There has been a lot of recent noise in Boulder about growth, challenges, and the impact of the tech community on the city. I stirred the pot a little more with my post The Endless Struggle That Boulder Has With Itself. It generated some private emails, including non-constructive troll-like ones such as “Get the fuck out of town, you and people like you are ruining everything” at one end of the extreme to “It’s so frustrating that the all growth is bad crowd is framing the public debate right now and portraying so-called overpaid tech employees as a major cause of all that is wrong in Boulder.”
Andy Alsop, an entrepreneur in Santa Fe who has spent a lot of time in Colorado, sent me a note with some thoughts about his view and experience from working as an entrepreneur in Santa Fe. I asked if he’d write a longer post from his perspective and he took me up on it. Following is a guest post from Andy that I think adds nicely to the discussion.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Santa Fe and I love New Mexico. This is where my kids were born, where three out of the six kids in my family own property and where I have lived for the past 20 years. This is my perspective on why the Boulder City Council should be grateful for the gift it has been given.
I have chosen Colorado as the place where I want to focus the next chapter of my startup life because of its similarities to New Mexico but with the benefit of a rich and diverse tech economy. Since approximately July of 2014 I have been spending half of my time getting to know people in Colorado and half of my time in New Mexico where I work and where my family is currently based. This has allowed me to spend time in Boulder with some exciting startups and some interesting and successful business leaders.
To give you some background, I moved to Santa Fe, NM from the East Coast in 1995 to start a company with my older brother. Prior to making the decision to move out West I asked myself, “Is Santa Fe the right kind of place for me as a technology entrepreneur?” I thought about it for a while before making the move and decided that I was in love with the beautiful outdoors, the endless blue skies, the culture, the great food and the interesting people so with bravado I said to myself “Hell, I’m smart and hardworking and this whole ‘Internet’ thing is everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I live.” As a result, I founded two startups, one of them a spinout from Los Alamos National Laboratory and have been a part of three other startups all of them based on technology.
I find the debate around Boulder’s “dilemma” to be very interesting because Boulder and Santa Fe share a lot of the same characteristics. Both are similar in size, both have educated populations, both are a short drive from a larger city, both are absolutely stunning in terms of the landscape and the outdoors, both are set in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains restricting their ability to grow in all but one direction and both have a high cost of living and a high cost of housing.
In contrast to Boulder, Santa Fe has a stunted economy because it doesn’t share some of the key characteristics of Boulder – including several of the four elements of the “Boulder Thesis” that Brad outlined in his book “Startup Communities.” Santa Fe’s anemic economy is due in large part because Santa Fe has an older population made up primarily of retirees in addition to federal, state and local government workers and service-based workers. We have one “larger” company based in Santa Fe: Thornburg Investment Management which thankfully provides 250 high wage jobs. There are a handful of other smaller companies in Santa Fe but the majority of our businesses are tourism and services based – restaurants, art galleries, hotels, B&B’s, etc. This makes it difficult to make a living in Santa Fe (see Santa Fe’s Living Wage). You will frequently hear people joke about the fact that to make a million dollars in Santa Fe you need to come with two and to live in Santa Fe you must have two to three jobs just to survive. “Young people” come to Santa Fe based on their attraction to the beautiful outdoors and leave when they realize it is difficult to make a living. Santa Fe ends up being a turnstile for young professionals.
Having attempted to recruit experienced knowledge workers to Santa Fe I would always get the same questions from the candidates – “Where are my kids going to go to school?” (While improving, Santa Fe and NM have some of the worst public schools in the country) and “Where am I going to work if your startup doesn’t make it?” Boulder on the other hand has a great school system and a diverse tech economy so that when knowledge workers are recruited to Boulder the recruiter can say “We have great schools and if this position doesn’t work out there are plenty of other places to work.” That means recruits are willing to uproot their families and bring them to Boulder.
