Building Entrepreneurial Communities in Upstate NY

It has been three weeks since Brad Feld visited Upstate NY, and we are still processing all that we learned from him about his experience building Boulder’s entrepreneurial community.   Below are some of the notes we took.  Lots more links to blogs and media coverage of Brad’s trip here.

Understanding Boulder as an environment for entrepreneurship

  • Important to recognize that Boulder and Denver are not the same.  Boulder is small; 25% of population are students.  Boulder has a high proportion of entrepreneurs who are independent, counter-cultural in their attitudes (LOHAS, other non-SW/Internet founders). Denver’s high-growth community lacked scale and focus; Boulder became nexus due to entrepreneurial concentration and efforts of CU law school.
  • Like many smaller communities, Boulder needed to recruit people to the region. Boulder had no big IT companies to start with (in recent years, MS/Google etc have bought Boulder startups and now have a presence). Big engineering/ technology firms in Denver had very limited impact on Boulder entrepreneur community.
  • VC presence was not a driver for growth of entrepreneurship. Boulder-based VC firms have gone from three down to one, even as VC investment in Boulder companies increases. VCs from outside the region are comfortable investing because they have confidence in the community being able to support high-growth entrepreneurs.

Organizing for entrepreneurial community building:

  • Entrepreneurial communities need to be led by committed entrepreneurs who are able to provide sustained capital and personal commitment to the growth of the entrepreneurial community
  • Entrepreneurial community leaders need to focus on high-growth entrepreneurship and keep a “20-years-from-today” time horizon so that push continues through economic/political ups and downs
  • The community needs engagement and leadership from local entrepreneurs who share a long-term view because they want to stay in the community and want their children to do so as well. Engagement needs to be across the full spectrum from first-timers to serial entrepreneurs and including the highly successful as well as those rebounding from failed efforts.
  • Engaged entrepreneurs can contribute as mentors and/or angel investors. There should be no judgments about level of engagement or investment. Don’t worry about those who choose not to engage.
  • Use the engaged entrepreneurs wisely. Give them opportunities to connect with new entrepreneurs; manage the load you place on their shoulders (24x7x365 demands can create burnout as can having to mentor more than 1-2 startups at a time)
  • Having lots of local VCs is not as critical as having lots of local mentors and angels who can help make startups “VC-ready”. Larger amounts of capital will find a way to high-value companies.
  • Make sure that the local entrepreneur pool is constantly refreshed by new blood from the outside. Welcome new entrepreneurs to your community. Introduce them to others, share what you like about the region and all it has to offer.

Advice for Upstate NY communities:

  • Try to identify and nurture entrepreneurs within the vast numbers of college students in the region.
  • The way to gain critical mass locally is to connect people across the region as well as linking up with alumni and expatriates.
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