Commentary

Startup Communities Revisited

Startup Communities Revisited

Writing a book is a very hard thing. It's one of the hardest things I've done professionally. It is the nonlinearity of the process that makes it so difficult and the sheer perseverance that's required. It's remarkable to see how different the content is today compared with where it was on day one.

Part of the process means writing a lot of words that no one will ever see. I have written literally tens of thousands of words—several complete chapters even—that will never see the light of day. I was going through one of those today and decided I will publish it here. It is a brief summary of Brad's book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, meant to be a refresher for those familiar with the material and to quickly get newcomers up to speed. I also added layers of my own context, data points, and interpretation.

Startups Move to The Bay Area for Good Reason, but That Advantage May Be Waning

We've heard it in startup communities everywhere—while it's become increasingly likely for high-potential companies to get started most anywhere, the best ones often leave for Silicon Valley. One of the most commonly-cited reasons is that Valley investors require companies to move. That may be true, but perhaps it's for a much bigger reason—because doing so is beneficial for these companies. But, what do the data say? Jorge Guzman of Columbia University attempted to answer this question in a research paper: Go West Young Firm: The Value of Entrepreneurial Migration for Startups and Their Founders. Here’s what he found.

The New York Yankees and Startup Communities

Startup communities are examples of complex adaptive systems. This means many things for understanding and influencing their behavior, but today I want to focus on two concepts: non-linearity (the sum is greater than the parts) and synergistic integration (interaction between the parts matters a lot). To make my point, I’ll draw on an example from my favorite sport.

The More of Everything Problem

The More of Everything Problem

Last week, the European Investment Fund—the small business investment arm of the European Union—announced a new $2.6 billion fund-of-funds to support venture capital deployment in the continent. The EIF is already the most active LP in European venture funds by a long shot. 

That got me to thinking: is this the best way to stimulate startup activity in the EU? Is a lack of venture capital the biggest constraint facing European startups right now? If so, is this the right way to go about it? How else could that money have been used? What is the opportunity cost?

To me, it is another reminder of something that I’m seeing in startup communities everywhere: what I’m calling The More of Everything Problem.

The Nobel Prize in Startup Communities

The Nobel Prize in Startup Communities

I’m currently working with Brad Feld on a sequel to his 2012 paradigm shifting book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. Last week, I wrote about behavior and mindset in a startup community, and think one of the points we’re making—about cooperation and playing positive sum games—is worth sharing here. Not only do cooperative strategies in startup communities make intuitive sense, but there is also a fair amount of supporting evidence. In fact, even a Nobel Prize was awarded for ideas that support the central thesis behind startup communities.

Silicon Valley is Not Over

A New York Times article published yesterday declares that “Silicon Valley is Over.” This follows a recent Wired article declaring that “Everyone Hates Silicon Valley.” While this does make for great journalism, I worry that it sets a unrealistic expectations in other parts of the country. Silicon Valley is not over—not even close. And when you suggest that it is, it implies a Silicon Valley’s downfall will be a big win for everyone else. That’s zero-sum thinking and I don’t agree with it.

The Rise of the Rest Seed Fund

On Monday, Revolution — the Washington-based venture capital firm lead by Steve Case — announced a new $150 million seed fund dedicated to helping entrepreneurs living outside the well-established startup hubs get their business off the ground. I’ll use this opportunity to share three things stand out in my mind.

The Other Capital

You hear it in startup communities everywhere: “we don’t have enough capital; if only we had more capital we could achieve X; we can’t grow our company here because there is no risk capital,” and so on. There is no denying that early-stage funding can help startups profoundly. But, let me point to another type of capital that is just as important for a startup community over the long-run. It is also something that local leaders have greater control over. Social capital refers to the set of informal norms and values shared by a group of individuals (a network), which allows them to cooperate and engage collaboratively with greater ease. If it is the network (relationships) that directs vital information and resources (ideas, talent, funding) to company founders, it is social capital—the nature of those linkages—that determines how well information and resources flow through the network.

Startups Rising in the Middle East

Startups Rising in the Middle East

Last week my friend Chris Schroeder published a highly engaging article on the state of technology entrepreneurship in the Middle East. If this topic interests you, I encourage you to check him out. Chris is a successful American internet and media entrepreneur turned global startup investor. He’s easily one of the most knowledgable people on the planet about startups and venture capital in the Middle East specifically, and emerging markets more generally.

The article, “A Different Story from the Middle East: Entrepreneurs Building an Arab Tech Economy“, appears in the MIT Technology Review. It highlights some recent successes in the region—including Amazon’s $600 million acquisition of e-commerce platform Souq.com in March, and the $1 billion valuation placed on ridesharing app Careem a few months earlier—and the psychological impact these breakout companies have had on entrepreneurs there.

