues to be exciting as the startup community grows and evolves. Mark and his gang at Upfront Ventures are in the middle of it and are having a huge positive impact on things.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve attended and hosted many VC annual meetings. I’m an investor in many early stage VC funds and, while I’m not a rigorous annual meeting attender, will go if one of the GPs asks me to. I always offer to be part of the content of whatever meeting / summit / dinner they do if it’s useful to them.
Since I was already in LA on Monday, I told Mark I’d stick around for the Summit if he thought it’d be useful to him and the team. He immediately programmed me into the content for Wednesday (LP/GP day) and Thursday (entrepreneur day). Mark also invited me to the Upfront annual meeting given (a) our Next strategy and (b) my new partner Lindel Eakman being a prior investor in Upfront when he was at UTIMCO.
The annual meeting was solid and consistent with high quality annual meetings. But the Summit on the follow two days was easily the best VC-driven summit that I’ve ever attended. The content was incredibly high quality, diverse, and stimulating. There was plenty of networking time organized around the content. The venues were awesome. The coordination and organization was first class. The attendee list was dynamite. My understanding is that Mark / Upfront are going to post the content online and I’d encourage you to watch many of the videos when this happens.
It being LA, the special bonus things I got to do, like the one pictured below, was about as good as it gets. Yes, Kevin Spacey is extremely smart, interesting, and extremely articulate – as I expected, but there’s nothing like getting to spend a few minutes with someone you admire (he’s always been one of my favorite actors), but have never met.
Mark, Greg, Stuart, and gang – thank you for including me in this. You are doing amazing things in the LA startup community.
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.
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.
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.
In an effort to buy real estate in burgeoning startup communities around the United States while more deeply engaging in the startup community, my partners and I have bought a house in the Cass Corridor neighborhood in Detroit. Jason Mendelson grew up in Detroit so this is a nice homecoming for him.
If you’ve followed my efforts with my Kansas City Fiber House, you’ll know where we are going with this. This time the four of us bought the house together (personally, not with our fund) and are providing it to Techstars teams in the Techstars Mobility program which is based in Detroit.
The house is a four bedroom Victoria house built in the 1920s on a cute cobblestone street near midtown. It’s around the corner from the Shinola store and several new brew pubs. It’s within walking distance of a Whole Foods.
We are converting the basement into a big work space so it’s a comfortable live/work house. Turnstone is once again helping out with the furniture. Jason is threatening to create a basement bedroom for us (Foundry partners) to stay at when we come to Detroit. Since I stay in my guest bedroom at the Kansas City house when I’m there, I’m a fan of this.
Ted Serbinski and the team at Techstars in Detroit has been amazingly helpful on all fronts with this, just like Lesa Mitchell, Ben Barreth, and the KCSV folks have been in Kansas City.
Now that we have two houses, I wonder where the third one will be.
I tell stories about my favorite investment (Harmonix), an investment we clearly missed and why (Twitter), and my worst and most heartbreaking investment (Interliant), along with lawsuits and eating babies.
I then go on a riff on Startup Communities and Fundraising, where the phrase “Any rich people around here?” popped out and got some applause.
I covered the inevitable question about dragicorns and big financings, went on my culture – competence rant, and then answered whether entrepreneurs are born or made.
I had fun at Big Omaha. While I think Halt and Catch Fire and Mr. Robot are way more interesting than me, this was a pretty good interview.
This is great news for entrepreneurs everywhere.
Both organizations have a deep seated community-centric ethos that aims to accelerate the pace of innovation through community-focused, entrepreneurial-led business creation. UP is now in 600 cities, 120 countries and six continents. Techstars now has over 18 programs worldwide and counting.
Together, Techstars and UP Global create a powerful union which will strengthen the global entrepreneurial ecosystem and bring even more support to the entrepreneur’s journey. The two organizations are stronger together because of the efficiencies gained from meeting in the middle of this journey: UP Global focuses on grassroots, community-led inspiration and getting founders started on their path, while Techstars helps to make that dream a reality by helping founders establish solid, sustainable and successful companies.
I’ve been involved in both organizations since the beginning – as one of the founders of Techstars and as a board member for UP Global. Both organizations started on the entrepreneurial journey together and share a similar vision of entrepreneurship. The first Startup Weekend took place in Boulder in June 2007 and I’ve been on the UP Global board since it was formed by the merger of Startup Weekend and the Startup America Partnership. Many of the ideas in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City have been informed by my experiences with these organizations and they have incorporated many of the ideas from the book into what they do.
When David Cohen, David Brown, Jared Polis, and I founded Techstars back in 2007, our vision was to make entrepreneurship accessible to everyone. By bringing UP into the Techstars family, this helps to bring this vision even closer to reality.
Together, UP and Techstars have built programs and resources for every stage of the entrepreneurial journey – from community catalysts who are focused on early stage grassroots community development to entrepreneurs looking for more formal opportunities that provide education, experience, acceleration, and funding.
The merger of these two great organizations is a logical next step in the expansion of vibrant startup communities around the world. I’m a huge believer in consolidating efforts between complementary organizations. This one was a natural one and I’m excited about what’s coming UP!
Amy and I had a very quiet weekend hanging out with each other, Brooks the Wonder Dog, and Super Cooper the Pooper. We like Memorial Day weekend – it always feels like the beginning of summer to us.
