Last week, I was invited to speak at develop.Idaho 2011, the first annual gathering for Boise’s software community. From my perspective, the event was terrific as these things go. I saw lots of old friends and I was very encouraged by how many new (and younger!) faces I saw as 250 people showed up for this inaugural gathering hosted by the Idaho Technology Council. The organizers even got Frank Gruber to bring his nationally renowned Tech Cocktail to town for it. Judging by my straw poll at the beginning of my talk, more than half of the attendees were either software developers or students. Now that’s an audience I can get excited about.
While the organizers asked me to speak about “how to attract VC dollars”, I chose instead to focus my talk on how we can create a more sustainable ecosystem for startups to thrive in Boise. How can you attract VC dollars? That’s easy, cultivate lots of great startups. I’ve long believed that money sloshes around the globe looking for the best returns and usually finds what it’s looking for. Great ideas rarely go unfunded. World-class mountain biking, skiing, kyaking and fly-fishing all easily accessible from downtown? Trust me, I’m a VC. I guarantee that if we foster an environment for startups to thrive, they’ll have to start adding more flights to BOI to accommodate the venture capitalists that want to invest here.
How to create an environment for startups to thrive in is a bit more difficult than attracting capital to them, but nonetheless completely attainable. I shared in my talk how in just ten short years, Boulder, Colorado has transformed itself from a town very similar to Boise, into what is arguably the hottest startup town in America through a passionate and genuine sense of community along with a commitment from its members to mentoring its young entrepreneurs. Much of that can be traced back to the leadership and vision of my close pals Brad Feld and David Cohen who founded Techstars and inspired the startup community to get more involved in its own success.
My partners and I have been investing in Boulder startups for almost a decade and we’ve had a front row seat to its remarkable growth. I outlined concrete steps we can take to emulate Boulder’s success, starting with getting more startups to move downtown to the 8th street / Bodo area (remarkably similar to Pearl Street in Boulder). Bob Lokken and I had dinner with Mayor Bieter and the chair of the CCDC last year and implored them to emulate the startup friendly environment on Pearl Street in Boulder to create “Startup Alley” between Bannock & Bodo on 8th street to make this part of their downtown strategy. I also shared some data outlining the remarkably fast growth of BSU’s world class material science department thanks to a generous $2M gift from the Micron Foundation in 2004 and how we could significantly fill the (gaping) void of quality software engineers (relative to the demand) in Boise by making a similar investment in BSU’s computer science department.
Finally, I outlined how everyone in the room could get much more involved in creating a vibrant startup community and implored ways to be a mentor, though you might not think of yourself as one. I shared anecdotes about the remarkable effect community involvement has had on Boulder’s startups and pointed out how folks like Jonathon Fishman (Tire Swing project, Cohort Series), Ryan Woodings (TechBoise & now co-founder of Boise Open Coffee Club with me) and J.D. Mullin (C.S. Series) are quietly doing similar things in Boise.
Despite the provocative nature of my talk (ok, I let my inner New Yorker out a few times), the feedback has been tremendous. I’ve received many tweets, emails and calls about how folks were inspired by my talk and how they’re going to get more involved.
That’s terrific. I’m thrilled that people are inspired. It’s also just words, which means for now, it’s just bullshit. It’s super easy to bang out 140 characters about how you’re fired up and blah blah blah. It’s a lot harder to look inside yourself and commit to figure out to get involved. Sorry for being cynical but I’ve seen this cycle before. Someone gives a great talk and everyone gets fired up. A few weeks later it’s back to status quo. I responded to many who reached out to me by asking them how they’re going to get involved. To my delight, David Poole and Chris Etcheverry replied to me with these two tweets (respectively) which absolutely made my day!
I’d love to hear from anyone and everyone who are going to get more involved in our collective efforts and how they’re going to do it. I’d be happy to blog about it if you reach out to me. I’m aware of a relatively small group of people (including my partners Phil, Glenn and George) who regularly contribute a great deal of their time behind the scenes by working with first-time entrepreneurs and students in a variety of ways. We need more. As I demonstrated in my talk, Boise’s lost a lot of high paying jobs over the last decade that aren’t coming back. It’s up to the next wave of young, smart and talented entrepreneurs to fill the gap and it’s up to us to create a healthy environment for them to succeed.
So Boise, I’ve got one question for you: Now what?