Startup Communities

In the past few days I have devoured Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City by Brad Feld. Rather than write out a synopsis of the book, just check out the Startup Communities Book Trailer and watch Brad draw out the Boulder Thesis in about 3 minutes. If you want more, check out this video of Brad Feld presenting to Montana Programmers about the book (1:49:30). There isn’t really any visuals so you can download the MP3 if you like. I also made a cut of just him speaking about the book, with no introductions or questions (38:02).

The beauty of the Boulder Thesis is its abstractness. Rather than figuring out how you can replicate the qualities of Silicon Valley in your town (large silicon deposits to attract transistor manufacturers, easy access to a shipping port, world class research universities, shake and let sit for 60 years…) Feld abstracts the success of Boulder CO into a few simple rules that can be applied anywhere. To wit:

  1. Entrepreneur led
  2. 20 year view
  3. Be inclusive
  4. Engage the full stack of entrepreneurs

Granted, he does a pretty good job framing those four rules within the historical context of Silicon Valley, and the quest to found “Silicon X’s” beyond the Valley. But he spends most of his time talking about Boulder:

… there was no strategic plan. Government had little to do with it and there weren’t committees wading in bureaucratic quicksand wasting hundreds of hours of people’s time strategizing about how to create more startups. Boulder caught fire because a few dozen entrepreneurs believed in their hearts that a rising tide lifts all boats and they derive great pleasure from helping make that happen.

It is a pretty amazing feat and an inspiration to third-tier cities like Kelowna. Our population is slightly more than Boulder’s at 117,000. We have had a few successes (eg. Club Penguin) but the startup community is still in its infancy. A few friends and colleagues and I have been considering what to do to strengthen the community. This book could not have come along at a better time. It is the framework we will use to build our own Startup Community.

Two aspects of the book leapt out to me. The first was the very first rule: building the core network with nodes made of actual entrepreneurs. They are the ones that should set the tone of the community. Everyone else is welcome to engage and help, in fact, we are all better for it. But the leaders of the community should have the same motivations as the community at large. Feld has a great table outlining the motivations of the different players in a startup community on his blog. In our community, the community is dominated by government programs, which we already knew to be a short-termist strategy. Brad was able to articulate it perfectly. Now we are sure about our first step to independence.

The second aspect I enjoyed was rule 3. Don’t get me wrong, we pride ourselves on our inclusivity. For example, I arrived on the scene here only five months ago, attending my first LeanCoffeeKL meetup Think Massive. Think Blue Ocean. The community accepted me right away, and within a couple of months I had quit Apple and joined a promising local startup. However, discussing the potential for alternative startup organizations to grow the community, many countered with the argument: “You will split the community! We are too small!” etc. Yet people accuse Kelowna of being cliquey. Feld writes about zero-sum thinking often in the book. For example:

This is dumb. As a society, we are far from the saturation point in terms of entrepreneurship. Although there is not an infinite capacity for it, playing a zero-sum game, especially within neighbouring geographies, simply stifles the growth of the startup ecosystem.

And another:

Building a startup community is not a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers; if everyone engages, they and the entire community can all be winners.

For me personally, this was liberating to hear. I have nothing against the actors involved in the community now, but wish for a community with multiple outlets to help attract attention to Kelowna: a network that evolves beyond any single node within it. I moved here to raise my kids, so I am all in on this venture. Are you?

If you want to talk more about this book, keep your eye on the #LeanCoffeeKL meetup group where we are sure to be discussing this book in the next couple of weeks. Or, you could pop by The Digital Economy Book Club where I have started a discussion. Get the book from Amazon.

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