Author Brad Feld on Building Sustainable Startup Communities

by Kristine Hansen on January 11, 2013
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Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley get ample credit for fostering startups. But they aren’t the only places conducive to business launches. In his new book, Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, author Brad Feld (pictured) reveals other cities and regions that have nurtured sustainable startup environments.

Since the late 1980s, Feld has been a driving force in building entrepreneurial cultures, including in his own city of Boulder, Colo. He currently serves as a managing director at Foundry Group, a venture-capital firm that funds early-stage technology companies.

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently caught up with Feld to discuss entrepreneurial education, the White House’s Startup America initiative, “leaders” and “feeders,” and more. Here’s what he had to say.

ISBB: What commonalities do the U.S. cities you discuss in your book — Boulder, Boston, New York, Seattle, and Omaha — have that make them fantastic places to launch startups? 

Feld: Each city has a strong set of entrepreneurs who are investing a meaningful amount of time and energy in building their respective startup communities. These entrepreneurs are fully engaged in their companies, but believe that building and leading their startup community also helps them build their businesses.

What startup lessons from your own backyard might make solid case studies for entrepreneurs?

One of the most powerful dynamics in the success of the Boulder startup community is a “give before you get” attitude, which is directly linked to the large amount of mentorship that happens between and among entrepreneurs in Boulder. Rather than approach each interaction [as a] transaction — as in, “What am I going to get out of this?” — the entrepreneurs in Boulder ask one another simply, “What can I do to help?”

As a result, each entrepreneur in Boulder isn’t part of an isolated business. Instead, they are part of an extremely powerful network that leverages and amplifies that activity across many companies. There are points of concentration on this network, which is evidenced by the success of the TechStars accelerator, and this has continued to build every year.

In your book, you talk about improving access to entrepreneurial education. What resources are still untapped or not fully explored by entrepreneurs?

When I was an entrepreneur in the 1980s, there was virtually no entrepreneurial education. In the 1990s, groups like the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization came into existence and provided a peer group — with the ensuing education opportunities — for many high-growth entrepreneurs.

More recently, you are seeing the phenomena of the Lean Startup and the Lean Launchpad methodologies, combined with programs like Startup Weekend and the new SWNext program, provide experiential-learning opportunities for a wide range of entrepreneurs, both existing and aspiring ones. Finally, the entire mentor-driven accelerator movement, pioneered by TechStars, is providing incredible immersive entrepreneurial education for many companies around the world.

What is it about Iceland that makes the country ripe for startups compared with its European neighbors?

Iceland is a fascinating story because of the country’s extremely rapid economic climb followed by an even more extreme collapse. Rather than hang on to a bunch stuff that wasn’t working, Icelanders rebooted and got on with their lives. For many of them, this meant starting from scratch economically. Because they had nothing to lose, it has created an incredible wave of innovation, again being led by some great entrepreneurs.

You’ve been involved with Startup America since the idea was born in 2010. How is this White House initiative decreasing the risks of launching a business and the difficulties for many in obtaining loans?

I’ve been very involved in the private side of the project known as the Startup America Partnership. This organization is linked to, but different from, the White House initiative, and it has been focused on a broad, bottom-up strategy of enabling regional startup initiatives in every state in the country. Many of these regional initiatives follow many aspects of what I describe in Startup Communities, and I’ve learned a lot from many of the different leaders of these efforts throughout the U.S.

You talk about two categories of people in Startup Communities: leaders and feeders. What are these, and how do they contribute to an entrepreneurial ecosystem?

Leaders are entrepreneurs. Feeders are everyone else — universities, governments, investors (angels and VCs), and large companies. Both leaders and feeders are important to the health and development of startup communities, but they play very different roles. People who are members of feeder organizations can play a leadership role, but in the absence of a critical mass of entrepreneurs who play leadership roles, the startup community won’t have any sustainable progress.

In what industries are you currently seeing a surge in startups?

Tech — including software, internet, and hardware. There is an awesome “maker movement” happening at the intersection of hardware and software. Enormous innovation is happening in the natural-foods industry, too, along with health and outdoors.

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