Is America Encouraging the Wrong Kind of Entrepreneurship?

Is America Encouraging the Wrong Kind of Entrepreneurship?

Last month, economist William Baumol passed away at the age of 95. His death was universally mourned by the economics community, many of whom shared the view that he had passed before receiving a much-deserved Nobel Prize. One of us had the great privilege of working with him, befriending him, and being able to regularly witness his economic wisdom, even in his later years.

Among his many contributions to economics, Baumol is most famously known for his “Cost Disease”, which explains why high-productivity industries raise costs and therefore prices in low-productivity industries. This insight is particularly relevant now, as economic activity has shifted into low-productivity services like healthcare and education, where price increases are devouring public and household budgets, and whose continued low productivity has weighed down U.S. productivity growth overall.

However, a lesser-known work of Baumol’s is equally relevant today, and may also help explain America’s productivity slump. Baumol’s writing raises the possibility that U.S. productivity is low because would-be entrepreneurs are focused on the wrong kind of work.

Feeling Isolated? Build a Diaspora

Talent flight is a real problem. Not just for college towns, but for major cities and regions outside of coastal innovation and knowledge hubs like Silicon Valley and New York. The US Midwest, for example, is notorious for producing high rates of engineering and science graduates from top-flight schools, only to see them flee for the coasts (though, this trend may be changing somewhat).

Over the long-term, city leaders need to think hard about how to make sure that would-be local entrepreneurs and other talented individuals have the resources they need to stay at home. But, let me suggest another course of action that can be taken right away: build a diaspora.

Colorado and the Importance of Startup Density

Last week, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation released its annual Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship, detailing “new venture creation” in the United States through 2016. The index reported that the rate of entrepreneurship in America held steady last year, up sharply from lows reached during the Great Recession.

Also included are measures across all 50 US states, the40 largest  metropolitan areas, and along various dimensions of entrepreneur characteristics (race, gender, nativity, education, and age). Colorado ranked sixth in terms of “startup density” (new firm formations per capita) and Denver was tenth among the largest metropolitan areas for the same measure.

But, these rankings mask important details—they doesn’t distinguish between growth-oriented entrepreneurship and small business formation (this distinction matters for public policy and for economic growth), and the geographic boundaries may be too broad. Fair enough, data limitations abound for this high-level view of activity, and Kauffman provides an informative, timely, service no less.

What remains clear is that density matters a great deal for growth-driven, innovative enterprise, and we can learn something from the places that continually produce these types of businesses.

Chicago's Startup Ecosystem: Some Reading

Chicago's Startup Ecosystem: Some Reading

I'm going to Chicago tomorrow to attend the wedding of an old friend over the weekend. Chicago has always been a special place for me—I lived there for a few years after college and received a first-rate education on the city's south side. Chicago is awesome.

A lot has changed in the city since then, including the development of a booming tech and startup scene. Some of this I've learned about through conversations with active participants in the startup community there, and some has been through a series of research that has been published in the last few months.

As such, I'll use this opportunity to share some of these items with readers who might be interested. The collection of readings—which span academic working papers, analytical blog posts, and business case studies—are all great. They are informative, well-written, and resourceful. And please, if you know of others, add them to this thread in the comments section. Enjoy.

Restart America: Startup-Friendly Policies in the “Third Wave”

If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend reading The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, a New York Times Bestseller by Steve Case that published one year ago. Steve is back in the news, with an expanded version (in paperback) out this week that adds a chapter on startup-friendly policies in the post-election environment.

Joining the Startup Revolution

Yesterday, I made my first contribution to the Startup Revolution blog. In it, I discussed my move to Boulder to work on a sequel to Startup Communities with my co-author Brad Feld, and my early impressions of the community here (hint: they are good!). Last night, I got to attend Demo Day for the 2017 Techstars Boulder class—it was fantastic! A lot of great companies to watch out for.

But, as this has mostly been a blog populated by Brad’s writings—and more recently, by Chris Heivly who I’ll also be collaborating with on startup communities—it’s probably a good idea to take a step back and provide a personal introduction.

Startup Communities and Saturday Morning Coffee

A recent article in 5280 Magazine caught my attention. It profiled the economic vitality of the Boulder-Denver region, dubbing it “The Most Exciting and Innovative Tech Hub in the Country.” While I expect every local publication to champion its own hometown, this one happens to be on stronger footing than most others. You see, at least in terms of innovation and startup activity, Boulder is unique among its peers.

The article—which is excellent by the way—couldn’t have come at a better time for me personally. A few days ago, I moved myself and my family to Boulder to work on a book about startup communities. Not only did I come here to work closely with my friend and co-author Brad Feld, I also wanted to experience first-hand what makes this place so special. I came here to learn… and to contribute.