Community Work

I recently stumbled across a great animated video featuring audio from Brad Feld (Managing Director @ Foundry Group) talking about what makes a great startup community, based on his experience as a Venture Capitalist in Boulder, Colorado.

In it, he compares the old, industrial era way of working under a hierarchy to the modern, information age where early stage entrepreneurship flourishes without one. He says if the hierarchy tries to drive the startup community it essentially stifles it. Instead of a hierarchy, many aspects of what we do today are working as a network.

I keep hearing people say things like ‘we should be more like Boulder’ but when Brad talks about his ‘Boulder Thesis’ comprising 4 parts which he says are ‘essential to a sustainable, vibrant startup community’, I can’t help thinking that we already have a lot of this in Newcastle and the wider North East region.

Watch the video and read my comments below to see if you feel the same….

  1. ‘The community must be led by entrepreneurs’ – The entrepreneurs are the leaders whilst the Government, Universities, VC’s, lawyers, etc are the feeders. The latter are important but they can’t and shouldn’t be the leaders determining how the community will grow and evolve. This is the role of the entrepreneurs who are anyone that is being creative, inventing and making things happen. I particularly like this idea and am excited by the fact that there are many different people doing interesting and exiting things in the North East right now simply because they want to, not because it’s their job or they are getting paid to do it. The opposite is when events and activities are controlled and dictated by a select few, which then has a negative impact on the wider community as it doesn’t allow people to experiment, learn and grow together. As Brad says at the very end of the video, ‘It’s the network chaos of entrepreneurs doing what entrepreneurs do to create things – that force to build something bigger than themselves and their company which is so incredibly powerful’.
  2. ‘Entrepreneurs have to take a very long-term view’ – It may take 20+yrs before the startup community benefits from the work that they do. Over time there ‘will be some extraordinary successes but also some really huge failures’. Even when someone is extremely successful they should still remain part of that community. Likewise, when someone is a failure, don’t cast them out of the community. Help them dust themselves off and welcome them back into the fold, reinforcing the idea that it’s ok to fail – it’s just part of the process. This is one thing that I think we could do better at in the North East. There are some, but at present I don’t see enough successful entrepreneurs reinvesting their own wealth into new startups and sharing their expertise, nor big businesses using them as suppliers, partners and innovation hubs.
  3. ‘You have to have a philosophy of inclusiveness’ – It’s not just other entrepreneurs but anyone who is interested in being part of the startup ecosystem should be ‘allowed in’ without any special handshakes, having the right credentials or ‘being in with the in crowd’. If everyone contributes energy to the startup community, it’ll get bigger and grow faster, be more successful and more fun. From my experience, the developers in the North East are extremely welcoming and supportive of each other, always willing to help each other out and share knowledge and expertise. There are some natural leaders amongst them but it’s not forced and there is no set agenda other than doing things for the greater good of the community, having fun and growing as an individual.
  4. ‘You have to have activities and events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack’ – These need to be content rich and full of useful content rather than simply a networking event or award dinner, such as an accelerator programme like TechStars to engage the wider community or Startup Weekend to simulate entrepreneurial activities, says Brad. In Newcastle, we’ve now got ignite100 ‘Europe’s first £1m tech accelerator programme’ and had a great Startup Weekend Newcastle in April this year. For rich content, we have no shortage of great events and user group meetings including those that have been taking place at the PostOffice in Newcastle, SuperMondays, Refresh Teesside and numerous others around the region. On their own they are good but taken collectively you can see what a vibrant community we have.

So, the next time someone says ‘we need to be more like Boulder’ it may be worth asking them what they actually mean and how it differs from what they’ve already got? Have they actually been and experienced life there for themselves or are they just basing their assumptions on the hype surrounding TechStars? Newcastle isn’t perfect but neither is Boulder. You can’t really compare the two and so I feel it’s much more valuable to focus on the positive aspects of what already exists in your hometown and how they can be nurtured by everyone. A community is much bigger than the actions of one individual or single organisation and we would all do well to remember that (including myself)!

Related link:
Travelling the world, meeting startups: What We learned by Hermione Way for The Next Web

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