Brad Feld, a Managing Director at Foundry Group and Co-founder of Techstars, speaks prolifically about Boulder, the Boulder community, and how Boulder has come to be an international renown startup community.
What many do not know is that Boulder has sister startup communities in Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs – the four innovation hubs of Colorado.
In this interview with ID8, Brad talks about the entrepreneurial growth that Denver has been experiencing in the last few years. Among the topics covered are Boulder’s relationship with Denver as well as what Denver needs to do to take their startup community to the next level.
About 5 years ago, I was recruited to join the Boulder Valley Lacrosse board, probably because I grew up playing lacrosse at a high level, was coaching my son’s team, and knew a couple of the board members. When I joined, it felt a little like a secret society – I don’t think anyone knew that a board even existed. When
I was elected to run the organization as president, we all agreed to make swift changes to open up the communication, create transparency, and build a customer-centric culture. We’re not close to perfect, but we are on the right path.
Over a coffee, a friend and I were discussing the Boulder Thesis and the subtleties of the concept of a long-term view perspective. I was looking for a way to articulate the importance of looking out and thinking about how to build communities for 10 or 20 years down the road. Each year, the parents and coaches of a lacrosse team get so focused on the current season, game, or practice
right in front of them, we as a group forget to look up and make sure we are headed in the right direction for our 20-year vision. These are the key components of the Boulder Thesis and how I see them applied to the Boulder Valley Lacrosse organization.
Startup communities put great importance on this concept of the long-term viewpoint – check. But who are the entrepreneurial leaders in our lacrosse community? The thought came to me this summer when meeting with Andrew Davies, our Executive Director. We were planning for our fall season and he lamented that finding good coaches was still our biggest challenge. That our growth as a community, the sustainability, will be based on our ability to continue to attract great coaches every year. I went back to the Boulder Thesis and realized that instead of trying to create, or worse control, the development of coaches every year, perhaps the coaches are the entrepreneurial leaders of the lacrosse community.
Leaders – But does that make sense? Can a coach really have a long-term view and lead, or will it always just be about their team, son, or daughter? If you use me as an example, I started as a ‘dad-coach’, but now help lead our community of over 1200 families. I play men’s lacrosse with Boulder guys, I coach 11 year-old boys, and my daughter plays with a team of 12 and 13 year old girls. I have become a leader in this Boulder Lacrosse Community, in part because I am a super-user and participant in the community.
Feeders – Next, we need to make sure we have all of the service providers. There are training organizations, most very good, that offer lacrosse training, camps, and club teams (Denver Elite and 3d Lacrosse are the two largest). We have local retail stores (Breakaway Sports and Player’s Bench). We have colleges (CU and DU) and high schools (Fairview, Boulder, Dawson). We engage with each of these organizations and need them to be key participants (service providers) to our community.
Inclusive – We have always had a pretty inclusive policy, but we need to be more public about it and market the opportunities of how to get involved. And with our new Boulder Thesis concept, we can communicate better to new feeders as to how to become the fabric of the community, and not try to be the sole leader.
Engage the Community – Engagement is an area we need to continue to work on. A few weeks ago, I held a coaches meeting with about 30 of our top local coaches and shared with them the concept and philosophy behind the Boulder Thesis. I asked them to be a part of this new concept and lead the community. One of the coaches I had not yet met, spoke up to elaborate on the concept. It happened to be Jim Booth (COO of Orbotix), someone that understands the Boulder Thesis well from the traditional concept. Jim and I later had lunch and debated the motivation of a coach – will there be enough intrinsic motivation to invest in the long term community, if it is not specifically associated with a career?
This story has just begun. There are more debates to be had and more ideas to test. In the meantime, we are recruiting more coaches to be leaders and build the 20-year vision for Boulder Valley Lacrosse. If you live near Boulder, call me about getting involved or if you have additional ideas!
JP O’Brien is the managing director at Integrated People Solutions, a retained executive search and strategic talent revolution company. JP is known for his business and strategy acumen and his keen ability to build meaningful and influential relationships with some of the industry’s most sought after executives. JP is also a mentor at Techstars Boulder, leads the Boulder Valley Lacrosse Association, and teaches entrepreneurship at the Colorado School of Mines.
