A few months back, after a talk I’d given in Warsaw, I was invited to speak in Sarajevo. “There are dozens of entrepreneurs there,” the woman told me as we sipped drinks in the setting sun on a busy street outside a bar, a favourite for ex-pats working in Poland. “They need to be inspired too.”
Sarajevo sent me spinning. The Sarajevo of my youth conjured images of athletes flying above the snow. The Sarajevo of my adulthood conjures images of death and destruction; of beauty and potential thwarted.
The woman approached me after weeks of travel that had taken me, again, to Berlin and to Krakow, Munich, and Istanbul as well. Months before, in a castle overlooking gorgeous Ljubljana, I met entrepreneurs from Zagreb, Vilnius, and Yerevan.
A year ago, I walked the streets of East Berlin with a young Russian who told me of his plans to distribute work to students around the world all the while really telling me about his life-long desire to rise above, break out, stand apart, and become himself. Earlier last year, I’d sat in a hotel conference room in Chengdu, chatting about the importance of cash flow to entrepreneurs from the Tibetan plateau.
At that moment, standing in the sunset on a Warsaw street corner, I recalled all of these people. I was transfixed: Sarajevo has a startup community.
I remember when the Berlin Wall fell. I remember being told that the forces of Democracy had defeated the bogeymen of my Cold War-dominated youth, Socialism and Communism. I remember Presidents past talking about democracy marching on. At the time, I wondered and doubted. Now I understand. No one won. No system defeated another. That is, the changes implicit in this movement have little to do with the machinations of politicians. What is happening is far more powerful, far more important. From Moscow to Chengdu, from Tunisia to Armenia from San Jose to New York to Boulder, people are taking control of their lives.
I often write about the challenges of being an entrepreneur; it is a large part of why people come to see me. Because of this I try to avoid anything that smacks of the naive cheerleading that often passes for analysis (Apologies to my friends at Inc., Fast Company and, even, the Harvard Business Review but each of you could do a better job of warning about the dangers of pursuing the startup life.).
Those who seek to create their own startup do so more often out of the desires for freedom, dignity, validation and, ultimately, self-actualization (in the full Maslow-vian sense) than for riches. (Indeed, those who seek riches most often fail.) For them, and despite what most politicians and government officials blather on about, it’s not about jobs. It’s about life.
Which is why Startup Communities, by my friend Brad Feld, is so important and why my friends in Armenia, China, Tunisia, Turkey, Germany, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, as well as Idaho, Texas, et al should read it. (You can order it here. You can also take his workshop developed by my friends at Cojourneo in support of the book here. )
The book essentially lays out a blueprint for creating and nurturing startup communities for, as Brad writes, “I have a deeply held belief that you can create a long-term, vibrant, sustainable startup community in any city in the world, but it’s hard and takes the right kind of philosophy, approach, leadership, and dedication over a long period of time.”
He calls his framework The Boulder Thesis and it consists of four components:
- Entrepreneurs must be the leaders
- They must take a long-term view
- The community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to engage at any level
- You must have activities and events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack
What I love most about this view is what it lacks: notice there’s no call for government action; no pontificating on the need to create “technology parks” where the only people who tend to make money are real estate developers. No pleas for tax breaks or incentives. Indeed, the most important aspect of his view is its focus on the entrepreneurs themselves. You guys, he says, have to do it yourselves.
That fits so well with what drives people to become entrepreneurs: savouring the dignity and pride in being responsible for your own failure or success.
Ultimately, that singular experience of doing it ourselves is the magic behind the entrepreneur-led social revolutions implicit in the startup communities around the world. Just as no one should hand you a job, no one is going to hand you your freedom.
As I internalize that reality, and all the ways it’s shaped my life and the lives of the men and women I work with every day, I realise I have my own little thesis brewing: freedom, dignity, pride, opportunity all coexist with the success/failure roller-coaster of the startup life. And that co-existence is more likely to lift people out of poverty, war, and chaos than any political intervention. I think I’ll call my framework The Sarajevo Effect.
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