Entrepreneurs Take Lead in Building Vibrant Startup Communities

Entrepreneurs Take Lead in Building Vibrant Startup Communities


In this edited excerpt, Feld focuses on entrepreneurs’ role in fostering and growing a thriving, long-lived community.

The most critical principle of a start-up community is that entrepreneurs must lead it. Lots of different people are involved in the start-up community and many non-entrepreneurs play key roles. Unless the entrepreneurs lead, the start-up community won’t be sustainable.

In virtually every major city, there are long lists of different types of people and organisations who are involved in the start-up community including government, universities, investors, mentors, and service providers. Historically, many try to play a leadership role in the development of their local start-up community. Although their involvement is important, they can’t be the leaders. The entrepreneurs have to be leaders.

I define an entrepreneur as someone who has co-founded a company. I differentiate between “high-growth entrepreneurial companies” and “small businesses.” Both are important, but they are different.

Entrepreneurial companies have the potential to be or are high-growth businesses, whereas small businesses tend to be local, profitable, but slow-growth organisations. Small-business people are often “pillars of their community” as their businesses have a tight co-dependency with their community.

By contrast, founders of high-growth entrepreneurial companies generally are involved in the local community as employers and indirect contributors to small businesses and the local economy, but they rarely are involved in the broad business community because they are extraordinarily focused on their companies.

Because of this intense focus, it’s unrealistic to think that all entrepreneurs in a community will be leaders. All that is needed is a critical mass of entrepreneurs, often less than a dozen, who will provide leadership.

These leaders have to make a long-term commitment to their start-up community. I like to say this has to be at least 20 years from today to reinforce the sense that this has to be meaningful in length.

It’s well understood that economies run in cycles. Some of these cycles are modest. Some are severe. The lengths vary dramatically.

Start-up communities have to take a very long-term view. A great start-up community such as Silicon Valley (1950 to today) has a long trajectory. Although they have their booms and busts, they continued to grow, develop and expand throughout this period.

Most cities and their leaders get excited about entrepreneurship after a major economic decline. They focus on it for a few years through a peak.

When the subsequent decline ultimately happens, they focus on other things. When things bottom out, most of the progress gained during the upswing is lost. I’ve seen this several times – first in the early 1990s and again around the Internet bubble.

This is why the leaders have to first be entrepreneurs and then have a long-term view. These leaders must be committed to the continuous development of their start-up community, regardless of the economic cycle of their city, state or country.

Great entrepreneurial companies, such as Apple, Genentech, Microsoft and Intel, were started during down economic cycles. It takes such a long time to create something powerful that you’ll go through several economic cycles on the path to glory.

If you aspire to be a leader of your start-up community, but you aren’t willing to live where you are and work hard at leading the start-up community for the next 20 years, ask yourself what your real motivation for being a leader is. Although you can have impact for a shorter period of time, it’ll take at least this level of commitment from some leaders to sustain a vibrant start-up community.

A start-up community must be extremely inclusive. Anyone who wants to engage should be able to, whether they are changing careers, moving to your city, graduating from college, or just want to do something different. This applies to entrepreneurs, people who want to work for start-ups, people who want to work with start-ups, or people who are simply intellectually interested in start-ups.

This philosophy applies at all levels of the start-up community. The leaders have to be open to having more leaders involved, recognising that leaders need to be entrepreneurs who have a long-term view of building their start-up community.

Entrepreneurs in the community need to welcome other entrepreneurs, viewing the growth of the start-up community as a positive force for all. Building a start-up community is not a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers; if everyone engages, they and the entire community can all be winners.

Start-up communities must have regular activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack. This includes first-time entrepreneurs, experienced entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, employees of start-ups, service providers to start-ups, and anyone else who wants to be involved.

The emergence of hack-a-thons, new tech meet-ups, open coffee clubs, start-up weekends, and accelerators like TechStars provide a tangible, focused, set of activities for the members of the start-up community to engage in. By being inclusive of the start-up community, these activities consistently engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.

Brad Feld
Brad Feld is a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.