JP has held a mixture of CEO, CIO, and CTO roles, building strong teams and executing in rapidly growing and ever-changing markets. JP’s prior roles include: Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of SageFire, Inc., a leading provider of cloud-based, enterprise management software for multi-unit businesses including eBay, H&R Block, and Home Depot; Founding Member and acting CIO of Headwaters MB, a middle-market private equity and M&A investment banking firm; and Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Learning Productions, LLC, an education outsourcing and technologies business that was acquired by SkillSoft. JP began he career at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) where he was the lead architect on global, multi-million dollar system implementations including Sprint, JP Morgan and GE Capital.
JP can be reached at email@example.com.
Gameplan: Use the Boulder Thesis from Brad Feld’s Startup Communities book as a framework for studying the Startup Communities in Buenos Aires and Santiago.
A diverse group of MBA students explore international startup communities. After studying the governments, macroeconomic conditions and startup ecosystems in both Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile, the group was pumped and ready to go on the international business trip that would conclude our two year Executive MBA program at the University of Colorado.
Our group already felt a part of Boulder’s collaborative, open community attending great talks at various Silicon Flatiron’s events, hanging out at New Tech Meetups, and drinking beers at Startup Crawls. We really got to experience the generosity of the Boulder community as people from accounting firms, university professors, TechStars, the Global Accelerator Network, community event organizers, and investors spent valuable time with us in preparation for our trip.
Although interested in all things Startups, our group was comprised of executives at big companies, consultants, marketers, accountants, a physicians assistant turned entrepreneur and a tech company founder.
Based on our initial research, we expected the operating environment to be hostile in Buenos Aires and favorable in Santiago. Buenos Aires has struggled with currency fluctuation and anti-business government policies. On the contrary, Santiago has benefited from a relatively stable government, minimal inflation, and thriving foreign investment.
And off we went…
The first stop was Buenos Aires. A bohemian, chaotic feel with pockets of awesomeness everywhere. We had signed up for the first Startup Buenos Aires event and hopped into a Radio Taxi to find the place. The address was an apartment on a dimly lit street in Palermo, a cool part of town “where all the startups are” I was told. I met a dude named Mateo at the door, an ex-pat from Philly living in Buenos Aires, who walked us in making a few intros along the way. Then I met Lisa, another ex-pat and organizer of Startup Buenos Aires. “You guys are from Boulder, do you know Andrew Hyde? He did our logo!” Immediately I felt very comfortable, this was gonna be fun. For the next few hours we met some guys from Google working remotely because they could, a few startup founders and a few others involved in the community (tech writers, accountants, designers, developers).
The average Argentine has lived through some incredible economic and social developments since the fall of its military dictatorship in the mid 1980’s; it would serve as an excellent policy case study on “What not to do” for any Macro-Economics course. Some of the things Argentines have lived through in the past 3 decades include: hyperinflation of 5,000% in 1989, excessive debt growth in the 1990’s leading to defaulting on foreign debt obligations followed by extreme austerity measures, having 3 presidents in 2 weeks in the end of 2001, the freezing of bank accounts in December of 2001, and the devaluation of the Argentine currency in January of 2002 that left most of the country with 40% less in savings than they had the day before. These types of events have left an unmistakable mark on the average Argentine that boils down to a huge distrust of the government. As one of the Argentine’s we met put it:
“If you are a small fish, act like you don’t exist.” Basically: deal in cash, don’t incorporate your business, don’t pay taxes, and deal entirely out of the sight of the government.
“If you are a medium sized fish, act like you are a small fish.” Basically, if you are big enough that you can’t hide, report whatever will keep the authorities from digging deeper. The tax rate on small businesses is over 100% of profit, so it seems even the government expects this.
“If you are a big fish, then act like a medium sized fish. And, if are a huge fish, then you are part of the government.”
This leaves the entrepreneurial community in Buenos Aires in a bit of a bind. Startups in the US are more like small fish trying to act like big fish; get as much press as possible, celebrate your small successes, and get big fast. Startups in Argentina are trying to maintain the lowest possible profile for as long as they can. There is a lot of pent up entrepreneurial energy in Buenos Aires, they just have to find a way to get it out.
As the group was drinking coffee at the airport waiting on our flight to Santiago, that was delayed, we discussed the vibe of Buenos Aires. The consensus was this place exceeded our expectations.
The next stop was Santiago. The energy in Santiago was quite different, almost vanilla, compared to the chaotic pulse of Buenos Aires. Santiago is a great, clean, modern city with a stable economy and a supportive government. The conservative banking system and central bank policies have helped steer the country to economic and political stability in a region of the world where stability is quite uncommon.
