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Leaders and their feeders

'Startup Communities' lays out rules for cities to become successful entrepreneurial hives. One key: Don't let the support infrastructure ('feeders') dictate goals.

December 09, 2012|By Jonathan Moules

A favorite question at entrepreneurship conferences is which world city has the entrepreneurial dynamism to become a major start-up capital on par with Silicon Valley. London, Singapore, Tel Aviv, New York and Berlin are usually cited.

Seldom, however, do you hear anyone propose Boulder, Colo.

That is, unless you are in the company of Brad Feld, an early-stage investor, technology entrepreneur and author of "Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City," published by Wiley.

Feld is a regular speaker on venture capital investing and entrepreneurship, having founded his first company in 1987. Twitter is not a perfect measure of the quality of a person's opinions, but you do not get 113,000 followers without having a degree of respect from your peer group.

He is a Texan who co-founded his first company in Boston and for 20 years has been proud to call Boulder his home.

To him, this city of just 100,000 people, nestled near Rocky Mountain National Park and a short drive from Denver, is not just the best place to live. He also sees Boulder as an excellent example for those who wish to turn their own town into a start-up community.

"Although I don't have the data to support it, Boulder may have the highest entrepreneurial density in the world," he writes.

Having said that, Feld wants to make clear that all sorts of cities across the world can become home to job-creating new businesses if only they foster the necessary culture.

He sets out a framework for a successful start-up community — that it be led by entrepreneurs with a long-term commitment to the area, that the community be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate and that there be a constant stream of activities that engage all the parties.

Feld differentiates between the entrepreneurial "leaders" of a community and the "feeders," who must support but not try to take charge.

Feeders include government agencies, lawyers, accountants, local universities and angel investors. Problems often occur and areas fail to become start-up communities, he notes, when feeders, rather than the people creating the businesses, try to control the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This should serve as a warning to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration in New York, which is trying to nurture the city's collection of fast-growing Web businesses, nicknamed Silicon Alley.

The book is also an insight into why the U.S. is such an entrepreneurial nation. The generosity of spirit still prevalent in U.S. society shines through Feld's writing. It is a key reason why so many have felt it is where they can achieve their dreams.

"Give before you get" is a mantra repeated several times by Feld. A key message is the power of community, which relies on people committing to their neighborhood for a couple of decades at least.

He also has a short answer for the people who ask how they can create the next Silicon Valley: They can't.

"Trying to create the next Silicon Valley is a fool's errand," he writes. "If that's really your goal, save yourself a lot of heartache and simply move to Silicon Valley."

It is clear from the way he writes about Boulder that Feld has no intention of moving farther west himself any time soon. "I can't imagine a better place to live," he says.

My only criticism is that almost all of his frame of reference is the U.S. His only mention of anywhere else in the world is a brief account of a trip to see some start-ups in Iceland.

But if more people loved and contributed to the places they live, as Feld and others have evidently done in Boulder, we probably would have more start-up communities around the world for him to visit.

Moules is the enterprise correspondent of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared. He is also author of "The Rebel Entrepreneur," published by Kogan Page.

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