Brad Feld’s four ingredients for thriving startup cities

June 26, 2012

BOULDER, Colo. — One of the most resonant talks I heard at last week’s Big Boulder conference was also one of the shortest. In about twenty minutes, Brad Feld, who is without exaggeration the godfather to the Boulder startup community, explained exactly why it is that Boulder feels like a town on the verge, and why it’s teeming with startups. A lot of it has to do with Feld himself.

It’s not just that Feld is a co-founder of Techstars, the nationwide startup incubator that got its start in Boulder, or that the college kids — and lately, mid to late twenties startup veterans — flock to Boulder in hopes of getting a few minutes of his time to discuss their ideas. It’s not just that Feld’s Foundry Group scored big with an exit on Zynga, though that credibility certainly helps. And it’s not just that he picked Boulder as some magical perfect place to be a startup Mecca. In fact when I asked him why he moved there from Boston, he said, laughingly, it was because, “my wife told me she was moving to Boulder.” He figured he had better go along.

“Happy warrior” is usually a phrase reserved for politicians on futile crusades, but the four principles that Feld talked about that make Boulder a burgeoning startup locale are ones that he seems to embody, not just talk about. And as to my earlier post, wondering where and whether Boulder needed a billion dollar startup (or founder) to justify itself, Feld more or less shrugged it off. If that outcome is a natural result of the principles Feld sees as key to keeping Boulder a great place to found a company, then great. If it’s not, I get the sense no one, he least of all, would mind very much.

Brad Feld’s four ingredients for thriving startup cities:

1. The startup community has to be led by entrepreneurs.

Everyone who’s not an entrepreneur, says Feld, “is a feeder.” Feeders can be useful, indeed even essential. Lawyers, bankers, shared workspace providers, venture capitalists, business services, city hall, even incubators, are all essential components. But if one of those groups get into the position of calling the shots on what the community should be, Feld thinks it won’t work.

2. Take a very long term view of success; a twenty year view at least.

If you took a look at a decade-long slice of Silicon Valley, and you took the the period from, say, 1992-2002, you’d have to assume that the promise of technology was a huge bust. But if you encapsulate the next decade, you’d get a better picture of how out of the ashes of the dot-com bubble bust, a new and perhaps more resilient approach to tech startups came about. It’s foolish, then, to assume that any startup city is going to have its ecosystem all figured out in a relatively short period of time.

3. Be inclusive.

Inclusive, says Feld, of anyone who wants to engage in the startup community in any way. And don’t try to box them into a hierarchical structure, where their activities are controlled by the “leaders” of the community. Assume good intent, and try to have everyone “lean in” to the work at hand. Though Feld didn’t say this in his talk, I got the sense behind the idea was a simple theory of the wisdom of the crowds. When people think up good programs or activities, they naturally will attract the attention of others; when they don’t, they won’t. There’s no need to bring rubber-stamping into the mix.

4. Create activities that engage the “entire stack” of entreperneurs.

Different startups are going to work on vastly different ideas. But they should still have a way to get together, almost a rallying point, to learn from and get to know each other. In Boulder, Feld thinks that rallying point is Techstars. Indeed, it’s hard to meet anyone involved in the tech community in Boulder who doesn’t have some connection to Feld or Techstars. A key distinction: Techstars, nor Feld is the “head” of the community; he and it are just the network node– the connector of connectors.

In sum: give before you get

“Until the machines take over,” Feld told the crowd, “we have a chance to change the way we work.” While these ingredients don’t sound revolutionary on their face, consider how radically they upend the traditional company structures most of us in America work for. For years now, we’ve been hearing statistics about how startups actually create more jobs in the U.S. economy than the big, established firms, which tend to shed jobs. Yet, our entire economy and government has long been organized around protecting our largest industries. It seems logical: if the U.S. is going to start creating jobs again, it’s going to have to act more like a startup. And if it’s going to act like a startup, its cities and towns — the places we live and work — might want to take a page from the boom in Boulder.

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