For startups, Chile has started to offer a fantastic funding opportunity. Startup Chile essentially grants startups $40k, with very few strings attached, and also provides work spaces, support, and resources to entrepreneurs. Startup Chile is considered a social program and in exchange for the $40k, startups must give back 40 to 80 hours of their time to help develop the startup community. The conservative banking and social systems in Chile can be a bit stifling for the entrepreneurial community. The ultimate goal of Startup Chile is to create an ecosystem where startups can thrive.
Breaking down the conservative social barriers, as well as the conservative financial practices, in Santiago will be a key step toward creating a vibrant Startup community. We believe that if a couple of bootstrapping entrepreneurs can bring their companies to an international level in Santiago, many of the barriers of the past will also fall.
Take-away: Every city is different, every startup community goes through a lifecycle, every country’s macro economic conditions vary. In Buenos Aires, there are two things that are in the mainstream conversation, the government and currency fluctuation. People love living here, the city is vibrant, sexy, and full of energy. In Santiago, the government and education system are fueling the ecosystem. A strong talent pipeline is created from the Universities, an emphasis on an educated population is driven by the government and things are happening.
The University of Colorado Executive MBA program’s final term focuses on International business. Charles Bartlett, Neil Smith, Joe Lynch, Greg Witten, Michael Demchak @MPDemy,Kelly Taylor and Scott Hace with faculty advisor Al Davis spent a few days in Buenos Aires Argentina and Santiago Chile in early May 2013 studying entrepreneurship using the Boulder Thesis as a lens.
It’s 4 o’clock in the morning on June 8th, 2012. I’m in my kitchen in a Dallas suburb trying to stay awake while feeding my one-month old. This is only the second time I’ve taken the night-feeding shift, and not that it ever gets easy, but a stoned walrus could kick my ass at tic-tac-toe right now.
I figure I’ll skim Twitter for a bit – if only I can remember how to turn on my iPad. “Ok, let me think. I take the chicken across the river and leave the fox with the corn. Then I tell Sean Connery how to spell the name of God. Wait. I just push this button. Yes. Steve Jobs, you sir, are a genius.”
The screen illuminates. I give my eyes a moment to adjust, and then I think I need to give them a little more time because my email notification pill reads, “174”. This is not typical. Clearly, something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong. But no, nothing is wrong. In fact, things are about to be very, very good because at the beginning of those 174 emails is a note that reads:
From: Brad Feld
Date: Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 11:38 PM
“Tweeted – I’ll also send out to the CEO list I manage.”
What he means is that he tweeted a URL I’d sent to him. My brain is suddenly wide awake. Some of those emails are new Twitter followers and general words of encouragement, but a very large number of them are interview requests and it’s only been a little over four hours. I realize that there will be hundreds (thousands?) more and it very quickly sets in that This. Is. Happening. One way or another, my family moving is Colorado.
I let Shepard finish his bottle, lay him back down, and take a few hours to start responding to emails as more and more continue to come in. Finally, at about 7 a.m., I go upstairs and wake my wife, Laura.
“Sweetheart. Something has happened.”
This is how it happened, and what has happened since.
Like most people who’ve spent more than, say, six hours in Colorado, Laura and I had the “We should totally move out here” conversation a couple different times with varying degrees of determination. But, when Shep was a few weeks old, we looked at each other and said, “So. Colorado?”
I had been following/web-stalking a number of entrepreneurs, agencies, and developers in Boulder for a couple of years. My admiration for their work had grown to a level approaching “Legendary” so I knew exactly who I wanted to reach out to. Brad at Foundry, David at TechStars, Foraker, Viget, Slice of Lime. The list of talented people doing amazing work here goes on and I was dying to be a part of it.
I decided to build a site that pitched my skills specifically to companies in Colorado and so I got to work building hirebrianrhea.com. Jason Zimdars set the gold standard for the personal resume site when he landed a gig at 37signals ; I figured if I could be half as effective as Jason was at communicating his skills and his personality, then I’d have a shot at turning our dream in to reality.
After a couple weeks of build-test-tweak-rinse-repeat, I was finally ready to ship. I sent Brad an email at around noon expecting to perhaps maybe on the off-chance hear exactly nothing three months later. Instead, that night I was staring at my iPad, bleary-eyed with a newborn in my arms, completely overwhelmed.
