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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