This review first ran in the Jan. 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
By Brad Feld
A question from the audience left Brad Feld stumped.
Feld, an early stage investor, entrepreneur and author of Startup Communities, was talking about Boulder’s thriving startup community with a local business and government crowd.
“What do you think ecodevos should be doing to help?” someone asked.
Feld was stumped. He had no clue what ecodevos were. “All I could think of was ‘Whip It’ from the punk rock band Devo and I had to restrain myself from blurting out ‘whip it, whip it good,’” says Feld.
He soon realized he was being asked about the City of Boulder’s economic development department. His advice?
“First, stop calling yourself an ecodevo since I’m certain there’s not a single entrepreneur in the room who has any idea what that means. “
Feld added that the economic development folks should stick to their role of being feeders for Boulder’s startup community and start asking entrepreneurs what they need to succeed.
“Once you’ve asked, you have a choice. You can say ‘we aren’t able to do that’ or ‘excellent idea — we are going to do that now.’ The worst thing you can do is to be in the middle with entrepreneurs.”
According to Feld, a successful and sustainable startup community needs both leaders and feeders such as economic development departments. Both are important, yet they have different roles and there can only be one true leader.
Regardless of the city, Feld says it’s essential that entrepreneurs who’ve co-founded high-growth companies actively lead the startup community. “Lots of different people are involved in the startup community and many non-entrepreneurs play key roles. Unless the entrepreneurs lead, the startup community will not be sustainable over time.”
Not only must entrepreneurs lead with a “give before you get” philosophy, they also need to make a long-term commitment to their community. “I like to say this has to be at least 20 years from today to reinforce the sense that this has to be meaningful in length.”
Established entrepreneurs also play a key role in fostering a philosophy of inclusiveness. Anyone who wants to get involved should be welcomed and quickly plugged in. “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.”
Feld says there shouldn’t be a leader of the leaders and the classic patriarch problem is one to watch out for (“old white guys who made their money many years ago but still run the show”). The best startup communities aren’t hierarchies. They’re loosely organized networks with new leaders constantly stepping up, taking on and doling out community building assignments.
“Becoming a leader in a startup community is a function of what you do rather than being voted into office or selected by some secret committee in a dark, smoke-filled room,” says Feld.
When talking to groups about startup communities, Feld always asks how many people in the room are entrepreneurs. “If less than half the audience consists of entrepreneurs, there’s a fundamental problem.”
Feeders are everyone else in the startup community, including government, universities, investors, service providers and large companies.
Feld says universities have five resources that are relevant to entrepreneurship: students, professors, research labs, entrepreneurship programs and technology transfer answers. “The first two resources, which are people, are much more important than the last three,” says Feld. “Every year, a new crop of eager freshmen arrive on campus. Regardless of what they end up doing, they all bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the community.”
The core entrepreneurship activity at the University of Colorado Boulder happens in the law school. Along with hosting conferences and groups, the school offers an entrepreneurship law clinic.
The two most important contributions that large companies can make are providing convening space and resources for local startups and encouraging startups to build companies that enhance the large company’s ecosystem.
Feld also says successful startup communities need regular activities like hackathons and startup weekends that bring and bond leaders and feeders together in working on real entrepreneurial activity.
“My favourite thing about startups is that they don’t require anyone’s permission,” says Feld, who in his book shows how a city with about a fifth of Hamilton’s population became a startup powerhouse. “Great entrepreneurs just start doing things. These are same entrepreneurs who can be the leaders of their startup community. They just do things.”
This is a must read and a powerful call to action for Greater Hamilton entrepreneurs.