The two weeks following Brad’s tweet were a whirlwind. There were offers from Boston, New York, Toronto, and San Francisco, but our sights were set squarely on the Flatirons. I flew out a couple of times and was fortunate to meet with CEOs whom I aspire to be like, brilliant designers and developers, and deeply committed marketers and project managers.
But in the end, there was something special about TechStars alum and Foundry-backed startup Mocavo. They had a grand vision (to bring all the world’s historical content online for free), were attacking interesting problems (to bring disruptive technology to a well-established industry), and had the talent to pull it all off (a year later and these guys still amaze me).
The entire experience and the year following it has been nothing short of a dream come true. There were a few moments before we moved out here that Laura and I had to ask ourselves, “Are we ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend?’ Are we completely obsessed with this place and putting these people up on some illusory pedestal? Is our fantasy about to be shattered? Does this end with us bawling our eyes out listening to Toni Braxton records? And what are doing with all these Toni Braxton records?”
But no – it’s been amazing. We’ve made some wonderful friends, enjoyed beautiful hikes 20 minutes from our front door, and professionally – to be in the midst of so much creativity and palpable energy – it’s been incredibly rewarding.
I could go on and on about what makes this place so special (if you’re reading this from outside the 303 area code and considering relocating, e-mail me and I’ll be happy to convince you that it’s the right thing to do) but instead I’ll just end this by saying “Thanks.” Thanks to Brad Feld for 85 characters that altered the course of my family’s life forever. Thanks to Cliff and everyone at Mocavo for bringing me onboard and giving me an opportunity to be part of what you’re building. Thanks to Stirling at Foraker, Kevin and Chris at Slice, Will and everyone at All Souls. Thanks to all of you for making us feel welcome from day one and for making Colorado feel like home sooner than we could have ever expected.
It’s been an unbelievable year. I’ll do my best to give back for many years to come.
Brian Rhea is a husband, dad and Front-End Engineer at Mocavo.
He’s been building websites since 1994 when his dad told him, “I think this internet thing might get big.
You should learn it.” Thanks, Dad. You were right.
We’re beginning to see an interesting phenomenon occur with the success of Startup Communities. Readers are extrapolating the lessons within the book and are raising some interesting questions about the drivers, best practices and key components of startup communities. Recently, Dan Moore, a local Boulder IT consultant, wrote a blog post questioning the lasting impact the personnel of a former employer had on the local startup community. His blog post raises an interesting question.
How many startups have been birthed as a result of personnel from a former startup?
In his own case, Mr. Moore was an employee of XOR, (Internet technology, Systems, IT) and according to his experience some 23 companies were formed as an off fall of its sale, one of which includes the company he currently works for. This information has spurred the team here at Startup Revolution to wonder if we could put together a data set that would depict the general impact startups have on their communities.
So we decided to begin the process of sourcing information regarding such matters and are now putting together a data set on the long term residual effects of startups; no matter their outcome. Whether they failed or succeeded we want to know the impact startups have.
So we’ve got a favor to ask…we need you to fill out the form below providing us with important information on the number of companies that were spun off as a result of either the sale or closing up of a former employer.
Simply fill out and submit the form below and we’ll start building the data set.
Thanks for all the help!
-The Startup Revolution Team
Not long ago the guys from Awesome Inc arranged for startup guru Brad Feld to speak at the Kentucky Center about the Boulder, Colo., startup phenomenon. Somehow Boulder has attained the mythical entrepreneurial status we also attribute to Austin, the San Francisco Bay Area and Research Triangle.
Now back in the post-Nam days, when I was a longer-haired undergrad at CU-Boulder, the only local entrepreneurs I can recall utilized baggies to distribute their product. Gnarly for sure, but definitely not a global hot spot.
So, I wondered, what changed since the late ’70s, besides the merciful death of disco? How had the most liberal college town in America transformed itself into one of the preeminent entrepreneurial communities in the world and a birthplace of TechStars?
Maybe Feld’s speech would provide some answers, so I bought a ticket (and later, his book).
