Denver’s Lessons for Helping Evolving Startup Communities “Suck Less”
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” within the Denver startup community that was unambiguously concentrated.
Finally, the inclusiveness of the startup community in Denver is awesome and as someone who now comes to Denver several times a month, either for board meetings or events, I always feel welcome, am easily engaged, and can quickly get involved in whatever is interesting to me.
2. So what are the things that Denver sucks at, and why does it matter if Denver sucks at them?
In general, it doesn’t matter if startup communities suck at specific things. This is a long-term game, lots of things won’t work and will fail, others will be missed, and yet others will be ignored. This is fine—there is no “grade,” and no one is judging. It’s an organic network that builds and develops over time, rather than a top-down hierarchy that someone can control.
In the specific case of Denver, there will be plenty of things over the next few years that are frustrating to people in and around the startup community. Fully integrating the notion of “give before you get” is really difficult, and there will be a lot of people who show up trying to “get something” before they engage.
The hierarchies often start their engagement wrong—rather than trying to be nodes on the network of the startup community, they end up trying to control from the top down. This is normal—they are hierarchies after all—but it’s critical that the startup community continues to be inclusive and try to help the members of these hierarchies understand how best to engage.
Entrepreneurial leaders will disappear from the forefront for periods of time as the needs of their businesses dominate. If you have a critical mass of leaders, this is fine, and the notion of inclusiveness applies to leaders also—let them cycle in and out. Ultimately, the measurement of “suckage” against any of these specific things don’t matter as long as you are playing a long-term game.
3. When you say Denver, what do you mean? Is it just the people who run startups? The broader business community? Political and governmental leaders?
The Denver startup community, like all startup communities, includes a wide range of people. The leaders have to be entrepreneurs; I refer to everyone else as feeders. This includes people in academia, government, big companies, venture capitalists, lawyers, accountants, and non-profits supporting entrepreneurship. Both leaders and feeder play critically important roles in the startup community—they are just different ones. The feeder organizations cannot be the leaders, although members of the feeder organizations can play a leadership role.
4. What should Denver do to stop sucking, or just suck less? Should it be a priority?
If people in the Denver startup community care about the label, they should focus on “sucking less” rather than “stop sucking.”
Feld Technologies was a very successful company. We grew steadily, were profitable every month, and sold to a public company after seven years for a reasonable amount of money and a nice success for it’s 28-year-old (me) and 31-year-old (my partner Dave Jilk) founders.
But we put more energy into “sucking less” than “being the best”, and it meant a lot more to us, the people who worked for us, and our customers. If we had talked about “stopping sucking” we would have never accomplished it; we were able to focus on “sucking less” every day, and we regularly accomplished this.
5. While “Startup Communities” might have common characteristics (like aspects of the Boulder thesis you outlined in your book), they inevitably will have different strengths and weaknesses. With that in mind, is it really a matter of a community “sucking”, or just being different?
Every startup community is unique. That’s the beauty of it. There is no grade—no one gets 100 percent on the test and then gets to stop. It’s continual change and those of us who are involved with many different startup communities are constantly learning things from all of them.
Many of these things can be applied to other startup communities; some are truly unique. All are additive, as the “global startup community” is simply a network of all of the startup communities that exist around the world. So, by focusing on continually improving in Denver, or Boulder, or Boston, or Austin, or Reykjavík, or Bangalore, or Rio, the startup community gets better everywhere.
6. An extra question, but the topic kind of demands I ask it: what does Boulder suck at? Has sucking at those things really hurt Boulder?
Boulder sucks at plenty of things. In my book “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City,” I describe two things Boulder sucks at.
The first is real estate. We’ve got a massive real estate challenge in downtown Boulder around the startup community. This is a function of a number of things, a few which are structural and others which some forward thinking entrepreneurs are working on.
The second thing Boulder sucks at is what I call “the parallel startup community problem.” Boulder has five: tech, natural foods, bio/life science, clean tech, and LOHAS [lifestyles of health and sustainability]. Some of the people in each know each other and occasionally work together, but we really suck at leveraging all the talent and skill across the five parallel startup communities.