So, when I hear members of the Boulder City Council saying “…locals say they don’t like the tech folks…” and the startup economy is attracting “highly paid white men to the city, and they were pricing out families and others” I can’t help but think – Are you crazy? Having a robust tech economy is what many communities like Santa Fe WISH they had. Our civic leaders have to deal with the higher cost of housing from wealthy out of state housing buyers yet the local workers are trying to survive on minimum wage jobs and the government on an insufficient tax base. As a result I have seen NM increasingly tax everything not because it is greedy but because we have to take care of a far poorer population. For instance, the “gross receipts tax” (NM’s version of a sales tax but it is levied on both goods AND services) in Santa Fe has steadily risen from just under 6% 20 years ago to over 8% now and it continues to climb.
Imagine the problems Boulder would have if it were in the same shoes as Santa Fe and didn’t have a thriving tech economy to rely on? Be Bolder Boulder and embrace the gifts that have been bestowed upon you. Work with the tech community rather than making divisive statements and see the members of your thriving tech economy as your friend and not your enemy.
My friends at the Kauffman Foundation have released the Kauffman Thoughtbook 2015.
It’s a beautifully done, well-organized, and super rich with content web document about entrepreneurship. There is extensive content and examples around Startup Communities, included in the Paths to Entrepreneurship section. I made a few guest appearances, including in the long article about the Kansas City Startup Village.
If you are interested in startup communities, entrepreneurship, and how it grows and develops, spend some time online with the Kauffman Thoughtbook 2015.
As the Boulder Startup Community evolved, I started to become inundated with people who wanted to get involved. Some of these were locals while others where people looking to move to Boulder, or who had recently moved here. Some where people known to me while others were new relationships. As the momentum, size, impact, and reach of the Boulder Startup Community grew, I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of requests I was getting to get together, meet, explore ways to work together, and just generally share food and drink in the quest for figuring out ways to work together.
A while ago I came up with an approach where I could separate leaders from doers from everyone else. I’ve been applying this approach to the Boulder Startup Community, and a number of other things I’m involved in, since then and offer it to you as a simple, yet elegant way to triage an overwhelming amount of inbound requests to figure out who is really going to make shit happen.
The trick: I identify leaders by giving people assignments.
Here’s how it works. I’m going to use a really simple example. Recognize that the range of inbound is all over the place, from a wide range of people, with very different degrees of experience. The initial interactions can be complex and my assignments vary dramatically, but with a goal of intersecting (a) what the person is asking for and (b) a result that will be interesting to me in some way.
So, for a simple case (and assignment), assume that I get an email like the following:
“Brad, I’m new to Boulder and very excited about getting involved in the Startup Community. I moved here from New York and have a deep background in devops, being an entrepreneur, and various meditation techniques. I’d love to get together for a cup of coffee to see how I can get involved in things going on in Boulder. My resume is attached.”
I quickly respond with an assignment. It will be something that will take the person less than 30 minutes to do and require no specific knowledge on their part. For example, my response might be:
“Welcome to Boulder. Unfortunately I don’t have time for coffee in the next few weeks, but I’d be happy to get you plugged in to some of the local entrepreneurs who might be relevant to you. Can you look through our portfolio and tell me who you’d like to get introduced to?”
I never hear back from 50% of the people. I kid you not. It doesn’t matter whether it’s email or someone coming up to me at a public event. I give them a simple assignment, with an easy way to focus what I’m going to do for them so it’s more useful from their frame of reference, and then I never hear back from them again.
This is a very good thing. It reduces my workload of this kind of stuff immediately by half and filtered out people who weren’t going to follow through.
25% (half of the remaining 50%) send me an email something like:
“I took a look at your website and am very interested in VictorOps and Techstars. My last company used pagers for tech support and I really want to do something better than that and VictorOps looks interesting. I’ve got a lot of experience mentoring entrepreneurs, so I’d like to figure out if I can become part of Techstars.”
