I’ve been involved in building startup communities for awhile. In Montreal I started an entrepreneurship breakfast event, launched NextMontreal, spent time advising startups/founders, spoke at events, and more. It was a lot of fun and a shit ton of work. Now that I’m in Halifax, I’m still doing stuff, but taking a different approach. These days I focus more on individuals and look for those that I think have what it takes to be successful, and then double down on them. It’s a more individual-centric approach based on the belief that a startup ecosystem succeeds first and foremost as a result of successful startups. The startups–actually, the founders/entrepreneurs–are the core of everything.
Entrepreneurs need a lot of support. That’s where the community plays a huge role. And I’m seeing some awesome activity in Halifax. Luckily, I haven’t seen a lot of silly bravado that often comes along with real progress. (No one has proclaimed Halifax as the “Silicon Valley of the North” … at least not in front of me.)
Recently I was in Louisville, Kentucky speaking about Lean Analytics and entrepreneurship. I didn’t see much of the city, but I met a lot of people. Super friendly, super excited and working hard to support some great startups in the region. At one of the presentations, I spoke about what it takes to build a startup ecosystem outside of Silicon Valley. The presentation is embedded below.
A lot of the ideas I shared are happening in Louisville and elsewhere too. That’s a good thing.
Most entrepreneurs are not located where they are (other than Silicon Valley, New York and perhaps a few others) because it’s actually the best place to run their startup.
They’re there because of a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, family or some other extraneous (but very important!) circumstance. So be it. Accept that fact and move on to do the best you can within your region to support entrepreneurs and make them successful. Don’t pretend like your little place in the world is the best place to build startups…it’s just not.
If you look at the presentation you’ll see that I suggest “not holding people back”, which is in reference to not making efforts to keep people geographically tied to your city or region. I always say, “Let people go where they think they’ll have the most likelihood of succeeding.” That gets push back because people are afraid of losing talent (and yes, that does happen). Here’s the thing: You can’t build an impenetrable dome around your city and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. This isn’t the Truman Show. Or that new Stephen King television show (about some kind of mysterious dome that does in fact surround a city).
Entrepreneurs know the world is out there (or at least they should) and you can never, ever, ever do or suggest something that’s not in the best interest of founders and their startups. If you know a startup should move to Silicon Valley or Toronto or New York or anywhere else, and you tell them otherwise because you’re afraid of brain drain, then shame on you. In the long run you’re doing more damage than good.
There’s lots you can do to build and support your startup communities outside of Silicon Valley.
Focus on the entrepreneurs. Focus on building from within and playing to your strengths. Teach kids to code. Create simplified, shareable paperwork (e.g. incorporation docs, employee agreements, term sheets, etc.) Toot your own horn as a community (just not too much!)
Entrepreneurs need to participate too.
Don’t sit back, snap your fingers and expect everyone to rush to your aid. You have to contribute to the community. Pick your spots. Speak at a couple of events, mentor a couple of more inexperienced entrepreneurs, go into a high school and get kids excited about entrepreneurship. Don’t attend every event (we don’t need more social butterflies). Get to Silicon Valley, experience what’s going on there and bring some of that essence and culture back with you. And when you win, re-invest. Become an angel and put money and time back into the entrepreneurs that are following in your footsteps.
I know for a fact that you can build a successful startup pretty much anywhere. We need to focus less on geography and more on helping entrepreneurs win. When they win, everyone wins and ecosystems emerge.