Monday, October 15, 2012


A few years ago, I was asked by the then Vice Chancellor of Cardiff University to come up with a business plan for a new entrepreneurship centre.

Unfortunately, he decided not to invest in such a development at that time, which was a great shame given the latent entrepreneurial potential that exists within Wales’ best university and, more importantly, the impact it could have on the economy of the capital city.

Nevertheless, the exercise did give me the opportunity to undertake some detailed research into what was happening around the World in terms of enterprise development and benchmark Cardiff against the best globally.

Naturally, programmes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University were identified as world class, along with the courses offered at the most entrepreneurial higher education institution in the USA, namely Babson College.

But the biggest surprise, at least at that time, was the growing reputation of the University of Colorado in Boulder as a driver of entrepreneurship.

Nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, this town of just 100,000 people seems the most unlikely place for an entrepreneurial revolution and yet during the last few years, it has become recognised as one of the most enterprising places not only in the USA, but in the World.

And a major driver in supporting new start-ups was the university through initiatives such as the Cleantech New Venture Challenge, which offers a $100,000 prize annually for the most innovative green idea that can be turned into a successful businesses.

Indeed, the whole state of Colorado now sells the message that is it is “entrepreneurial by nature” and, as a result, has not only becoming one of the most popular centres for new businesses but is also, because of this reputation, attracting firms to relocate to the state. But how does a small city is the middle of America turn itself into a rival for established hotspots such as Silicon Valley?

Some of the possible answers to that question is explained within an excellent new book by Brad Feld, a start-up founder, blogger and venture capitalist from Boulder.

“Start-Up Communities” is the story of how entrepreneurs within his community have created a new type of ecosystem where they, and not large companies or government, are driving the local economic agenda through a whole range of projects.

And, as Feld explains in the wonderful sketchbook below from the Kauffman Institute, there are essentially four lessons to be learnt from Boulder’s experiences.

First of all, there are two types of people within entrepreneurial communities namely leaders (entrepreneurs) and feeders (people who support startups, such as government agencies, funders, service providers and universities). However, any new developments must be led by entrepreneurs and supported by the other actors within the local business community who feed into the system.

Secondly, a successful entrepreneurial community cannot be built overnight and there must be a long view and commitment to enabling this to happen over a period of at least twenty years embracing, over time, both success and failure.

Thirdly, there must be an environment of inclusivity where anyone with an interest in entrepreneurship is welcome to contribute to the process.

And finally, there must be various substantive activities that engage the entire business community to help start ups to develop. These include the Boulder Open Coffee Club, which brings together a group of people who are interested in entrepreneurship and technology to have coffee every other week before work and to discuss issues related to start-ups. And Startup Weekend, which started in Boulder to bring together a group of developers, business managers, start-up supporters, marketing gurus and graphic artists to create new companies and is now replicated in cities around the world.

Of course, another key driver in cementing the reputation of the city as a location for technology start-ups has been Techstars, co-founded by Feld. I would argue that it is probably the most successful start-up accelerator programme in the World, having funded eighty seven companies that have received $194 million of investment and created 841 jobs.

Clearly, this entrepreneurial ecosystem not only helps develop new businesses but, more importantly, is a key economic influencer on the economy of the whole city. Indeed, Feld’s description of an entrepreneur-led cluster of start-ups is in contrast to the many examples of top down government-managed programmes to support economic development found elsewhere.

In the book, he notes that whilst entrepreneurs work in a bottom-up networked world, governments remain ensconced in a command and control culture. Whilst governments take time to implement new ideas, entrepreneurs want immediate action.

And certainly, rather than waiting for government to act, entrepreneurs like Brad Feld have taken the initiative to turn this sleepy Rocky Mountains city into an entrepreneurial powerhouse that is the envy of much larger metropolitan areas around the World.

But to me, the most important statement from the book is about how the entrepreneurs of Boulder are proud of their achievements and see themselves as cheerleaders for the success of their businesses and the city.

As Feld notes “These cheerleaders are both the leaders and the feeders as everyone in the community should be proud of what they are doing and shout it from the rooftops. This cheerleading can be via a community website…or it can be regular, steady blogging, writing and talking that we have in Boulder by the individual leaders and feeders. Regardless – be proud of what you are doing in your community, and make noise about it to the world.”

That is certainly a key message for entrepreneurs in Wales and if cities like Cardiff and Swansea are to emulate the success of a small city like Boulder, then celebrating entrepreneurship wouldn’t be a bad place to start.