From Boulder to Louisville
In Feld’s TED-style talk, he used a flip chart to quickly lay out what he calls the “Boulder Thesis” (which he stretches to 200 pages in his book, Startup Communities). In short, Feld’s Boulder Thesis states that a vibrant entrepreneurial community must:
- Be led by entrepreneurs who
- Have a long-term commitment, and
- Be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it, and
- Continually engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
Understand that Boulder, which is fondly referred to as “eight square miles surrounded by reality,” sports five major research labs and the most degreed population in the United States. So it’s a pseudo-Oz, and whatever they do or (now legally) smoke out there might not translate to Kentucky.
I’m here to proclaim that the soul of the Boulder Thesis is, indeed, beginning to trend right here in the Bluegrass. Granted, we don’t yet match their 2013 Rockin’ Mountain High community, but (cue Journey) we are at least in the ’80s, or maybe even (fade to Pearl Jam) the ’90s in Boulder time, edging ever closer to the so-2009 Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got A Feeling.” (Way to remix those metaphors.)
My point is that this region is slowly but surely crafting its own energetic entrepreneurial community under flag bearers such as Phoebe Wood, Doug Cobb, Bob Saunders, Kimberly Nasief-Westergren, David Jones, Charlie Moyer, Tendai Charasika, Mark Crane, Greg Fischer, Adam Fish, Alex Frommeyer, Kris Kimel, Brian Raney, Suzanne Bergmeister and many others.
This isn’t a planned and managed affair; it’s organic and authentic. It’s like cat herding. It’s highly inclusive and spans the “stack” from investors to entrepreneurs to supporters. It includes long-standing groups such as Venture Connectors, KSTC, Nucleus and Enterprise Corp.; alongside rogues like Forge and Startup Weekend.
With the Gil Holland-led re-entrepreneurization of NuLu, the community even has a homeland.
From Louisville to the Commonwealth
To paraphrase Brad Feld, we are witnessing the birth of not just the Louisville Thesis, but the Kentucky Thesis, which I might point out is miraculously overcoming basketball rivalries and connecting with like-minded clusters of entrepreneurial diasporas from Paducah to Lexington to Covington.
A good thing? I damn well think so, and cheer on all comers who are willing to pitch in, whether by starting a company, investing, working, sponsoring or just showing up. We don’t have to become Boulder.Who needs weed dispensaries and 300 days of sunshine anyway? We just need to be ourselves and stick with it.
We have strengths in logistics, healthcare, food and manufacturing combined with that bull-headed Kentucky long-rifle sense of independence – hey, not every region is so blessed. We have plenty of bright people and ideas. And nobody sees us coming.
Granted, it was probably a hair easier to grow a vibrant entrepreneurial community in progressive, highly educated, uber-cool Boulder. But when we do it here, Mr. Feld will have an even better book to write.
Or maybe we’ll just write it ourselves.
It wasn’t a long time, but it was certainly a good time when Brad Feld dropped by the Communitech Hub Thursday.
Feld, the 47-year-old Foundry Group managing director, TechStars co-founder, author, marathoner and all-around good guy from Boulder, Colo., was on his first visit to Waterloo Region.
Over about six hours at the Communitech Hub, he toured the space, met entrepreneurs, spoke about how to build a great startup community and helped judge a sold-out Startup Smackdown before returning to Toronto for an early-morning flight out.
Feld left us with much to mull over and plenty to be proud about, which I’ll expand on here in due course. For now, I’ll leave you with what he told me at the end of a long day.
Q - So, what did you think of your day here?
A - I thought Communitech was awesome. I had a great day here.
I didn’t really know what to expect because I hadn’t been to Waterloo before, and I thought the community was extremely vibrant.
There’s a huge amount of people who are working on the right kinds of things, and the energy level is off the charts, which is really, really fun to see.
Q - Did anything in particular stand out from what you usually see in startup communities?
A - I think the concentration of all of the different activities, including the accelerator, the university incubators, co-working space, event space, a bunch of entrepreneurs, the community space, is very powerful.
You see it in some other places, and it’s starting to appear in a more structured way in Chicago at 1871, or in D.C. at 1776, those two buildings. But this is a really mature example of it; it feels really built-out and not just well-organized, but extremely well-run.
It was nice to see, because I think there are a lot of people who aspire to have this at the core of their startup community, but it’s very hard to do, and it’s clear that this has been a lot of hard work over a number of years.
Q - So if you got home and (your wife) Amy asked, ‘How was Waterloo?’, what would you say?)
A - I’d say I had a great time.
I would tell her that I spent the entire time inside one building, so I didn’t really see Waterloo, but I saw Communitech, and I thought it was really cool.
