A 3-Step Guide To Whipping Your City's Startup Scene Into Shape

R.U.N.!

It goes without saying that tech startups are good for cities. They create jobs, lure talent, and can bolster key aspects of the local economy. But how do you attract the brightest entrepreneurs when you’re not New York or Silicon Valley?

Any city or town, no matter how small, can whip its startup scene into competitive shape. To that end, we’ve developed a three-step guide we call R.U.N.:

  • Rally Around Risk
  • Unlock Assets
  • Network Frequently and Widely

Rally Around Risk.

Though the American Dream is built on the notion of putting everything on the line for some brilliant idea, the reality is that serious risk-taking is often discouraged.

Bedroom communities, as the name implies, are more about raising families and fitting in, not rolling the dice and betting the farm. Even in our boldest cities, the appetite for risk may seem tepid compared with the entrepreneurial impulse in places like China.

But comfort is not a catalyst. Startup guru Vivek Wadhwa once put it this way: "Silicon Valley… is a culture of informality, risk-taking, openness, and inclusion... When you ask someone what they do, they show off about the number of companies they've screwed up, the number of failures they've had. In Silicon Valley, it's a badge of honor.”

That’s “badge,” not halo. Entrepreneurs aren’t cuddly. They’re a kind of extreme athlete, conditioned to chase capital, connections, and whatever else it takes. As private equity pioneer Ted Forstmann explained: “The entrepreneur is constantly in conflict with convention… He is usually found disturbing and irritating.”

Once communities understand the mindset, they can do their part to promote it. Local press can regularly spotlight entrepreneurs and the innovations they forge. Business leaders can set up mentoring programs that cover everything from launch plans to exits. And the next time friends at a cocktail party mull a new boat or timeshare, you can urge them to invest in a startup instead.

Unlock Assets.

Don’t discount local universities and corporations. They can be powerful sources of ideas, technology, and much-needed cash. The University of Washington--which collects about $1.5 billion a year in research funding--recently unveiled a plan to double the amount of startups the school spins out. In addition to ramping up 20 startups over three years, the plan also includes incubator space and funding.

“… What we do in the laboratories, what we do at a research-based university is really designed to make the world a better place, ” University of Washington President Michael Young was quoted as saying. “But if it stays in the university, it doesn’t accomplish its goal.”

Tech transfers like this aren’t limited to major universities. Smaller institutions, community colleges, and even high schools can play a part in developing a startup city. Big businesses can help, too. They can provide mentorship, infrastructure, and capital. It’s in their interest, after all; a healthy startup scene creates scores of new ideas and nurtures fresh talent. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, BP, and Intel Capital, among others, are all in some way invested in stimulating and supporting startups.

Network Frequently and Widely.

Despite an obsessive commitment to success, startup entrepreneurs cannot survive on passion (and ramen) alone.

Of all the challenges a startup faces, isolation may be the deadliest. A business owner at an entrepreneurs’ meetup we attended recently described his city as “a black hole for startups.” Unfortunately, that’s not rare.

Communities can offer a corrective by establishing networking activities that connect entrepreneurs to the resources they need. Chambers of commerce, businesses, and grassroots organizations can all contribute here.

To some, an essential piece of networking is a common space--if not an incubator, than a hub where young companies and entrepreneurial support organizations suit up everyday. Nothing promotes the exchange of ideas, skills, and tricks of the trade as quickly as putting like-minded people together in one room.

Keep in mind, the networking imperative isn’t just about amassing resources within your city limits. For best results, think and act regionally.

Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, and San Jose are the wonder quadruplets of the startup scene. Individually, each is home to one or two of the biggest tech companies in the world. Combined, they can activate Silicon Valley, the largest startup region in the world.

R.U.N. is far from comprehensive. But it’s a first step toward getting your entire community behind building a vibrant local tech scene. And if there’s no overtaking Silicon Valley, at least there are still rewards for running the race.

Authors Billy Warden and Greg Behr are cofounders of GBW Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in economic development and startups.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

[Image: Diego Cuervo via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • hughwdawson

    Nice and simple, yet compelling!  I would add that uncertainty should also be rallied around, because in addition to risk with its inherent impact on people and places, embracing uncertainty provides the understanding that predictability of outcomes can be managed.  I think that Silicon Valley "badges of courage", if one lifts off the cover, would reveal a very quantitative aspect of predicting success and failure that begets a massive learning quotient to carry forward in those failed attempts...

  • Aya Zook

    Great tips for startups operating outside the so-called
    hub!  With increased access to tools and
    remote resources, the prospect for a city of any size to build a thriving startup
    community is looking up. Great ideas, unbridled talent, and unhinged passion transcends
    all borders.

     

    Aya Zook, Bing Booster