I categorize this person as a doer. They responded directly to the assignment. I respond by making some introductions with context – usually double opt-in, but not always depending on the level of relevance. Quickly, the person becomes plugged into a few other nodes in the Startup Community and their journey has begun.
The last 25% is amazing. They blow my mind. Their response is something like:
“Brad, thanks for pushing me to be more precise. I realized I didn’t need you to make the intro for me, so I’ve gotten together with Todd Vernon at VictorOps, Nicole Glaros at Techstars, and Ari Newman at Bullet Time Ventures. It looks like there might be a nice fit with Todd’s company and we are exploring a way to work together. Nicole explained to me that there was a very long waiting list of mentors for the next program so the most effective thing I could do is find one of the older Techstars companies and help them out. I’m already talking to the guys from Sphero (which I know you are on the board of) since I have a lot of gaming experience. And, given my previous network management company experience, Ari hooked me up with the Distill Network guys. I hope you don’t mind if I write periodically and follow up with what I’m up to. By the way, I tried out FullContact for Gmail per your blog post and so far it’s working great.”
This person is a leader. They simply went out and did shit. They made it happen. They followed up. They did things that had a potential positive impact on my world. They didn’t ask me for more, but offered up plenty, which makes me want to do more for them.
Remember, these are simple examples. I categorize the responses three ways:
The folks who capture my attention and energy going forward are the ones in category 3. The leaders.
I’ve now lived in Boulder for 19 years. It was an amazing place when I moved here and has evolved into an even more stupendous place over the past 19 years, notwithstanding the irrational and self-limiting struggle that the Boulder City Council seems to have with change.
Over the past decade, the Boulder Startup Community has had significant success and impact on the culture and dynamics of the city. I wrote about some of the history and impact in my book Startup Communities and the Boulder Thesis that I came up with has now been used as a template for creating startup communities all over the world.
Since being inclusive of anyone who wants to engage in the startup community” is the third principle of the Boulder Thesis, I get sad when I see phrases like the following in articles in the NY Times about Boulder such as:
“The locals say they don’t like the tech folks pouring into town to work at places like Google. They’re insular. They’re driving up housing prices. And they fear those newcomers are more like invaders than people trying to fit into their new community.”
Earlier this year, Macon Cowles, a member of our city council asserted that Boulder’s startup economy brought a lot of very highly paid white men to the city, and they were pricing out families and others. He then followed up with the statement “I don’t think that’s what people want.” If you know the Boulder Startup Community, you know that it’s actually bringing diversity to what is historically a very ethnically white town. A group of Boulder Startup Community leaders, including Nicole Glaros, Rajat Bhargava, and my partner Jason Mendelson wrote an OpEd titled A necessary education on Boulder’s startup community where they challenged Macon Cowles’ perspective.
“We are women and men. We are parents. We are veterans of the military. We are ultra marathoners. We are musicians and artists. We are foodies. We are sportspeople and environmentalists. We are philanthropists. We are educators. We are graduating students with entry-level jobs gaining valuable experience. We are techie nerds. We are clean energy inventors. We are natural food creators. We are of all races and ethnicities. We are young. We are old. We are straight. We are LBGTQ. We come from every religious background. We are the cross-section of our entire community. We are risk takers who have decided to create our own jobs and jobs for others.”
Cowles eventually apologized but couldn’t help but include a link to an article about Google’s diversity record in his tweet.
— Macon Cowles (@MaconCowles) August 31, 2014
I fear Cowles doesn’t realize that the National Center for Women & Information Technology, led by long time Boulderite Lucy Sanders, is on the front edge of the tech / diversity issue. I’ve been immersed in the gender side of the diversity issue as chair of NCWIT since 2006 and Google is a strong, positive participant in this. Ethnic diversity in tech, especially in the US, is a big struggle, but it’s a big struggle in Boulder as well, since the population here is over 90% white.
