Asking The Right Question: How Can a City Create an Environment Where Startups Thrive?



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Gulp. I’ve finally come up for air after finishing Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. Amy and I have spent every spare moment of the last month work on this and it’s nice to have it shipped. In the mean time, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, talks, and thinking about Startup Communities. Predictably, a large number of big companies, city, and state governments are trying to figure out how to help. and are asking a lot of questions.

Following is an example of the type of questions I’m on the receiving end of. They are important questions, but as I hope you’ll see from the answers are often either ambiguous or slightly off the mark in terms of what matters. I’ll start trying to blog more of my responses here, especially those that help craft better focus and better questions, like my first answer below to the question “How can a city create an environment where startups thrive and who should take the initiative?”

1. You talk about “The Boulder Thesis” on how to build a supportive entrepreneurial community. How can a city create an environment where startups thrive and who should take the initiative? The first tenant of the Boulder Thesis is that the entrepreneurs have to be leaders and everyone else is a feeder. Both are important, just different. So in that context, “the city” is a feeder. The fundamental challenge is anthropomorphizing things like “a city”. It’s not the city that does things, is people “in the city” that do things. This includes for profit entities (big companies), individuals (citizens of the city) and local government. I think it’s really important to talk about these entities specifically, and then attribute behaviors and specific actions to the individuals involved. For example, in city government, you’ve got multiple participants such as a mayor, city council, the hierarchy of city government, individual economic development people, and specific staff members that impact different aspects of the city. Which specifically are you focused on? While the answer can be “each of them”, recognize that you are now focusing on a wide variety of different people with different motivations.

I realize this is a non-answer – but it’s a reaction to what I believe is a non-question. I’m not trying to be difficult – rather, I’m looking for you to be more precise when you say “how can a city create an environment.” Who specifically are you referring to?

The specific answer follows: For the first part: How can a city create an environment where startups thrive” is that a city can’t and should not, but individuals within the city can. And, if you are referring to city government, the most important thing members of city government can do is focus on policies and initiatives that are friendly to startups, remove administrative barriers, and shine a bright light on the great things going on in the startup community. For the second part, ” who should take the initiative?” I refer you back to the first principle of the Boulder Thesis – the leaders must be entrepreneurs.

2. What aspect of a city would you say is most crucial for fostering a healthy entrepreneurial environment? I focus a lot of entrepreneurial density. Most startup communities are concentrated in small geographic areas, even in very large cities. If you look at New York, there’s a huge concentration of startup activity around Union Square. If you look at Boston, you’ll see it in Kendall Square (in Cambridge) and in the Innovation District and Fort Point Channel. In Boulder it’s the 5 by 10 blocks that make up downtown Boulder centered around the Pearl Street mall. These are “startup neighborhoods” that roll up into a startup community. This concentration of entrepreneurial activity – or entrepreneurial density – is critical.

3. What role does the ICT infrastructure (IT infrastructure) of a city play? To date, I’m not aware of any that is actually critical. Over the years efforts like public WiFi and other networking infrastructure have been tried and promoted; to date none appear to be very important. Experiments like Google Fiber in Kansas City are interesting although one could argue that this is a private company experiment to understand what the broader community, not just the startup community, will do with a technological infrastructure.

4. As a venture capitalist looking for possible investments, is the location of the startup important? And if so, why? The conventional wisdom and historical view was that it was. I’ve never had that view and since I started investing in 1994 (after being an entrepreneur) I’ve paid little attention to the geographic location of a company. Today I strongly believe that you can create an amazing and important company in many different places around the world. While geography impacts aspects of company creation, I think it’s one of the least important drivers of the long term success of a startup.

 Asking The Right Question: How Can a City Create an Environment Where Startups Thrive?

Roadmap to the Toronto Startup Community



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I love these informal guides to startup communities. David Crow just put up a post titled Don’t Panic: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Toronto Startup Ecosystem

It’s awesome and similar in format to the guide that Rob Go of Nextview puts up each year about the Boston startup community.

No one asks permission. No one has to go through an education committee. No one has to struggle with formatting. Thirty minutes of writing, a post, and anyone who is interested now has a clear roadmap for how to engage in the Toronto Startup Community.

Well done David!

 Roadmap to the Toronto Startup Community

Roadmap To The Boston Startup Community



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Startup Communities don’t have a “VP of Education” – there is no one person responsible for coordinating the events. Instead, the events are delicious chaos, getting created by whomever wants to create them, and being cataloged by whomever wants to catalog them. If something is needed it will appear.

Rob Go from NextView writes a great post annual that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Boston Tech Community – his most recent 2012 one is outstanding. It’s a great example of (a) the depth of the Boston startup community and (b) organization of the chaos through an informal approach (e.g. a simple blog post).

This is all it takes. If you want to give people a roadmap to your startup community, don’t wait. Just do what Rob did.


Boston’s Amazing Comeback



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 Bostons Amazing ComebackFive years ago the buzz about Boston was that it was a has-been in the innovation economy. As someone who lived in Boston from 1983 – 1995 and helped start and invest in many companies there over the years, I knew this was nonsense, but like any cycles (even if the cycle is part of a meme) it needed to bottom out before people really kicked into gear. And they have – Boston (which includes Cambridge) is once again an example of a hugely vibrant startup community.

Three posts in the last two days caught my attention on this. The first was from Fred Destin, a VC at Atlas Ventures who is also a transplant from Europe. He wrote a great, detailed post titled Built in Boston: Why Great Entrepreneurs Are Choosing MA to Build Their StartupsIt’s substantive and full of examples of companies and entrepreneurs who are building the Boston startup community.

The next post was from Jeff Bussgang, a VC at Flybridge Capital Partners, titled What Makes The Boston Start-Up Scene Special? Jeff recently updated a presentation he gives by the same name as the post and reflected on how much it had changed in the past few years. The presentation is worth going through it you are interested in the resources of Boston and what’s going on in the community – it follows.

Boston startup scene picture presentation 2-12 [slideshare id=11581888&w=425&h=355&sc=no]

Finally, Scott Kirsner is building on the theme I started in my post titled I’m In Cambridge, Not Boston by exploring the concept of neighborhoods in a startup community. The notion that a startup community is a “collection” of startup neighborhoods is an important one and Scott’s post titled The Innovation District’s Four Neighborhoods does a nice job of laying this out. I’m not sure if this is too fine grained – I used to live at 15 Sleeper Street and two of his four neighborhoods – Fort Point Channel and Fan Pier are easy walking distance (so they probably should be the same neighborhood) – but the premise and general analysis is correct.