Let it be.
That’s pretty simplistic advice coming from one of the most respected tech venture capitalists in the world, but that’s the gist of the zen-like message Brad Feld delivered to a gathering of about 100 local startup community leaders at the Burroughes Building on Tuesday. The co-founder of Foundry Group and an early investor in a number of successful tech ventures like Zynga, SendGrid, Urban Airship and Cheezburger Network, was on hand to share his philosophy behind building successful startup communities and promote his new book – appropriately titled Startup Communities - with prominent members of Toronto’s burgeoning tech scene. At an intimate invite-only event presented by local accelerator Extreme Startups, Feld urged attendants to reject the idea that a community needs to be a certain way or emulate another city for it to work. Building a successful startup community means embracing what makes Toronto successful, encouraging inclusive and active engagement and embodying the spirit of “give before you get.”
He takes his thesis from his experience of moving to Boulder, Colorado in 1995 despite not knowing anybody there (“My wife was moving there and I was welcome to join her.”) and seeing it develop the highest entrepreneurial density in the world thanks to seeds planted in the 1970s. The key to the success of Boulder’s startup community has been an inclusive community lead by entrepreneurs with a long-term vision and commitment that transcends macro economic cycles. Governments run on four year cycles. Universities run on one and seven year cycles (school year and tenure track). Startup communities must run on 20 year generational cycles, but also constantly renew their forward looking vision. “I moved to Boulder 17 years ago, but I’m not in year 17 of a 20 year cycle. I’m in year 17 of a 37 year cycle. In five years I’ll be in year 22 of a 42 year cycle.”
A startup community will stagnate if the terms are being dictated from on high, says Feld. Patriarchs – established local leaders – may try to control a startup scene with regulations or cronyism, but if you have an “old white guy problem,” Feld says the best advice is to ignore them. Don’t deliberately provoke them, don’t kiss their ass, just go about your business and eventually some of them will come onside. He favours the “glorious mess” of a network as opposed to a stifling hierarchy because, in general, telling others what to do just does not work. Feld’s model is centered on open and active engagement where anybody can be a mentor and relationships develop naturally. It’s a model that he posits can work anywhere.
Toronto’s tech scene is vibrant and eager to put itself on the map, something made clear from the audience’s questions about “taking the next step” and “making a mark.” Though he admits he doesn’t feel like he knows the city well, Feld likes what he sees in Toronto and Canada thanks to the “raw intellectual horsepower” and technical expertise here, and what he calls our “general resourcefulness.” What he has noticed about Canadian entrepreneurs, along with their counterparts in the Midwest United States, is their tendency to be apologetic and “lead with your chin.” Following Feld’s philosophy means taking what you may perceive to be weaknesses and look at them positively.
During a discussion about the roles of advisers versus mentors (paid advice versus free help) and leaders versus feeders (entrepreneurs versus service providers, governments and institutions), a participant started his question by saying, “I’m one of those ‘evil consultants’…” but before he could get any further Feld stopped him. “That’s what I’m talking about. Consultants aren’t evil, nobody said that. I know you’re being self-deprecating but the language matters. It can develop a sense of non-inclusiveness.”
Sunil Sharma, a co-managing director of Extreme Startups who helped organize the event with his co-founder Andy Yang, moved to Toronto from the more established tech scene in California because he was attracted by the intellectual horsepower that Feld also recognized. He and a few others invited Feld to address the local community because they felt there was something Toronto could learn from the Tao of Brad Feld. “In California, there was a strong spirit of community. There was a general level of satisfaction in seeing the success of others. In Toronto there’s sometimes a mentalitythat there is a limited supply of successful outcomes.” That’s something that Sharma and Feld both say is not true.
If we’re to take Feld’s message to heart, for Toronto’s startup community to blossom into the next stage of its evolution, its members should take a deep breath, focus their strengths, accept their limitations and seek transcendence of entrepreneurial moksha. Namaste.
(Full disclosure: Extreme Startups and Toronto Standard are both located on the third floor of the Burroughes Building but are otherwise unaffiliated.)
Original link: http://www.torontostandard.com/technology/brad-feld-on-building-a-startup-community