I wish the NY Times article titled A Google Gentrification Fight That Doesn’t Involve San Francisco had a broader, and more than one-sided perspective. It stood out in stark contrast to several other articles I read this morning, including From startup to $7 billion, Zayo encourages ideas, entrepreneurs and Nancy Phillips followed her passion to go ViaWest. These Denver Post articles do a great job of highlighting the positive impact Dan Caruso and his team at Zayo and Nancy Phillips and her team at Viawest have had on the Boulder (and Denver) Startup Communities. And, as a bonus, Nancy has been an incredible leader and advocate for NCWIT.
At this point, the Boulder Startup Community is deeply woven into the fabric of Boulder. There is an incredible positive feedback loop between everything going on here. For those who have so quickly forgotten the global financial crisis of 2008 – 2010, one of the main reasons Boulder was so minimally impacted was the strength of the startup community – not just for employment, but for discretionary spending as well.
But ultimately this isn’t really about economics. Or innovation. Or ethnicity. Or gender.
It’s about change. And evolution. The Boulder of 2015 is not the Boulder of 1970. It’s also not the Boulder of 1995. It’s the Boulder of 2015. And we need to keep being inclusive and working together to keep it great, and make it better.
I know this post is going to be a downer but I think there is a lot more to be talked about regarding depression, mental health, and entrepreneurship.
I recently heard a terrifying stat about founder suicides recently. A friend told me that he’d heard of over a dozen suicides from entrepreneurs in the past few years. I didn’t press him for the specific data because I didn’t want to struggle through it, but I personally knew of three so I expected that it would add up to a dozen pretty easily.
Yesterday, I read a post titled The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? It’s part of a series done by Re/code on the Downtown Las Vegas project. The series started out very positive with an article titled Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia but in the middle of the series Tony Hsieh Stepped Down From Lead Role at Las Vegas Downtown Project, 30% of the staff got laid off, and the articles turned negative with Factorli, an Early Casualty of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.
And yesterday, the suicide article – The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? – appeared. It’s a rough one that talks about three suicides – Jody Sherman (4/13), Ovik Banerjee (1/14), and Matt Berman (4/14) – all people involved in the Vegas Tech phenomenon.
I’m saddened by the struggles around The Downtown Vegas Project. I’ve long thought, and continue to think, it’s a really interesting experiment.
But I’m really upset by the suicides. Re/code’s article is harsh and questions the Happiness philosophy of Tony Hsieh and whether it is partly responsible for the suicides. Kim Knoll who was apparently interviewed for the article has a solid response to this. But regardless of the root cause, which we can’t possibly know from the article, the fact stands that three entrepreneurs involved recently committed suicide.
First, if you are ever considering committing suicide, immediate reach out to someone and ask for help. Amy and I recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you don’t know where to turn. The 800 number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
When I had my first clinical depression in my mid-20s, Amy and I set up a few rules around things. We specifically talked about suicide and I agreed that if I ever had a suicidal thought, I wouldn’t act on it. Instead, I would immediately stop what I was doing, tell Amy what I was thinking, and we’d discuss it. During this long depression, I only had one suicidal ideation, but it was while we were driving on a highway in Sedona (I was driving). I immediately pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and told Amy what I was thinking. We switched seats – she drove the rest of the way, and then we had a long conversation that night. After the conversation, even though I was still very depressed, I felt immense relief and support. When we got back to our home in Boston after that vacation, I started therapy, which was incredibly helpful.
Our society still has an incredible stigma associated with depression. Anyone who has been depressed knows that it is extremely hard to describe how it feels to someone who hasn’t ever been depressed. My favorite description of depression continues to be from Hyperbole and a Half. I’ve recently started describing it as an emotional pain that is significantly worse than almost all physical pains you could imagine, especially because it seems to go on forever. And sometimes this pain is so severe that it feels like ending it all by committing suicide is the only answer.
