Student Loan Debt is Killing American Entrepreneurship

Ethan Mollick, a professor at the Wharton business school, Tweets about a paper that causally links student loan debt with declining entrepreneurship in America (including in high-growth, high-tech activities). By exploiting two “exogenous shocks” to the student loan system (public policy changes that are unrelated to entrepreneurship), the authors demonstrate that student loan debt not only causes individuals to start fewer businesses (especially in the high-tech, high-growth segments), but when they do, they are (a) less likely to be successful, and (b) experience greater hardship from the (already more likely) business failures. These are not exactly the type of conditions that encourage people to start new ventures, particularly when competing in a harsh competitive environment of increasing market power, raising incumbency advantage, and expanding wage opportunities at larger companies.

Robert Noyce, Mao Zedong and Lessons for Startup Communities

In 1957, a group of eight Silicon Valley executives lead by Robert Noyce resigned from famed Shockley Semiconductor to start a rival in Fairchild Semiconductor. This sort of thing happens all the time in Silicon Valley today, but at the time, it was a watershed moment that sent reverberations throughout the industry. The Traitorous Eight, as they became known, changed the course of innovation forever by injecting the region with an entrepreneurial ethos that continues to this day and has made Silicon Valley the envy of the world.

Around the same time, nearly 6,000 miles (~10,000 kilometers) away, a very different type of revolution was taking place in Communist China. In 1958, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward—a wide-sweeping series of economic and political reforms aimed at transitioning China from an agricultural economy to an industrialized one, and at consolidating power around the socialist regime.

So, why on earth am I linking the Great Chinese Famine with the essence of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit and with startup communities today?

The J-Curve of Startup Community Transition

In The Startup Community Way, my upcoming book with Brad Feld, we explain that startup communities must be viewed through the lens of complex adaptive systems. Such systems are characterized as having many elements (people and things), interdependencies (connections between them), feedback loops (actions lead to reactions), and as being in a constant state of evolution (never at rest).

We make the effort to explain the complex systems framework and tie it to startup communities because the nature of these systems requires a very different type of engagement than we are used to in most of our professional and civic lives. Complex systems require different skills (diversity v. expertise), mental processes (synthesis v. analysis), tactical approaches (experimentation v. planning), and goals (right conditions v. right outcome), among other factors we discuss in the book.

One of these prominent conditions in complex adaptive systems that I want to talk about today is Basins of Attraction. In neoclassical economics, it is assumed that the the economy (also a complex adaptive system) is moving towards a point of stability—an equilibrium. This is done for reasons of simplifying mathematics, but it also has the impact of making many economic predictions unreliable.

Instead of a single point of stability, Basins of Attraction takes the view that there are many such potential “resting places” and that a complex evolutionary process will determine which of these wins out. Basins of Attraction in complex systems—like startup communities—can be thought of as a sort of center of gravity where things can get stuck. Critically, they can get stuck in “good” or “bad” outcomes.

The Rise of Global Startup Investors

Recently, Brad Feld and I have been working hard on The Startup Community Way, a book on how to harness the complexity in the entrepreneurial age. It’s a follow-up to Brad’s, 2012 classic: Startup Communities. We completed a chapter that documents the growth of startup activity globally over the last decade—from startup deals to investors to startup programs—but recently decided to scrap it from the book. But, we wanted to put those data points to use, so I’ll publish some of them here.

(Note: if you want a comprehensive look at trends of venture deals, see Rise of the Global Startup City: The New Map of Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital, a report I published last September with my friend and colleague Richard Florida. It covers a decade of venture capital deals across more than 300 global metropolitan areas that span 60 countries.)

Here, I’ll document the rise of three types of investor groups: venture capital firms (from Seed through later-stage VC), corporate venture capital groups, and a third group for accelerators and incubators. These groups have been pre-populated by PitchBook, my source in this analysis.

Time to Exit

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a new study about women-founded venture-backed companies in the United States. One of the things I looked at is exit rates—the share of companies either being acquired or doing a IPO—by the gender composition of founding teams. A colleague who reviewed a draft of the study challenged me on the eight- and ten-year exit lag from first financing because the time to exit has gone up in recent years. That’s a fair point, but I only have data going back to 2005 (the oldest first-financing cohort in my data), which constrains my ability to look over longer time periods. It is still an important exercise, and most critically, the results of the comparative analysis between women-founded and non-women-founded companies wouldn’t change much by having more data. And, that’s what I’m most after in the report.

But that did get me to thinking: just how much longer is it taking for venture-backed companies to exit?

Startup Communities Are Not Like Recipes, They are Like Raising Children

I’ve often heard people say “building startup communities (or startup ecosystems) is not about the ingredients, it’s about the recipe.” What they mean is that a focus on the individual people, institutions, and resources will provide only limited insight or success, and that what matters most is how these things all come together. While integration versus elements is the right concept, a recipe is the wrong analogy.

Back and Ahead

I started out 2019 on the blog by looking back at last year: my posting activity, traffic patterns, and which posts were the most popular. I posted 29 entries last year, which is around 2.4 per month or about one post every other week. The maximum was 6 posts (in November) and in three months I wrote nothing (in June, July, and September). The median was 3 posts.

