VFA at SXSW

I was on a panel at SXSW earlier this week with Mark Davis (Kohort), Marc Nager (Startup Weekend), Nick Seguin (Kauffman Foundation), Jeff Slobotski (Silicon Prairie News), and Paige Craig (BetterWorks) moderated by Shane Reiser (also of Kohort).  The topic was How to Build Entrepreneurship Communities.  Brad Feld of Techstars was meant to join us, but stayed in Boulder to attend to his wife. 

It was an interesting panel, as each of us had a different perspective.  We each directly touched different aspects of what makes an entrepreneurship community vibrant and successful: leadership, successful and aspiring entrepreneurs, media and resources.  Over the past year or so I’ve become exposed to the start-up scenes in Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas, so I had some sense of how these cities’ entrepreneur networks developed. 

A few themes arose from our discussion: 

  • Leaders often emerge by accident.  In many instances, a member of the community saw a problem (i.e., entrepreneurship is too inaccessible, no one’s talking about what’s being done in a particular region) and set out to solve it.   By so doing, they found themselves in a leadership role and a central figure in their community, though that wasn’t the original goal. 
  • The right community leaders prioritize others.  In part because they hadn’t set out to be the focus of the community, the best leaders think about how to build something independent of their own position.  Mark Davis talked about the greatest victory being that someone would come to a Columbia Venture event and not know who he was.  Lining up a successor in an organization was regarded as a crucial part of building an enduring network. 
  • Communities require lasting commitment. Mark, Marc, and Nick all commented on how communities take time and resources to coalesce.  It’s not an overnight process, but instead a multi-year endeavor that requires persistence to see results.  One signal of long-term commitment is a dedicated innovation hub, accelerator and/or co-working space, which appears in most any thriving start-up scene (RI-CIE and Betaspring in Providence, Cincytech and the Brandery in Cincinnati, Launchpad Ignition and Ideavillage in New Orleans, DVP and Bizdom in Detroit, etc.). 

Overall, the panel was well-received.  I was approached afterwards by individuals looking to build up start-up communities in Las Vegas (a VFA city), Chicago, Houston, Honolulu, Ithaca, Asheville, and other environments.  The interest level is at an all-time high. 

One point of contention that came up was that our panel was male-dominated, which could be said about the start-up scene in general.  Shane took the heat for that, but it’s really not his fault that the numbers are the way they are.  Hopefully Venture for America will be able to ease the entry of some enterprising women into start-ups and growth companies nationwide.