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.