I’d like to be much better about posting this year—not just frequency but consistency. I write on a number of other platforms and am working on a few major projects right now—including crashing towards a deadline for a book manuscript. I also tend to write lengthy and analytical (data-driven) pieces, which means it simply takes longer to produce content (did I mention already that I’m pretty busy doing other things?).

How the Geography of Startups and Innovation Is Changing

We’re used to thinking of high-tech innovation and startups as generated and clustered predominantly in fertile U.S. ecosystems, such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, and New York. But as with so many aspects of American economic ingenuity, high-tech startups have now truly gone global. The past decade or so has seen the dramatic growth of startup ecosystems around the world, from Shanghai and Beijing, to Mumbai and Bangalore, to London, Berlin, Stockholm, Toronto and Tel Aviv. A number of U.S. cities continue to dominate the global landscape, including the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, but the rest of the world is gaining ground rapidly.

The Gift of Global Talent

Talent is to a knowledge-based economy what oil and steel were to an industrial-based one—it’s most important asset. And while agglomeration was important in the past too, it pales in comparison to the type of economic concentration we see playing out right now in major cities across the globe—talent wants to be around other talent. In fact it needs to be.

For decades, the United States has been the world’s biggest beneficiary of global talent flows by a long shot. But the United States risks squandering its long-held gift of global talent, due to changing economic conditions abroad and series of missteps at home. That’s the main message of an excellent new book from Bill Kerr of the Harvard Business School: The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society.

The King of Queens

Well, it’s official. The Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes is finally over and the winner(s) are New York City, Washington, DC, and Amazon itself of course (in reverse order). I offer my congratulations to both cities—this is a BIG win for both. Kudos to Amazon too—it couldn’t have chosen two better locations. And finally, I suppose some tip of the cap is in order to Jeff Bezos—the new King of Queens.


I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nicolas Colin. I’ve been an admirer of his writing in the past, and we had a delightful conversation at one of my favorite breakfast spots in London. For those of you who don’t know, Nicolas is a co-founder of The Family, an early-stage investment firm started in Paris and now operating in London and Berlin.

He is also the author a new book Hedge: A Greater Safety Net for the Entrepreneurial Age, which I’m happy to have completed just this week. Hedge hits three important notes for me: it is meticulously researched (527 references! 😍), very well-written, and has a point of view that stands out from the others.

New Evidence on Fostering Productive Startup Communities

Last week, Endeavor Insight (the research arm of Endeavor Global) teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to publish a new report on fostering productive startup communities. The report was authored by Rhett Morris and Lili Török of Endeavor, and I think it is one of the best pieces of empirical work I've ever seen on startup communities.

Solving Canada’s startup dilemma

Canada, we increasingly hear, is becoming a global leader in high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship. Report after report has ranked Toronto, Waterloo and Vancouver among the world’s most up-and-coming tech hubs. Toronto placed fourth in a ranking of North American tech talent this past summer, behind only the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, and in 2017 its metro area added more tech jobs than those other three city-regions combined.

All of that is true, but the broader trends provide little reason for complacency. Indeed, our detailed analysis of more than 100,000 startup investments around the world paints a more sobering picture. Canada and its leading cities have seen a substantial rise in their venture capital investments. But both the country and its urban centres have lost ground to global competitors, even as the United States’ position in global start-ups has faltered.

Thoughts on the New Jersey Innovation Evergreen Fund

On October 1st, New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy announced a $500 million plan to increase venture capital investment in the state. The move is motivated by New Jersey’s decline (relative to other states) in venture capital investment the last decade, and his belief that an expansion of publicly-subsidized venture capital pools will help turn things around.

Information on the plan is still sparse and there are a lot of details that need filling in. But that’s precisely why we’re speaking up now. The details really matter here—history is littered with failed government venture capital programs that didn’t get the specifics right. So, Governor Murphy, if you’re listening, we’d like to share some ideas with you as your plan begins to take shape.

Early-Stage Valuation Multiples Are Coming Way Down. What Does it Mean?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the declining number of early-stage venture deals and in the number of startups entering the venture-backed pipeline in the United States. As I think about the overall health of American entrepreneurship, this development raises some questions. Is the early-stage decline driven by factors on the supply-side (investors) or the demand-side (startups)? Or is it both? Does it reflect an overheated market simply returning to normal, or are other factors at play? As one example, is this evidence of winner-take-all markets, whereby fewer startups get funded, but those that do raise ever more capital? Is it something else? Is it all of these things? And, should this concern us?

Platform Giants and Venture-Backed Startups

A friend recently pointed me to a July study by Oliver Wyman titled Assessing the Impact of Big Tech on Venture Investment. I was immediately intrigued because this is a question I’m asked all the time and one for which I don’t have a good answer. On the one hand, I see how platform giants could expand startup activity because they seed an ecosystem, improve labor quality, and provide capital (as customers, investors, and acquirers). On the other hand, I see how their sheer dominance—and the ability to leverage their power into adjacent markets by favoring their own content or wares—makes it difficult  to compete in their space. In fact, reporters have told me that most VCs won’t touch startups operating anywhere near these companies’ orbits, a phenomenon that is apparently so common it’s been given a nickname: “kill-zones”. I took a close look at the numbers to try and figure out what’s going on.