Business Insider – Notable VC Brad Feld says tech workers scattered by COVID-19 could create new startup communities that are unique to each region

Posted on July 24, 2020

  • Techstars co-founder Brad Feld’s new book “The Startup Community Way,” a deep take on how to build a local tech community, comes out July 28.
  • Feld told Business Insider that the tech workers abandoning traditional tech enclaves like Silicon Valley in the midst of COVID-19 have the potential to create new entrepreneurial communities in the places where they settle.
  • But startups and VCs in those communities will need to avoid trying to dominate each other if they want their new tech clusters to thrive, Feld said.
  • Feld said workers should focus less on moving to a place where the best opportunities seem to be, and more on making opportunities in the places where they’d like to live.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Entrepreneur and early-stage investor Brad Feld offers advice and support to aspiring entrepreneurs in 2011. 
– Stanford eCorner/YouTube

Renowned early-stage investor Brad Feld, the cofounder of Techstars and Foundry Group, has a lot of thoughts about a lot of things.

Normally they spill over into his blog or Twitter, but occasionally he takes the time to pound out a book too. “The Startup Community Way: Evolving an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem,” co-written with researcher Ian Hathaway, is due out on July 28. The dense tome takes on how to build startup communities at a moment when COVID 19 is scattering tech workers across the U.S.

Could it be that a pandemic will provide the conditions for a bevy of thriving tech clusters throughout the United States — something that many smaller city governments have labored to create, and many tech workers have yearned for as they struggled with astronomical rents and choking traffic in Silicon Valley and other major tech hubs? If so, Feld is offering a how-to manual.

Feld, who also co-authored a sort of VC investment bible called “Venture Deals,” chatted with Business Insider about his new book and the potential for fresh tech scenes to spring up across the  country. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To start off, what was the impetus for the new book?

I wrote in 2012 a book called “Startup Communities.” In 2010, coming out of the financial crisis, people were still saying if you want to start a company, you’ve got to go to the Bay Area. And I’ve always thought that was nonsense. I’ve lived in Boulder since ’95, I lived in Boston before that. I’ve never lived in the Bay Area. And I ended up coming up with this construct that’s now widely known around the world as a “startup community.” In 2017, a friend of mine named Ian Hathaway said, “Why don’t we write a sequel?” 

In your book, you emphasize that it’s important to avoid top-down control from governments and other institutions, and instead provide bottom-up support. What kinds of support are needed right now as startup communities struggle with COVID-19?

In Colorado, at the very beginning of the COVID crisis, the governor created a council called the Economic Council on Stabilization Growth. I headed up the committee on businesses of under 500 people. So that captured a lot of entrepreneurial businesses but also small local businesses, all the nonprofits throughout the state, etc… and so in Colorado I would say we had a very inclusive government in that thought process, versus other states who are basically doing things that they think are the right things to do without necessarily really deeply engaging with who it’s going to affect. And so, you know, they end up doing things based on whoever’s lobbying, whoever’s shouting the loudest, whoever has relationships. 

Speaking of these people scattering around, do you see the potential for new startup communities springing up as techies spread out across the country?

Yes, absolutely. I have a deeply-held belief that every city with at least 100,000 people needs to have a robust and growing startup community for the long-term health and success of that city. And then in Colorado, the idea of a rural startup community, or non-urban startup community, becomes important…  So the Aspen example would be in Colorado, if you know Colorado well, but if you do a circle with a radius of about 50 miles around Aspen, you capture towns like Basalt, Carbondale… and you probably end up with about 50,000, maybe 75,000 people. And so instead of the Aspen startup community, what’s developed here is the Roaring Forks startup community. Instead of viewing it as a zero sum game between these different cities, they’re collaborating to get critical mass… All of a sudden, there’s lots of people who might live in New York and say, “you know what? I really want to live in Carbondale, Colorado. I love it, I’ve got little kids, I want to be in the mountains. And I realize that I don’t have to be in New York City anymore.”

I thought it was interesting in your book when you said it’s important for individual actors to avoid dominating startup communities. Do you have examples of where that’s played out?

Austin has grown into a vibrant startup community over a long period of time, but there was a period of time when you said “Austin,” people said “Michael Dell of Dell Computers,” right? There was a period of time when somebody said “Seattle,” the only thing anybody thought about was Microsoft. For many years, whenever a company was trying to raise money in Colorado, I would get an email saying “Brad, is Foundry investing in this company?” And we’d have to explain over and over again that we’re not trying to invest in all the great companies in Colorado, we’re trying to invest in companies that hit the themes we invest in… I think the unhealthiest thing possible for Boulder would be if I was a gatekeeper for everything that was going on.

You feel like you would have stifled creativity because everything would have gone through your filter?

My filter, by definition, isn’t perfect. I make a lot of mistakes [laughs]. And more importantly, it chokes everything off. You want more leaders, not less leaders. If I was the leader of the leaders, it would be bad, because then I would be selecting who the leaders were.  And so instead of creating an inclusive startup community, you create a whole set of different cliques and factions that would slow down evolution and growth.

When you talk I hear less focus on the self and more on solidarity. 

I love the word “topophilia.” I learned it from John Hickenlooper, who was Colorado’s governor for eight years and is a very successful entrepreneur. He used the word, and the word means “love of place.” And as someone who loves in Boulder, Colorado, I have topophilia for Boulder, Colorado. I love this place.  My deeply held belief is that you choose the place you want to live and you build your life around it, not the other way around. And if you put that at the intersection of a startup community and you have a bunch of people who want to be in the city they’re in, making that city amazing? Being entrepreneurs, being part of the startup community, being part of whatever the aspect of that growth and development and a community is? The solidarity will come from it.