I read three books over the weekend. Since I was home, rather than reading on my Kindle, I grabbed some books from the infinite pile of physical books I have in my office. New stuff shows up every week – mostly business and entrepreneurship books, and the occasional “I think you’d like this” book. In addition, whenever I want something that isn’t on the Kindle, I just buy the physical book.
So this weekend was about startup communities with a bonus book on the startup visa tossed in for good measure.
The first was The Making of Silicon Valley: A One Hundred Year Renaissance. This book was written in 1995 and published by the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association so the updated subtitle should be “A One Hundred Year Renaissance – 20 Years Later.” Anyone interested in Silicon Valley, what it means, and how it came together should read this book carefully from cover to cover. There is so much shortened history out there, where the most extensive typically only goes back to Shockley, Fairchild, The Traitorous Eight, and the founding of Intel. The history is so much richer, the one page stories about the companies the shaped each era are just awesome, and the perspective of what 120 years really means for a the startup community that is undeniably the most robust in the world right now is very powerful. It also ends just as the rise of the Internet begins, so it’s the long arc of Silicon Valley is not overshadowed by the last twenty years.
The next book I read was Screw the Valley: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of America’s New Tech Startup Culture. I don’t like the title – it’s too intentionally provocative for my tastes because I’m not anti-Silicon Valley but rather pro-building startup communities everywhere – but the book is excellent. Timothy Sprinkle interviewed me early in his process and then set off on an almost one year trip across the US where he spent real time in Detroit, New York, Las Vegas, Austin, Kansas City, Raleigh-Durham, and Boulder. He writes extremely deep stories about each startup community, along with strengths, weaknesses, and things that are going on that shape them. I show up in a number of times, both personally along with references to my book Startup Communities, and Timothy does a nice job of using some of the concepts from Startup Communities to draw out major themes in each city. This is a great snapshot in time – right now – to show how startup communities develop anywhere.
The last book I read was The Startup Visa: Key to Job Growth & Economic Prosperity in America. Tahmina Watson wrote an extremely clear and easy to process book on the problem of the startup visa, why the US immigration system and visa process doesn’t work for entrepreneurs, why this matters, and makes recommendations about what to do about it. She also gives a nice history of the various bills in Congress, going back to S.3029 in 2010 (Lugar, Kerry) titled “The Startup Visa.” It’s disappointing that it’s five years later and Congress can’t seem to get a bill on the Startup Visa passed – or anything on immigration for that matter – but that’s life in government.
If you want a real punch line to the whole situation, read the short article from the NY Times Magazine – Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant by Adam Davidson. Amy handed it to me on Monday and I said “I don’t really feel like reading another thing on immigration because I’m so annoyed by our lack of progress.” But then I did, and it was a great read.
There has been a lull in the chanting that “Silicon Valley is the center of the tech universe.” I’m in Boulder for the next three weeks and I woke up pondering something Ben Casnocha said to me the last time we were together.
Silicon Valley is a religion, just like Crossfit is a religion.
This has stuck with me for a long time and I’ve read many posts about Silicon Valley through this lens. For a quick frame of reference test, try these three:
I’ve been trying to decide the best phrase to describe the phenomenon around Silicon Valley. All of the easy phrases – culture, dynamics, ecosystem – either feel wrong or are too limiting. Religion seems to be the one that works.
Since religion is a loaded word for so many people (including me), I went searching for a comfortable and expansive definition of religion to use that transcends human history and belief systems. I liked the Wikipedia definition of religion.
A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.
Let’s change this to “The Religion of Silicon Valley.”
The Religion of Silicon Valley is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the order of existence. It has narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of Silicon Valley and/or to explain the origin of Silicon Valley. From their beliefs about the human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.
That seems like it works. As an observer, but not participant, in Crossfit, this definition also seems to work for Crossfit. It also seems to work for Fight Club, which I watched recently at an offsite with Seth, Jason, and Ryan and we all agreed that it definitely does not pass the test of time.
Religions are incredibly powerful, but they have great weaknesses and limitations. Religious leaders are dogmatic. They are slow to change their fundamental beliefs and in some cases refuse to. Over time, some religious leaders alienate their subjects or try to control society through top down control. And, when religions clash, conflict and human extermination can be quite dramatic. Religious leaders are often overthrown after a period of time.
Metaphorically, this is a risk of the Religion of Silicon Valley. I’ve been saying for over 20 years that there are many different ways to create amazing companies. Recently, in my book Startup Communities, I asserted that you can create a startup community in any city in the world.
The Silicon Valley way is one of them, but not the only one. Today, it’s a powerful epicenter, just like Detroit was a powerful epicenter in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s even earning a place in America’s Arsenal of Democracy during World War II with its sister cities Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. But the notion that the Silicon Valley way is the only way is a dangerous one.
I’m intrigued by people who say “the only place you should start a tech company is Silicon Valley.” I keep thinking that I’ll never hear that again, but I just heard it two weeks ago from an entrepreneur I met. He’s very accomplished and starting a new company not in Silicon Valley. He called me looking for an understanding about how to combat the argument he was getting from VCs he was talking to who said “the only place you should start your company is in Silicon Valley.” I was in New York on Friday for Techstars Demo Day and I saw evidence over and over again that the statement was false.
Religion often devolves into “my way is the only way.” I strongly believe in freedom of everything, including religion. I also believe you can learn an enormous amount from religions, even if you don’t subscribe to them. I’m sure this shapes my view that there are some amazing things about the Religion of Silicon Valley but some to be very careful of, or avoid entirely.
I like this metaphor a lot. I’m curious what reaction it invokes in you.