[IN]cubes Demo Day: Live Broadcast
When: Wed, February 27th, 2013 @ 1pm
Where: Toronto, Ontario.
Description: Although physically closed to the public, Itbusiness.ca will be broadcasting the event live. Tune in to hear Brad Feld’s Keynote speech.
Startup Communities with Brad Feld
When: Thurs, February 28th, 2013 @ 4:30-5:30pm
Where: Tannery Event Center, 151 Charles Street West – Kitchener, Ontario
Description: Join us to hear Brad Feld talk!
The Boulder Thesis: Four Principles for Startup Communities.
When: Thurs, February 28th, 2013 @ 6:30-8:30pm
Where: Tannery Event Center, 151 Charles Street West – Kitchener, Ontario
Description: Startup Smackdown is a fast pitch competition, where 10 startups are called to the ring to pitch in front of a panel of judges.
When: Fri March 1st, 2013 @8:00am-8:00pm
Where: Student Life & Technology Center – Worsham Ballroom Hendrix College – Conway, Arkansas
Description: Join us Friday, March1, 2013 at Hendrix College in Conway for an open discussion on building the state’s entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem.
*Brad talks at 6:30pm Central
“Do More Faster: Lessons to accelerate your startup” is a book of advice and learnings that have derived from the technology accelerator program, TechStars. Do More Faster is written by TechStars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld and includes contributions from many of the mentors and past participants of the program.
TechStars in a mentorship accelerator program that started in Boulder, Colorado, but now has classes in Boston, New York and Seattle. Successful applicants take part in an intensive 3 month accelerator program where they get access to mentors in order to create successful companies. At the end of the program, the startups have the opportunity to pitch their company to Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists.
Do More Faster is based upon 7 themes of what it takes to start a successful company. Each theme contains lessons that mentors and previous TechStars participants have learned through their entrepreneurship endeavours.
The 7 themes of Do More Faster are:
- Idea and Vision
- Legal and Structure
- Work-Life Balance
Idea and Vision
Part of the application process of TechStars is submitting an idea that the team will work on. This can either be a currently operational company, or merely just a vision for what is hoped to be achieved. In either case, TechStars accepts applicants based on the merits of the team, and not the idea.
It is this freedom to change ideas that allows TechStars participants to pivot into a completely different opportunity should the current assumptions reveal themselves to be wrong. This freedom enables a more iterative approach to finding a really big business opportunity.
A second common theme around ideas in TechStars is that ideas are worthless and execution can’t be copied. New entrepreneurs are often scared to share their idea in fear that someone copies them. The mentors of TechStars encourage participants to share their ideas with everyone in order to gain feedback and test their assumptions. Execution is really the most important aspect of creating a successful company. Even if someone else is working on the same idea, the execution of that idea will usually be quite different.
TechStars encourages applicants to get their ideas and products out into the open as quickly as possible, talk to customers and focus on the one thing that they can really do well to solve an important problem. All of these things can seem inherently difficult to first time entrepreneurs. By exposing an idea to the world, you gain feedback on it’s value and you are able to progress the opportunity quicker.
The second theme of Do More Faster is People and how it is the people that are involved in a company that really make the difference. TechStars is a mentorship driven programme and so it values the input of people within the community, mentors and fellow company founders.
The majority of TechStars companies are founded by at least two co-founders. Whilst it is possible to found a company as a single founder, it will require you to take on more work and stress if you choose to go it alone. A co-founder can not only do half the work, but she should also be a sounding board for ideas, advice and a comrade when the going gets tough.
The early employees of a company are really important for creating a good company culture. The culture of a company will usually originate from the actions and attitudes of the founders and early employees, so it is extremely important to choose the right sort of people who you want to work with. Skills and experience can always be taught over time, but a bad attitude will be like a cancer in your company. Many of the TechStars mentors advise to hire for culture and to hire slow and fire fast. If someone is not working out as an co-founder or an early employee you need to do something about it as soon as possible.
As mentioned in the Ideas and Vision theme, TechStars value a team’s ability to execute their plan. An idea is worthless without execution, and so the TechStars mentors push the participants to continuously and relentlessly execute their vision.
