Jan 15 2014

Startup Communities – More Lessons Learned

This is a guest post by Jeff Keen, the CEO of Accelerate Okanagan. The post originally appeared on Accelerate Okanagan’s website.

To continue the conversation regarding Startup Communities – Lessons Learned, I would like to discuss the 2nd of Brad Feld’s four pillars, the requirement to have a long-term commitment to build a successful startup community. Feld states that from any given point in time, it takes a 20 year commitment to build a successful startup community. This is not a static plan that gets created once and rarely revisited, but a rolling 20 year commitment that continually evolves with the growth of the community. For example, if you are 12 years in, you’ve got another 20 years to go. In the case of Boulder Colorado, which is constantly recognized as one of the most successful startup communities in the world, they have been at it for 14 years. And if you ask anyone in Boulder, they are just getting started.

So, how can you get started creating long-term commitment for your startup community? This is a very good and challenging question. First, I would recommend referring back the first pillar that states the community must be led by entrepreneurs. I would also add that not only must it be led by entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs that have a long-term vision and commitment to building, supporting and staying in the community. I believe that without this grassroots level of support, it is too easy for the vision and priorities to change based on the personal interests of the individuals involved; momentum will be slowed and energy will be lost.

GotStartupShirtHere are some lessons we are learning in our community. I hope they are helpful and provide insight into building and sustaining long-term commitment in your startup community.

Over the years, there have been many people that have expressed interest in being part of building a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in our community. There were several roundtable discussions, focus groups, brain storming sessions etc. Unfortunately, nothing practical and/or tactical (i.e., actionable) resulted from all of the effort. Meetings were organized, well attended and ended with enthusiasm…. but…. nothing happened! One of the problems was the meetings were being led by people that had many other priorities and very little time (dare I say personal interest) to define and act on meeting outcomes. What a waste of time… for everyone!

So, about a year ago a group of us reconnected with some of the people that attended those meetings. We then connected with entrepreneurial leaders in the community and invited everyone to…. you got it…. another roundtable meeting with the promise that this time it would be different. Invitations went out to 24 community members ranging from entrepreneurs, members from all levels of government, heads of academia, to service providers and mentors.

The meeting began with a commitment from everyone around the table that we were attending the meeting because we felt it was important from a community member’s perspective and not as a member of the organizations we represented. People were not attending to get re-elected or further their individual careers, but because they felt it was a priority for the community we all lived in and plan to live in for a long time. This acknowledgement set the tone for the rest of the meeting and provided the lens necessary to have truly meaningful discussion. We also stated that it was okay for people to raise their hand and say that they did not have time to be involved and remove themselves from the process, but it was not okay to commit and then not be engaged in the process going forward. We lost a few people after the first meeting which was awesome. We respected their decision and moved forward with a core group of 16 volunteers committed to working together and getting “stuff” done.

This group had two subsequent, very productive, meetings that resulted in the creation of our startup community purpose statement, a 20 year BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and practical, tactical goals and objectives the group could rally around and begin work on immediately; this was a very important outcome because it provided an opportunity for some quick wins that were visible in the community which deepened the engagement with group members.

Themes were developed and working groups were formed around three key initiatives, 1. “Place” – hubs, or access points where entrepreneurs can get access to the services and support they need to start companies, 2. “People” – talent attraction and retention strategy to not only attract more talent to the region but to create opportunities that will retain local university and college students upon graduation and 3. “Marketing” – creating a brand and awareness that our community welcomes and supports entrepreneurs and is a great place to start and grow a company.

These working groups continue to meet on a regular basis and progress is being made on all three initiatives. One of the keys to this early success is that the three working groups are being led by entrepreneurs (leaders) and supported by other group members (feeders)…. sound familiar?

It is very early days and it is not clear what the long-term effects of our efforts are going to be… only time will tell. But, we are enthusiastic about the direction we are headed in. Due in large part to the efforts of this group of volunteers, we are currently experiencing an unprecedented the level of momentum and engagement across the entire community.

We will report back on future developments (hopefully success stories!) as our community continues to grow and will continue to share lessons learned along the way.


Jeff has 25 years of experience in the technology industry, having held executive level management and leadership roles in technology organizations in both the public and private sector. Prior to joining Accelerate Okanagan, Jeff’s roles included technology entrepreneur, founder, and executive in both early-stage and high-growth technology companies. Jeff is an Honors graduate from the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and is currently leading the amazing team at Accelerate Okanagan (www.accelerateokanagan.com).

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