What's a startup community?

By: James Bance

If you search “Startup Community” on Google, the search results will direct you to Brad Feld's work. Brad is an entrepreneur guru, venture capitalist and author from Boulder, Colorado. Over the last 10 years, the term Startup Community has become synonymous with places like the Silicon Valley, Austin, Seattle and Boulder. More recently, startup communities have been popping up all over the U.S., thanks in part to the good work of folks like Brad Feld, David Cohen, Steve Case and many others.

Since the United States was first settled the entrepreneurial spirit has been part of what it means to be American. I’m not going to get into a history lesson here, but one could argue that the US has been one big startup community since the day we broke away from the British Empire. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs in history got together on July 4, 1776 and took action; since then the entire world has never been the same.

So what does a startup community look like today? You don’t have to go far to find one. Drive down the mountain to Durham and you’ll find one of the most vibrant startup communities in the country, centered around facilities like the The American Underground. The Underground provides a place for entrepreneurs to get their companies up and running. It’s a small network of startup companies housed in a single physical location which fosters collaboration. Each startup feeds off each others ideas, expertise and enthusiasm, a byproduct of co-housing companies in one space. For a reasonable fee, there’s space to work, infrastructure to run businesses and mentorship from seasoned entrepreneurs that can accelerate growth. The Underground is just one piece of the startup community eco-system in Durham.

The cornerstone to a vibrant startup community in any city is a group of active and engaged entrepreneurs driving innovation and creating businesses. But they can’t do it alone. They need to be supported by a strong network of service providers including investors, CPAs, attorneys, universities and sometimes government. In Brad Feld’s book, Startup Communities, he asserts that there are 4 basic principles of a thriving startup community: (I’m not going to unpack each one of these points in depth, but if you want to dig in more right now, check out Brad’s blog)

  1. The community must be led by the entrepreneurs. The community can’t be led by the service providers, or the “feeders” as he describes them. Entrepreneurs naturally operate in a network, which is the best structure for a thriving startup community. Feeders, typically, operate in a hierarchy which is counterproductive to the growth of a startup community.

  2. The members of the community must have a long-term vision - typically 20 years, or more. And this commitment resets everyday. Basically, it takes a long time to realize the benefits so you better be in for the long haul.

  3. The community should be inclusive of anyone that wants to participate. Those that cause friction, or are energy vampires will be naturally “selected out”, kind of like a T-cell removing a pathogen from the body.

  4. The creation of activities and meetings that engage the entire “entrepreneurial stack.” Check out our events page to see what activities are available in the High Country.

One of the most important themes that weaves throughout his book is “give before you get.” As a person who is most happy when serving others, this is one critical aspect of a startup community that I feel is imperative to success. If the members of a community with the good ideas, the capital and the connections take a protectionist stance, or wall themselves off because they “want it all to themselves”, the community can’t grow. It’s that simple. The community needs to work together, collaborate and develop a sense of transparency that may not feel comfortable right away. I’m not talking about sharing every trade secret and giving away intellectual property. That’s just dumb. What I am suggesting is that we do the things that strong communities have done for thousands of years - seek opportunities to help each other - don’t just wait on the sidelines hoping someone will come to you looking for the help they need. Take action.

If you’re reading this right now, and are interested in starting a company here in Watauga County, then here’s a few practical things you can do right now to get started:

  1. Get out and meet as many people as you can. Look for those that are in technology and exhibit the qualities of entrepreneurs. The key is “get out” - don’t hide behind a computer, or a phone. You need to meet people face to face. And if you don’t already know 3, or 4 entrepreneurs, ask the people you do know, “Who should I talk to?”

  2. Get on Linkedin and do a keyword search for people in the Boone and Blowing Rock area. Use some of these terms in your search: high tech, technology, developer, software, coder, entrepreneur, mobile programmer, investor or founder.

  3. Contact the Ascent Business Network. They have classes on things like writing business plans, how to organize and how to manage a P&L. They’re here to help get people pointed in the right direction.

  4. Attend one of our events and get plugged in to our work. When you come, of course tell people about what you’re working on, but make sure you’re asking others, “How can I help?” If you give first, you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding in your endeavor because your success, suddenly becomes the community’s success. And that’s the real power of the startup community.

We’re all working towards different personal goals in business, but when we step back and look at the aggregation of each of our successes, all of a sudden we move from a bunch of silos of knowledge and incremental gains, to a place where huge gains are possible because of the network effect of the startup community. That is what will lead to more jobs (and higher paying ones), more investment opportunities, more excitement about our careers and a stronger, more connected community.