While this isn’t unique to entrepreneurs, the intensity of being an entrepreneur, especially when your company is failing, or you are failing at your role, can be overwhelming. I see it all the time and try to be a very empathetic listener whenever I encounter it. I’ve learned a huge amount from my friend Jerry Colonna about how to be helpful and know that I’ll continue to be on a journey around mental health and entrepreneurship.
It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to lose. It’s ok to be depressed.
If you are contemplating suicide, get help. If you have an entrepreneurial friend contemplating suicide, do your best to get them help.
Last night I gave the kickoff talk to the West Michigan Policy Forum. I did my riff on Startup Communities and followed it up with a short Q&A on issues specific to Michigan’s entrepreneurial scene.
Afterwards, Amy and I went for a walk to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to buy a Lighting to HDMI adapter so we could watch Print the Legend on the TV in our hotel room. We succeeded in surviving the 24×7 madhouse that is the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, got the right cable, but were unable to hack our hotel TV which refused to do anything other than respond to a hardwired magic box. So we watched Jaws on TV instead (amazingly, neither of us had ever seen it.)
The juxtaposition of the two experiences (my talk vs. the casual madness of the Apple Store) combined with a line from Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future reminded me of another line that I heard at the UP Global Annual Summit in Las Vegas over the summer. Thiel’s line was about uniforms and how his firm Founders Fund immediately rejects any entrepreneur who dresses in a suit and tie. Instead, his firm believes in the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and a t-shirt and he gives a visual example of Elon Musk wearing an “Occupy Mars” t-shirt compared to Brian Harrison, the CEO of Solyndra, looking very dapper in his classical suit and tie. I’ll let you guess which entrepreneur created several multi-billion dollar companies and which entrepreneur saw his extremely well funded company go bankrupt.
The line I heard in the context of startup communities was “the collision of the tucked and the untucked.” This referred to the startup community entrepreneurs in untucked t-shirts interacting with the startup community feeders (government, academics, big companies, investors, and service providers) who tend to have their shirt tucked in, even if they aren’t wearing ties.
The magic in growing the startup community is to get the tucked and the untucked to hang out. Your goal should be to generate endless collisions between different perspectives, ideas, peoples, and culture. Rather than segmenting things into the old guard and new guard, mix it up. Get everyone working together.
Don’t let parallel universes evolve – you want one big, messy network continually changing. Make sure you are creating situations for the tucked and untucked to get together, be together, and work together. Have some fun with it, including formally reversing roles at a Sadie Hawkins like event, where the tucked wear t-shirts and the untucked wear suits.
Tonight I’m at a dinner with the Blackstone Foundation and several executives at the Blackstone Group talking about startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems. The invite says “business attire” which I expect for many will be “tucked.” I’ll be in my standard uniform – jeans, Toms, and a zany Robert Graham shirt, that will most definitely be untucked. It should be fun.
I’m not a big city guy, so one of my favorite things to do when I find myself in a big city is get up early, before the city wakes up, and go for a run. There’s something about the silence echoing throughout a vast developed physical space such as LA that calms me down and builds up some reserves for me for the day.
I was in LA all day yesterday – starting with a Fireside Chat organized by David C Murphy. It was a full room of entrepreneurs and what I hope was a stimulating and useful conversation for them. I got in an Uber and traveled across town to Nix Hydra, a company run by two remarkable young women that we recently invested in. I got in another Uber and returned to Santa Monica where I attended the Innovators Collective Dinner, hung out with some old friends, and met a few new ones. Today I’m at the Disney Accelerator and tomorrow I’m at Oblong.
At dinner, I sat with my long time friend Matt McCall. Matt and I were on the FeedBurner board together and he’s got a powerful connection between LA and Chicago – another city with an incredibly thriving startup community. Matt’s part of Pritzker Group Venture Capital which has offices in Chicago and LA as a result of where JB Pritzker and Tony Pritzker call home (Chicago and LA respectively). While they invest nationally, they have deep roots in both cities and are key players in the respective startup communities, along with the cities at large.
