Six Steps to a Successful Entrepreneurial Community


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.  Who creates them? According to the Kauffman Foundation, most jobs are created by new businesses. We need those jobs, and we need those businesses. And they can't be developed in a vacuum.  Everyone knows Silicon Valley is the mecca for tech company startups, and New York for the media industry. Detroit is the auto industry, and Los Angeles is movies.  But what if you don't live in one of those places? How do you create the conditions for successful entrepreneurship in your own community?

 

For the past two years, I've been working with  Gangplank, a Chandler-based collaboration space, to figure out what Arizona needs to be come a successful entrepreneurial hub. Derek Neighbors and Jade Meskill, the entrepreneurs who conceived Gangplank, took a big risk when they decided to sign a lease for a much larger space than their company, Integrum, needed, in order to encourage others to congregate around them. As Gangplank heads into its next phase, which will be a substantial expansion, here are the ingredients they've decided are the way forward for Arizona (and probably for anywhere else.) 

 

1. Community Collaboration – the first ingredient is to get the community to work together, pulling in the same direction for the same goals. In many communities, well-intentioned efforts spring up all over the place, each claiming its own piece of the territory. Sooner or later, those efforts collide, weaking their combined effect. Gangplank began the effort at community collaboration by creating a space any entrepreneur or creative person could walk into and sit down to work. It is a big, open industrial space with a vending machine, a refrigerator, a gaming platform,  a number of conference rooms, and a wi-fi network. The furniture comes from Costco. Once a week there's a Brown Bag Lunch with an outside speaker talking about his or her business or a community activity. The community is invited to participate. There's also a weekly Hack Night, and the space is available at no cost for community meetings.

 

It's not the Googleplex, but people drive 50 miles to work at Gangplank every day. They sit down, plug in, and share ideas. Some complain about the drive, but the purpose of aggregating the tech community in one place is to achieve critical mass.

 

2. Civics. Once the community is aggregated, it's time to look up from those laptops and figure out how to make an impact on the local community. Gangplankers sit on just about every local board and committee in the City of Chandler, and participate in community events with the Mayor and Council, the Downtown Redevelopment committees, and all other local civic efforts. The idea is to contribute social capital so  it will come back. Startups and new businesses often labor in solitude, without support, while Federal programs designed to help small business and administered by cities and counties can't find the businesses to participate. Aggregating the potential high-growth businesses and pushing them out into the community is essential.

 

3. Education and Training. Families with children want to live in communities with good schools, and yet public education is facing budget cuts and contraction all over America. Gangplank volunteers in schools to help design curriculum for the future, and to train kids in essential skills that will never be taught on the grade school level. In the past few years, it has held a program called "Gangplank Jr." open to any neighborhood kid who wants to come in on a Saturday and learn simple computer programming. It has also hosted a Lego display and a Robotics team practice. If you want to build a workforce, you can't just consign the job to the schools. You have to model the behavior and make it exciting to the children.

 

4. Art and Culture Creative pursuits are not easy to outsource, and making a place for artists to exhibit and musicians to play brings people to Gangplank on days and nights you wouldn't think there would be anyone there. [We held the after-party for the Arizona Entrepreneurship Conferencethere two years ago, and Matt Mullenweg played pool there. Who says Arizona can't be Silicon Valley for a night. ]

 

5.) Music Next Friday May 14 is the Desert Bloom music festival. When Gangplank moves into its new building next fall, one of its attributes will be a larger music space. Gangplank also has a podcast studio that anyone can use.

 

6.) Investment Capital . All the funding sources in Arizona know about Gangplank. Some of them hold office hours there once a month (I hold them once a week). Building the ties between the money and the people who need it is a major objective at Gangplank.

 

What does this all add up to? Creating a sense of place.  When you create such a sense of place, people will want to move there, start their businesses there. and most important, stay there,  

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