Brad Feld on building local communities, Boulder-style
When away from the Valley Vortex ™, building sustainable and efficient communities is hard. I am in violent agreement with Paul Kedrosky when he recently argued that the first failure of smaller innovation markets is a misguided attempt to ape the Valley. His quote: The insider/conveyor game is why venture is such a profound disappointment in almost every other market around the world. Everyone slavishly imitates the U.S. model, and then wonders why it doesn't work. (from a Namesake conversation; more on this later).
In that context, Brad Feld’s speech at the recent (and excellent) C100’s accelerate Montreal are worth spending some time on.
Brad’s talk starts with a little look back at the history of Boulder. Boulder, when Brad moved there in the early 90’s, already had a high concentration of smart people that were independently minded and enabled by the advent of the internet in the 1990’s. The incredibly fast spread of information about entrepreneurship, bi-directionally, helped make that happen. Everyone at the time was trying to emulate Silicon Valley: Silicon Prairie, Silicon Mountain, Silicon Alley etc… But by 2001 most of these communities got wiped: the effort was not sustained.
Boulder started recovering a few years later. Brad considers the seminal moment in his change of thinking about what community in Boulder really meant through a “random meeting” with David Cohen: “I love living in Boulder, I am tired of being isolated and I can’t find the thread linking us all together”. The rest of that story is well known. David started a movement that was later to become TechStars, the original mentor centric program and an initiative that is today known around the world.
Building sustainable local ecosystems
Brad observes: “there’s activity and momentum in the community [in Montreal]. But a handful of things are needed to build long-term sustainable communities, so we avoid the “running out of steam” phenomenon that happened after the 2000 bust”. Some thoughts for environments like Montreal:
- Take the (very) long term view: commit to 20 years of proactive support of the company creation process and the community nurturing. This is not a zero sum game; making the environment stronger makes everyone a winner.
- Refresh the Community: Keep taking in new talent. Brad calls it “fresh meat”. The more energy you put into getting new people involved, the better the quality of the community … and of your own thinking. Members of the community need to continuously engage the new.
- Build Density: Engage the whole ecosystem from top to bottom, from the newbie to the experienced hand.
Boulder is only a 100,000 people, but with an incredible density of entrepreneurship and creation, and not all of it has to do with marijuana being legal.
Rome was not built in a day
The comment that most resonated with me in this is “taking the long-term view”. As an investor and board member of Seedcamp from the outset, I keep being asked “what success stories can you point to ?”. It turns out we have a couple of exits we can point at, but that’s not the point. Seedcamp is a mere 4 years old and Rome was not built in a day; quality and engagement get built over time and need to be sustained over time. There is no shortcut to creating great ecosystems: it takes time, consistency and commitment from all of us.
It also takes a recognition that collaboration around building an ecosystem is to the benefit of all. One issue I have been running into at Seedcamp is desire by many VC firms to have “branded” initiatives and, to be blunt, a concern that Seedcamp was too close to Index. You can hardly blame people for contributing though, can you ? With more of the community actively engaged, this becomes irrelevant over time. Just look at the exciting Seedcamp companies that Eden Ventures has backed. Seedcamp is like most community efforts: you get more out of it the more you put in. I live in Boston and am unlikely to do too many deals in Europe, and yet I agreed to stay on the board to provide exactly that: consistency.
Bottom Line: until we build a highly liquid and connected local fabric, we should not be surprised if we keep losing our best people to the Valley.
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