As the title of this book suggests, one of the mantras of TechStars is “Do more faster”. This does not mean reckless execution, but rather, creating a feedback loop to test and prove assumptions as quickly as possible. If a team can prove that an idea will not work, they can more quickly move onto an idea that will work. As a TechStars participant, you are encouraged to make decisions quickly, even when you don’t have all the information. A quick decision is usually better than a delayed decision, especially when the company is young.
Startups have a lot of disadvantages against established incumbents. Startups have no money, no customers, no partners and no leverage. However, Startups have nothing to lose and so they can take risks or focus on one precise opportunity without having to maintain legacy customers. If a Startup can’t take risks and move quickly with little information, they lose the one advantage they have over their established competitors.
During the 3 months of a TechStars program, each team will be getting a lot of different advice from some very experienced and respected mentors. TechStars teaches it’s teams to treat everything as data, and they should use their own synthesis of the various bits of data in order to make a value judgement on the future of their companies. This could mean completely neglecting the advice of a mentor, and instead, doubling down on an insight from a customer or a gut feeling.
The product is obviously one of the most important aspects of a company because it is the product that becomes synonymous for Customers. Many Entrepreneurs will try to build a product from their vision or an assumption, when really, a product needs to be created for a market opportunity.
As mentioned above, TechStars teaches it’s participants to move quickly. TechStars companies are encouraged to get their product into the market as quickly as possible. Many founders will be scared to put out a product that is not finished, not polished or lacking in features. However, it is this scope creep that will handcuff the company from ever releasing the product. The quicker you get a feedback loop with your customer, the quicker you can achieve product-market fit. As the old saying goes, “If you are not ashamed of your first release of your product, you launched too late”.
Part of launching a product is dealing with either established or new competitors. Every good idea will have competitors in some form, even if they are not directly competing against you. It’s important to find your differentiation and to market yourself as a clear solution to a concrete problem. Going after the entire market is too big for any company, you must find a single customer cohort, and a single opportunity to attack first.
When you are excited about your product and you are starting to gain traction, it can be difficult to stay focused on the current goals of the company. Usually as a startup, you will have an assumption of a market opportunity that you should try to either prove right or wrong as quickly as possible. Along the way you will have business development deals, partnerships, and new possible market opportunities at every turn. It’s important to stay focused on completing the current goal of the company before starting to chase every opportunity. Working with large companies can be great for distribution, but the opportunity cost of neglecting your other goals can be worth even more.
Creating companies on the Internet has a huge advantage over traditional companies in that you have a wealth of data about every possible metric. You can accurately track your marketing and how every penny you spend converts into revenue. You can track how your product is being used, how it is growing, are your customers coming back, or are they getting stuck or confused on a certain aspect. None of this data is available to traditional companies. The wealth of data that is available can be overwhelming. It’s important to only track the things that are important to your product and your opportunity. Tracking the wrong metrics can be worse than doing no tracking at all.
Whilst fundraising is an important aspect in the lives of many of the startups that go through TechStars, each of the participants are encouraged to take a step back and question whether they actually need to raise money at all. Some of the most successful TechStars alumni are actually bootstrapped companies that took no investment at all once the program had concluded.
Raising money might seem like the natural next step, but it is actually not such an easy decision. When you take money from an investor, you are giving away part of your company and you lose at least some control. Investors are looking for a return on their investment and so they plan for a liquidity event at some point in your company’s future.
Bootstrapping a company can mean slower growth, but you retain full control over your company and you are not forced into a liquidity event.
Recently there have been many startups that raise money when they really don’t need to. Some companies are capital intensive, or it will naturally take a long time to get to cash-flow positive. These types of companies need to raise investment or they could never get off the ground. However, it’s highly unlikely that your Software as a Service startup needs to raise money to get started.
If you are looking to raise investment, taking part in a program like TechStars will make the process considerably easier. You will be introduced to the right type of investors through mentorship and you will be immersed in a community of people who you can ask questions and get the right type of advice. Fundraising is a full time job, and so anything you can do to smooth the process will be beneficial to your startup.
Legal and Structure
When you are starting a company, it’s important to remember the legal and structural implications of doing so. During the life of the company, you will be entering contracts, taking on debt, handing out credit and dealing with partners, customers and competitors. It is your responsibility to ensure that the legalities of your company are correct before taking further steps.
You should ensure that your company is recognised as the correct legal entity. Choosing the wrong structure could lead to personal liabilities should your company default or you become involved in a legal battle.
Your relationship with your co-founders should also be drafted in a legal document. Equity agreements, vesting schedule and Intellectual Property rights are important things to get right from the start.