As I was talking to Matt, it rolled around in my head that there are a lot of similarities in the growth of both the Chicago and LA startup communities. Our engagement with each is similar – we have Techstars programs in each (Techstars Chicago and Disney Accelerator), we’ve made investments in each over the years, and they are each cities that I have personal affinity for and have spent a lot of time in, even though I’m not a big city kid.
I came back to an email in my inbox from Troy Henikoff, the Managing Director of Techstars Chicago, which closed the loop on this thought for me. Troy has been a key part of the development of the Chicago startup community and we’ve been good friends from the moment he first reached out to me about developing an accelerator in Chicago.
Troy reminded me about the Chicago Venture Summit, which is coming up on 10/14 and 10/15. The lineup looks incredible and includes keynotes from folks like Travis Kalanick (Uber), Padmasree Warrior (Cisco Chief Technology & Strategy Officer), Ted Leonsis (Revolution Partners and previous AOL CEO), and Peter Thiel. Not surprising, JB Pritzker is one of the leaders of the event. In the note that Troy sent me, there are confirmed attendees from VC firms such as Founders Fund, DFJ, NEA, GE Ventures, Motorola Ventures, Accel, Revolution, First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Yes, it’s a serious event worth attending if you can.
Since I started thinking about Startup Communities in 2010, a few years before I wrote the book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I believed the discussion about entrepreneurship would spread far and wide. If we could have the amazing things going on in Boulder that we were experiencing at the time, there was no reason every major city in the world couldn’t have a vibrant startup community. It’s a joy to see this developing fast, and in a powerful and sustainable way, in cities like Chicago and LA. Sure, there’s always been significant entrepreneurial activities in both cities, but the essence of the startup community in both places feels different – and more powerful – this time around.
UP Global just released a great new white paper titled Fostering a Startup and Innovation Ecosystem. As you might know, I’m on the board of UP Global and think they are doing amazing things for startup communities around the world.
Our friends at Google for Entrepreneurs helped with this and I’m doing a hangout with Mary Grove (Director, Google for Entrepreneurs) and Marc Nager (UP Global CEO) on Tuesday September 23rd, 2014 11am PDT for 40 minutes.
Join us as we discuss thriving startup communities and creating alignment and not just density in your community.
Enjoy the white paper and join us for the hangout.
As Boulder Startup Week 2014 comes to an end, I have been reflecting on the power of startup communities today.
When I wrote Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I made some assertions about how to build startup communities and what the impact of them would be on society. As I sit here at the end of a week pondering everything that is going on in the world around startup communities, I believe I have vastly underestimated their potential impact. And this makes me feel very happy.
Startup Week is a great example of an activity and event that I talk about in my Boulder Thesis. It was also another creation from Boulder, just like Startup Weekend, Techstars, and the Boulder Thesis. Andrew Hyde, the founder of Startup Weekend, was also the founder of Startup Week. After a hiatus of a few years, Andrew came back to run Boulder Startup Week. But he is also about to do something magical with Startup Week – look for more on that soon. And, if you enjoyed Boulder Startup Week, go check out Fort Collins Startup Week which is happening from 5/20 – 5/25 and looks awesome.
This reflection led me to think about how to wire up the largest startup community in the world. Geography is one boundary, but the Internet allows us to create a global startup community that is a network of startup communities. UP Global, which I’m on the board of, is doing just that.
You might know UP Global by the names of the two organizations that combined to form it – Startup Weekend and Startup America Partnership. This combination happened about a year ago and the progress in the last year has been remarkable.
I encourage you to take a look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s 28 slides and when I looked at it early today it blew my mind. Here are a few key metrics:
Go look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s insanely wonderful how many people and startup communities this organization has touched.
The network is getting incredibly strong and powerful. I believe that networks are now more important in our society than hierarchies. Sure – we’ll have hierarchies forever, but I’m going to spend as much of my time as possible in the network. And for everyone who is part of the network of people engaging in startup communities, thanks for all your efforts on this mission!