In his book, Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, author Brad Feld details what it takes to build a community of entrepreneurs in any city. In this edited excerpt, Feld focuses on entrepreneurs' role in fostering and growing a thriving, long-lived community.
The most critical principle of a startup community is that entrepreneurs must lead it. Lots of different people are involved in the startup community and many non-entrepreneurs play key roles. Unless the entrepreneurs lead, the startup community won't be sustainable.
In virtually every major city, there are long lists of different types of people and organizations who are involved in the startup community including government, universities, investors, mentors, and service providers. Historically, many try to play a leadership role in the development of their local startup community. Although their involvement is important, they can't be the leaders. The entrepreneurs have to be leaders.
I define an entrepreneur as someone who has co-founded a company. I differentiate between "high-growth entrepreneurial companies" and "small businesses." Both are important, but they are different.
Entrepreneurial companies have the potential to be or are high-growth businesses, whereas small businesses tend to be local, profitable, but slow-growth organizations. Small-business people are often "pillars of their community" as their businesses have a tight co-dependency with their community. By contrast, founders of high-growth entrepreneurial companies generally are involved in the local community as employers and indirect contributors to small businesses and the local economy, but they rarely are involved in the broad business community because they are extraordinarily focused on their companies.
Because of this intense focus, it's unrealistic to think that all entrepreneurs in a community will be leaders. All that is needed is a critical mass of entrepreneurs, often less than a dozen, who will provide leadership.
These leaders have to make a long-term commitment to their startup 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.
It's well understood that economies run in cycles. Some of these cycles are modest. Some are severe. The lengths vary dramatically.
Startup communities have to take a very long-term view. A great startup community such as Silicon Valley (1950 to today) has a long trajectory. Although they have their booms and busts, they continued to grow, develop and expand throughout this period.
Most cities and their leaders get excited about entrepreneurship after a major economic decline. They focus on it for a few years through a peak.
When the subsequent decline ultimately happens, they focus on other things. When things bottom out, most of the progress gained during the upswing is lost. I've seen this several times -- first in the early 1990s and again around the Internet bubble.
This is why the leaders have to first be entrepreneurs and then have a long-term view. These leaders must be committed to the continuous development of their startup community, regardless of the economic cycle of their city, state or country. Great entrepreneurial companies, such as Apple, Genentech, Microsoft and Intel, were started during down economic cycles. It takes such a long time to create something powerful that you'll go through several economic cycles on the path to glory.
If you aspire to be a leader of your startup community, but you aren't willing to live where you are and work hard at leading the startup community for the next 20 years, ask yourself what your real motivation for being a leader is. Although you can have impact for a shorter period of time, it'll take at least this level of commitment from some leaders to sustain a vibrant startup community.
A startup community must be extremely inclusive. Anyone who wants to engage should be able to, whether they are changing careers, moving to your city, graduating from college, or just want to do something different. This applies to entrepreneurs, people who want to work for startups, people who want to work with startups, or people who are simply intellectually interested in startups.
This philosophy applies at all levels of the startup community. The leaders have to be open to having more leaders involved, recognizing that leaders need to be entrepreneurs who have a long-term view of building their startup community. Entrepreneurs in the community need to welcome other entrepreneurs, viewing the growth of the startup community as a positive force for all. 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.
Startup communities must have regular activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack. This includes first-time entrepreneurs, experienced entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, employees of startups, service providers to startups, and anyone else who wants to be involved.
The emergence of hack-a-thons, new tech meet-ups, open coffee clubs, startup weekends, and accelerators like TechStars provide a tangible, focused, set of activities for the members of the startup community to engage in. By being inclusive of the startup community, these activities consistently engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.