Nobody starts a company with the expectation that something could go wrong, but it is your responsibility to take the correct precautions just in case. When you start a company with a co-founder, you expect to be both committed to the vision of the company. But outside events, or a change in personal circumstances can dramatically change things very quickly.
Despite a lack of money in the early stages of a company, you should invest in a startup lawyer who has a lot of experience of dealing with companies in your situation. General purpose lawyers won’t have the same expertise or guidance that a specific lawyer will have, and so it will mean you will have less problems further down the road when the legal agreements are actually needed.
Starting a company from scratch can seem like a tremendous amount of work in the beginning as the future success of the company is entirely in your hands. Striking the right work-life balance is important because it is likely going to take years to really build a successful companies and so no-one can sustain an all work-lifestyle for that period of time.
It probably goes without saying that you should only start a company in an area that you are passionate about. When you naturally combine your interests with building a company it means you can dedicate more time to not only working on your company, but also acquiring knowledge of your domain.
But even still, it’s important to be able to escape the pressure and work-load that you are putting yourself under so you can continue making the right decisions for the future of your company.
Do More Faster is a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in building a startup. The book is comprised on many very short essays on lessons to learn. This make it very easy to read and to take actionable advice in very small chunks.
TechStars has become a world-renowned model for mentorship-driven entrepreneurship. If you are interested in applying for TechStars, or simply want to take the lessons and advice and apply them to your startup, Do More Faster is definitely worth your investment.
Buy Do More Faster: Lessons to accelerate your startup on Amazon (Affiliate link)
I heard so much about the incredible Startup Community developing in Boulder that I decided to take a trip there to witness it firsthand. Since my return, many people have asked about the trip, about Boulder and our experience. For those of you who like to cook, you could draw a parallel of my Boulder visit to reading a cookbook versus taking a hands on cooking class from world class chefs. The intended results are the same but there is nothing quite like being there, witnessing how it’s done, and immersing yourself in the culture to truly appreciate and get the most from the experience.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to meet with many community leaders and learn about the evolution of Boulder as a Startup Community. Everyone is actively involved and committed to making a difference. We had 12 meetings in just over 2 days, each starting and ending the same way “how can I help?” and “is there anything else I can do to help or people you would like to meet?” Awesome.
We participated in Meet-up events, Entrepreneurs Unplugged at CU Boulder and were invited to a small group dinner with community leaders and entrepreneurs. We visited Techstars, were welcomed into several co-working spaces to hangout and catch-up on emails. We were the beneficiary of many pay-it-forward introductions – no questions asked. Entrepreneurs are everywhere in Boulder and the entrepreneurial energy is infectious. One afternoon at a local establishment, our server asked why we were in town and then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes talking to us about her Startup. Sidebar: Another great experience during our visit was the prevalence of “Happy Hour”. For a beer loving Canadian entrepreneur could Boulder be any more perfect?
If you read Brad Felds book “Startup Communities”, he talks about the Entrepreneurial eco system and the importance of it being led by entrepreneurs, the “give before you get” attitude, network versus hierarchical structure, inclusive of all who want to be involved and the necessity to be in it for the long term – 20 years from any point in time. There are many other important discussions in the book, but these were my key impressions and our firsthand experience in Boulder.
The only negative about our Boulder visit was that it ended too soon. It was very inspiring and motivating to hang with people that are all working together to make a difference, led by entrepreneurs and supported by the community – everybody “all in”. Cool.
On the trip back, I was thinking about our experience in Boulder. How could we tap into that culture, the infectious energy and continue to learn about successful Startup communities on a go forward basis? The concept of the Entrepreneurial eco-system being a network not a hierarchy was resonating with me – the power is in the network. Could we expand the network and get entrepreneurs connected to and from other regions? Perhaps we create a “Startup Communities Network”, a network of like minded entrepreneurs from other communities committed to the “give before you get” culture – the impact could be very powerful; entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs through a boundless, non-regionalized support system, making the right connections at the right time, reducing risk and accelerating business growth.
Interested in discussing the “Startup Communities Network” concept in more detail? I look forward to your feedback and getting connected.
A big shout out to Brad Feld and all the amazing people from Boulder for making us feel welcome and for sharing your time and experiences with us. We are returning to the Okanagan with many great community building ideas to share and look forward to visiting Boulder again in the near future!