Denver’s Lessons for Helping Evolving Startup Communities “Suck Less”

10/15/13Follow @bfeld

Editor’s Note: At a panel at Denver Startup Week discussing what lessons could be learned from the event, Foundry Group managing director and “Startup Communities” author Brad Feld said local entrepreneurs and community leaders should understand “what Denver sucks at.” That comment inspired this e-mail Q-and-A, which is relevant to anyone trying to build a startup community.

Before I dive into the questions, I think it’s useful context to explain origin of “We Suck Less” as a mantra. In my first company, Feld Technologies, we had a series of slogans over the years (1987 – 1993). We were a software consulting company at the time that building PC-based network business solutions was extremely difficult. The technology—both hardware and software—was underpowered, complex, and fragile. Novell was the dominant networking technology; dBase and Paradox were the popular database technologies. Real software developers were working on the software and tools; the business systems were being built largely by business consultants who had taught themselves how to program in these rudimentary database technologies or other fourth-generation programming languages.

At Feld Technologies, all of our developers were computer science grads from MIT, Brown, and BU. They were all incredibly smart and talented. We taught them the business side of things. Unlike most of our local competitors in Boston, we were a team of computer scientists (except for me) attacking business applications.

At some point we realized we were often the second or third consulting firm that had been hired. Our clients had previously spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on previous consultants who were ineffective and subsequently were left with failed projects. Our clients were unhappy, frustrated, and often organizationally stressed. Sometimes they claimed to have no budget left.

At some point we came up with our defining slogan: “We suck less.” We explained that we couldn’t reverse the past—that their previous consulting firm had sucked. The problem was still an incredibly difficult one to solve, and we were better at solving it than their previous consulting firm. What they were trying to do was extremely hard, and our goal was to “suck less.”

It’s this frame of reference that I bring to answering the questions “What Denver Sucks At.” None of this stuff is easy. Boulder sucks at plenty of things. Every startup community can improve from wherever it is. If you accept the second principle of the Boulder Thesis—that it’s a long-term game—you are always looking forward at least 20 years from today. Getting wrapped up in “we are the best” or “we are excelling” is a mistake, leads to hubris, and a giant stall. Ultimately, all of our jobs as a startup community are to “suck less.”

1. Before we get to what Denver sucks at, what are two or three things Denver is good at? Why are those things important?

It has been remarkable to see—and be the beneficiary of—an amazing set of entrepreneurial leaders in Denver. I talk about the need for a critical mass of entrepreneurial leaders driving the startup community—Denver now has an overwhelming number of them who are deeply engaged in what is going on.

Layer on top of that entrepreneurial density, which is extremely difficult in a big and spread out city like Denver, and you have a magic combination for rapid progress. The creation of Galvanize as a mega-coworking space was one powerful step here and resulted in the formation of a “startup neighborhood” … Next Page »

Brad is a venture capitalist, mentor to startups and entrepreneurs everywhere and author of Startup Communities and Startup Life. Brad is a co-founder and managing director of the Foundry Group and a co-founder of Techstars. Follow @bfeld

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