How does a city sow the seeds of a vibrant startup community? It’s a popular question here in Boston, as the city looks to rejuvenate its innovative capacities toward a post-Route 128 era. It’s also the subject of a new book by Boulder VC and TechStars co-founder Brad Feld titled Startup Communities which I recently had the pleasure of reading.
The book offers Feld’s theory of how a startup community can be built in any city, so Bostonians might be tempted to think we don’t need to pay attention, as a city that has been a top contender in various innovation sectors for decades. And yet Boston’s got plenty to improve on, as we all know. To that end, I’ve collected five lessons from the book I deem particularly applicable to Boston. But first, here’s the short version of the book, Feld’s ‘Boulder Thesis’:
- Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community;
- The leaders must have a long-term commitment;
- The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it; and
- The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
If you want the longer version of that thesis, buy the book. And here are my top lessons in my view for Boston:
1. Pay It Forward
This is one Boston is already getting right, thanks in large part to Gemvara founder Matt Lauzon who has pushed the mantra #payitforward. Feld hits on this, calling it “give before you get.” He writes:
…by investing time and energy up front without a specifically defined outcome, I have found that over time the rewards that come back to me exceed my wildest expectations A group of us have worked very hard to incorporate this give before you get philosophy into the Boulder startup community .. A key attribute of a great mentor is someone who is willing to contribute time and energy to a mentee without a clear expectation of what is coming back.
When I started covering internet/software in Boston, I quickly realized that few if any of my contacts in cleantech were at those events, and vice versa. The same is true in Boulder, according to Feld, and it’s on his list of things that need to improve. He writes:
…the Boulder natural foods startup community runs in a paralle universe to the Boulder tech startup community. To date, the intersection points have been weak and are artificial. The same can be said for biotech, cleantech, and [lifestyles of health and sustainability].
Feld calls this a missed opportunity, and I agree. Boston could do a much better job of this. Tech, cleantech, healthcare, biotech, robotics; the list goes on. We can and should better integrate these diverse sectors. (This is part of why I’m glad to see TechStars including some healthcare companies in the current class.)
3. Integration With the Rest of New England
Feld has a section on how Boulder needs to better integrate with the rest of Colorado, and the same is likely true for Boston and the rest of New England. I can’t say I have great insight into how to accomplish this, but I’d love to hear ideas. Integrating with strong programs like the Betaspring accelerator in Rhode Island is probably a start.
4. It’s Not a Zero Sum Game
Once members of the startup community realize that geographic borders are artificial, they often fall into the trap of playing a zero-sum game, where they win at the expense of the neighboring startup community. “Our community is better than yours” starts popping up. Government initiatives to recruit startups from other states appear. Major branding initiatives around demonstrating that “we are the best startup community” emerge. Resistance appears when there is an opportunity to collaborate across geographies.
This couldn’t be more right. We’re all sick of the Boston vs. San Francisco debates, but this dynamic has started to pop up as New York has gained momentum in internet and mobile. I’d rather treat NYC as a collaborator, and another hub in the massively innovative BOS-WAS mega-region, as I’ve written before.
5. Cheerleaders Matter
Finally, every startup community needs cheerleaders. These cheerleaders are both the leaders and the feeders as everyone in the community should be proud of what they are doing and shout it from the rooftops. This cheerleading can be via a community website…or it can be regular, steady blogging, writing and talking that we have in Boulder by the individual leaders and feeders. Regardless – be proud of what you are doing in your community, and make noise about it to the world.
That’s in many ways the premise of BostInno’s startup coverage. Both to tell the stories of Boston’s startup community and to provide a platform for its members to tell their own (and each other’s) stories to a broader audience.