Editor’s note: Joan Siefert Rose is CEO and president of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development.
DURHAM, N.C. – Economic developers, city and state officials and others continue to see entrepreneurship as one of the best ways to help revitalize downtowns, attract smart young people, and grow the industries of the future. They aren’t wrong.
In the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, we’ve seen first-hand how smart decisions, visionary leaders and a focus on areas of strength have contributed to one of the fastest-growing areas for startups in the country.
My organization, the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, regularly fields calls from other cities and regions asking for the magic, step-by-step plan they can use to re-create the successful community they see in the Triangle.
Here are our top answers on what to do, and what not to do, to promote a vibrant entrepreneurial culture:
- There is no step-by-step, out-of-the-box plan that fits every community. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has examined startup communities and concluded that too many fall into the category of“monoculture” – a one-size-fits-all approach that tries to replicate successes that occurred elsewhere. These hubs ultimately will stall or fail because they are not focused on the people and resources unique to a particular city or region.
- Real estate is important, but only as a piece of the overall puzzle.It is not enough to designate an underused building – perhaps a vacant warehouse – as the new center of a startup community, and then wait for magic to happen. Without the programs and support structure to encourage and empower entrepreneurs that warehouse will remain vacant. Equally significant is understanding how entrepreneurs work. My favorite example of this is a city setting aside downtown office space for entrepreneurs that was only open 9-to-5 during the workweek. Needless to say it didn’t attract many serious people building scalable companies.
- Focus on what’s working, focus on what you’re good at, and encourage more of it. The Triangle has a strong and growing agriculture-technology sector. Just this week a group of investorsannounced an $11.5 million program called the “AgTech Accelerator,” which will seek to foster more agtech entrepreneurs. Investors includedSyngenta and Bayer, Alexandria Real Estate’s venture arm, North Carolina investors and others. These entities understand there is a foundation for agtech in the Research Triangle and see an opportunity to build on it.
- Engage your community’s entrepreneurial leaders. If you look around at many meet-and-greet happy hours in startup spaces, you’ll find few founders of really successful companies hanging out. That’s probably because they’re busy at work. Many successful founders in the Triangle, like Scot Wingo of ChannelAdvisor and Joe Colopy of Bronto Software – both e-commerce companies – are generous with their time and willing to meet with entrepreneurs, with the right introduction. Finding a way to get the experienced founders in your community into the conversation is well worth the effort.
- Avoid event overload. Bringing people together is great, and absolutely necessary. But in many cities, there are so many pitch competitions, meetups, beer parties, workshops and receptions every day of the week, that the whole becomes less than the sum of its parts. From the point of view of the entrepreneur, it can be overwhelming and time-consuming to pick the right entry point into the network.
- Don’t assume that everyone speaks your language. My own experience in entering the entrepreneurship space 7 years ago was of joining a world where people spoke in code about things, like valuations and intellectual property, and made references to people, often prominent venture capitalists, whom I didn’t know. A newbie can feel stupid asking questions, so try to provide a little context when you spot a new face.
- Look forward, not backward. Be prepared for change, much of which will be out of your control. If the public markets tank, you may see a sharp drop in private capital invested in your companies. Help them learn to conserve cash until things change again. Your largest employer may announce layoffs. Now is the time to approach those industry vets to advise young companies, who can benefit from their expertise.
These guidelines will help get just about anyone started on the right track, but one of the most important things commonly overlooked is the transition from startup to scaleup. If you’re lucky enough to foster some success in your community, you need to be thinking about the next phase of growth. Startups grow out of co-working spaces, companies need outside capital to scale – what can you and your community do to support these scale-ups? Without those startups that are able to grow, exit, and throw-off talent and founders eager to start something else an entrepreneurial hub cannot be sustainable in the long term. Think like an entrepreneur: always be building for what’s next.
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