Brad Feld of the Foundry Group discusses building startup communities with an audience in Portland, Maine, as part of Maine Startup and Create Week.

Startup guru Brad Feld discusses building startup communities with an audience in Portland during Maine Startup and Create Week. Photo by Whit Richardson.

One of the main goals of Maine Startup and Create Week is to help foster and grow Maine’s startup community. That is, of course, the crux of everything.

Startups are new businesses, albeit ones that carry a sexier label, and without new businesses, Maine’s economy would crumble. The people who start those businesses are more likely to do so in a community that actively fosters and supports entrepreneurship.

Many of the sessions in the first two days of Maine Startup and Create Week touched on this issue, but the highlight for many people was a Tuesday afternoon talk by Brad Feld, a nationally recognized speaker on building startup communities and a venture capitalist with the Foundry Group in Boulder, Colo.

If you missed that session, here’s a recap of Feld’s talk. I set out to incorporate in this post insight from some of the other panels about building startup communities, but there was so much good stuff from Feld that I’ll need to follow up with another post in order to do that.

Feld is the author of Startup Communities, a guide to creating entrepreneurial ecosystems. He joined the conference remotely from Homer, Alaska, where he and his wife are living for several weeks while he completes his next book, Startup Opportunities.

Feld is well known for being part of the crowd that has grown Boulder’s startup community into a nationally recognized hub of entrepreneurship, but he lived in Boston for 12 years before that and spent “a decent amount of vacation time in Maine.”

He breaks the startup community down to what he calls “leaders” and “feeders,” the former being entrepreneurs and the latter being any organization or person who provides inputs into the entrepreneurial community, such as academia, investors, government, etc. Both groups are important, but it’s essential that any effort to build a startup community requires the leaders be entrepreneurs, he said. Hierarchical systems, as the feeders tend to be, often work on cycles (election cycles, academic years, etc.) and so tend not to be very good at sticking with a long-term strategy, which is necessary for building a startup community, Feld said.

Those are two of the four core principles for building a startup community Feld laid out for the audience:

  • The leaders have to be entrepreneurs
  • Take a long-term view, at least 20 years
  • Approach everything from a perspective of inclusivity in order to get fresh blood into the system
  • Have activities that allow everyone to interact with the community on a continual basis

The third principle — inclusivity — became a constant thread throughout the discussion. Feld called it “incredibly powerful.” It means encouraging everyone to take part in building a startup community. It means bringing together the feeders and the leaders; the high-growth, scalable tech startups in the Silicon Valley mold and the locally-focused Main Street businesses; the entrepreneurs in Portland and entrepreneurs from Bangor; the urban startups and the rural startups. They’re all important to the larger goal of developing the state’s capacity to and culture of supporting entrepreneurs, he said.

“If the ethos and attitude is inclusive, you’ll start to build things very magically,” he said.

Asked what the fifth principle would be if he had to choose one, Feld said it would be the importance of keeping engaged those companies that are beyond the startup phase, but still growing. He said he’ll tackle that topic in a sequel he’s working on with the original title, Startup Communities 2. Another aspect he’ll stress in that future book is the importance of feeders. He regretted not doing a good job in his first book of defending the importance of feeders, which often get a bad rap because some see them as old-guard, legacy organizations. Boulder has grown, he said, by incorporating feeders, not ignoring them.

Don Gooding, director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, which fits Feld’s definition of a feeder, asked how a community should track its progress while taking the 20-year view.

Feld had a simple answer: “Don’t worry about it.”

The need for metrics separates leaders and feeders, Feld said. Feeder organizations need metrics to justify the use of resources toward an effort, while leaders plow ahead regardless of the ups and downs a community will face. That’s one of the reasons the leaders need to be entrepreneurs and not feeder organizations. Startup communities don’t grow in consistent or steady ways, he said. They ebb and flow as they’re influenced by local and macro phenomena, he said.

While the recent recession sent many economies into a tailspin, Boulder’s startup community was “off the charts,” Feld said. Some of the Bay Area’s most successful startups right now were founded during the recession. It’s a very “trendy time” to be an entrepreneur, which is good, but Feld warned that it will need to correct itself and being an entrepreneur will go out of vogue. That’s why entrepreneurial leaders are needed to consistently build the community regardless of the local or macro trends that may thwart traditional methods to track a community’s progress.

And avoid measuring your community against other startup communities, Feld said, echoing a sentiment shared by many speakers during the first two days. He said you’re trying to be what’s unique to your city or state.

“And in context of that recognition, you’ll have lots of up ands and downs,” he said. “And in the context of entrepreneurship, failure teaches you more than success. You should celebrate and embrace failure and build and improve on it.”

Following Feld’s talk, a group of on-the-ground community organizers from San Francisco; Boulder; Las Vegas; Fargo, N.D.; New Orleans and Portland shared the experiences and lessons they’ve gathered while building their startup communities. There’s too much good stuff in that panel that  I don’t want buried at the end of this one, so look out for a future post recapping the knowledge those speakers dropped on the audience.

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