Earlier this year I visited the startup communities in Denver, Chicago, Detroit, Miami and Atlanta as part of Comcast NBCUniversal’s Tomorrow Tour. Conceived in collaboration with Technical.ly, the Tomorrow Tour was a multi–city event tour, reporting series and toolkit. The tour touched over 1,000 founders (and likely many more through the blogs, tweets and online resources in the toolkit). The Tomorrow Tour tapped into the entrepreneurial energy that has swept the country (and globe) as well as trends of urbanism, civic pride and new business models (think Uber, Lyft, Airbnb), to uncover the commonalities, shared pain points and distinctions between the cities it visited.
A commonality (and the most important one): successful startup ecosystems are first and foremost about the entrepreneurs.
I relived my city-hopping on the Tomorrow Tour when I was invited this week (again by Comcast) to come to Jacksonville for the Tech Coast Conference. Jacksonville is one of those quiet tech hubs, it’s story not yet defined. It’s an IT center with hospitals and healthcare facilities plus insurance companies dominating the economic development. Then there’s a naval base. And an ambitious aspiration to lead in cyber security. Its tech community is growing, and the community is feeling the excitement along with the early pains of growing.
In my brief opening remarks to the 950 or so attendees I shared the most common “problems” heard on the 6-stops of the Tomorrow Tour (the tour started in Philadelphia):
Every startup ecosystem has a complaint about money, and it is never about having too much. There is always a need for more: more local seed stage or Series A investors; or more ideas on how to bring the established local money to the table as angel investors or ways to pitch the locally based Fortune 500 companies for business.
The need for government to make it easier, faster, more transparent for startups who are trying to get things done was echoed in every city. Along the same lines, traffic and public transit were a big pain point (especially in Atlanta and Detroit). When traffic is snarled and public bus system unreliable, innovators are not able to interact by attending each others meetups or events and communities cannot develop the strong, collaborative relationships they need to grow.
As for story, at each stop, some brave entrepreneur would speak up to say, “we need to tell our own story”. Each city has a unique story that does not need to be delivered in a low-key, embarrassed or comparative way. And there is absolutely no need to say, “we’re the next Silicon Valley” or keep what’s happening under wraps. When it comes to innovation, being the best-kept tech secret is not a compliment. On the stage at Tech Coast Conference I challenged the audience to make Jacksonville the best Jacksonville. To take control of the narrative about what Jacksonville is and what it is creating.
Later in a packed breakout session, I explored these themes further with the group (kudos to the four employees from the City of Jacksonville who attended my session to take it on the chin) and delved into the need for an unwavering commitment to collaboration. No one makes it on their own, it takes a community, rising tide…. I also stressed the need to focus on the ecosystem partners who are already committed to the city. This is a lesson brought home for me in Detroit, my third stop on the Tomorrow Tour.
Detroit’s entrepreneurs have been kicked to the curb by the recession, housing crisis and Detroit’s bankruptcy, yet they remain committed to the city. Civic pride and devotion at its finest, tinged with a long memory of who has been there with them in the rebuilding trenches and who is just now showing up to the startup party.
One of my networking pieces of networking guidance is always “start with who you know”. It applies equally to individuals as to ecosystems. When faced with a challenge or a desire to pursue an opportunity, we frequently turn our networking focus outward. Who is the “new” connection that can help us? What new network will make the idea a reality? When really, the answer lies in turning to who is already with us.
In growing Jacksonville’s tech and innovation community, my strong advice was to look around at the stakeholders who are already in the community. They’ve already demonstrated a commitment to Jacksonville as a “good place to do business” but they’ve also shown more. And that “more” (volunteer hours, civic contributions, etc.) is the fiber that strengthens and gives vibrancy to the growth of an ecosystem.