What I learned in Boulder
About the author: Christian Renaud is one of the guiding principals behind StartupIowa, an initiative to provide resources and visibility to Iowa entrepreneurs.
Note: Orginally published on the StartupCity Des Moines blog, Renaud has kindly given us permission to re-publish it here.
This week Tej Dhawan, Andy Stoll, Amanda Styron, and I trekked from Iowa to Boulder Colorado for the Startup America Partnership Regional Leaders Summit to represent StartupIowa. Over the two days, the SUAP team and our peer regions (states) were relentless in sharing best practices and programs that they have developed to build their entrepreneurial ecosystems.
The Summit has had me thinking deeply about where we are in the gestation of StartupIowa and the overall ecosystem within the state. Iowa has had a long history of innovation and entrepreneurship, and we are in the middle of a transition from the prior model of economic-development-driven scarcity-silos to one of open-innovation, regional sharing and the recognition that abundance comes from collaboration and not the zero-sum-game of competition.
From the beginning of this journey, I've considered it a multi-phase process for us all to fully develop in Iowa a culture of big risks, continual innovation, and the resultant successes that are the hallmark of any thriving entrepreneurial hub. I will call Phase One our 'Enlightenment' phase, and is/was as simple as getting the tribe together, meeting each other, networking, and building a sense of self as a community. The community moves from one of isolated individuals to a sense of pride of being part of the startup tribe.
We are here.
No one who opens up their Google Alerts or newspapers would question for a second that we have something special happening in Iowa right now. We are brainstorming and evolving the culture every single day. We are inventing new models of education, mentoring, incubation and acceleration, fundraising, and running startups. It’s a time of cultural experimentation that is intoxicating to watch, and even moreso to participate in creating.
It's still a little early, but I hope we've got to the point where we'll survive the inevitable setbacks when not all of the models and companies succeed, and the cycle of expansion and contraction begins to wane. All of the people currently throwing rocks from the sidelines will scream "See, this was just all hype!" but will be noticeably absent when, a week or month later, one of the survivors of the contraction is acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars or rings the bell at their initial public offering. The Gartner group, an industry analyst firm, has a hype cycle that they overlay on any new technology that separates stages of technology-adoption into four categories: the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment, and the plateau of productivity. We'll have the same trough in Iowa, when the statistics of startup success kick in (8 out of 10 fail, sorry folks!), and everyone not in the middle start to doubt that it was all real.
There are three things that became readily apparent to me in Boulder that are critical to the transition from Enlightenment to Phase Two, which I'll call the Execution phase. Now that the tribe has self-actualized, it's time to build sustainable value that are the proof and guidepoints that allow the next generation of entrepreneurs the critical archetypes and icons to model themselves after. The three things that really stood out from the time spent there were the importance of friction in the community, critical feedback, and how energy is more important than scale. Lets walk through these one-by-one.
Startups sharpen each other
The last day in Boulder, we were fortunate to participate in the NewTech Meetup, an ongoing event where startups get up in front of a lecture hall of their peers and pitch their company. They aren't just ideas and they aren’t pitching for funding, they are looking for people to rough them up a little and make them better.
Of the four companies that presented, all four were among the four best ideas I've heard in a long time. These days, on average, I hear three to four new business ideas per day between StartupCity Des Moines, the Technology Association of Iowa Pitch and Grow and TechBrew, StartupIowa and now, Plains Angels. These companies in Boulder had obviously had the holy hell beat out of them 'early and often' and had refined their ideas to the point where they could stand in any room and convince the audience that their idea was the best thing they’d ever heard.
The 'Midwestern-nice' asset of the people here works against this type of constant honing of each other. You get some friction from startups being in the same place and questioning each other, as we see at StartupCity every day, but that is most often clothed in friendship, niceties and social graces.
Yeah, that doesn't help.
You don't get stronger and better by people telling you that you are already perfect. You get stronger by being pushed by your workout buddy calling you a big wimp and that you need to double your weight and double your reps or you’re going to be the 98 pound weakling getting his/her butt kicked at the beach.
This leads me to my second point, which is that…
Someone has to be the asshole
I was initially taken aback by the directness of the feedback that people were giving each other during the Summit as well as the meetup. Brad Feld from TechStars in particular was direct, blunt and challenging. After the initial shock had worn off, it occurred to me that all of the feedback was constructive and probing, and not people trying to knock each other down a peg or two because of their own low self-esteem. This requires that someone, or preferably someones, needs to be the asshole in the room who doesn’t keep the peace, who challenges the quiet, who takes you on full-contact and makes you stronger and better.
I don't know if Iowa is ready for this yet. I'd instinctively put about half the startups I talk to in the "too early for that much honesty" bucket, as their egos are still too fragile to withstand direct feedback. At the same time, we are doing these same startups a grave disservice if we don't provide that feedback early and often. If your idea sucks, wouldn't you rather know that sooner rather than after you have sunk a year and all of your friends/family money into a sinkhole?
That means that more ideas will get cauterized earlier in the process, which will reduce the overall volume of startups and conversation as people who cannot withstand brutal honesty retreat back into their basements or cubicles or wherever. This will slow things down in that the number of people sharpening each other and helping refine ideas will not grow as quickly, but the quality of ideas will get better. I prefer quality to quantity. This dovetails nicely into my third point, which is that…
Size doesn't matter
Boulder has roughly the same population as the broader Ames, Iowa area (MSA), about 90k people.
Let that sink in. Less than one-hundred thousand people. They have incubators, accelerators, meetups, education, mentoring, and a nice big university. All of the pieces of Silicon Valley with a fraction of the population. The adjacent Denver area has millions of residents, admittedly, but then again so do Kansas City, Minneapolis and Chicago.
The next time that someone says that Iowa is too small to grow a vibrant startup community, I'm going to point them West and set their cruise control for 80 mph for 10 hours. It’s not about the size of the community, it’s about how well you execute within it. Quality, not quantity, again.
So, if you've read this far (the 5 percent who have faith that I have a point), here is what I took away as next steps for myself from all the above:
- I'm going to push myself and others into friction frequently in order to sharpen each other. No one is doing anyone else favors by being Midwestern-nice.
- I'm going to be even more of an asshole. Direct, constructive, honest feedback is going to push us from a million mediocre ideas to a hundred great ones. That will help what we’ve all built survive the coming contraction far better than kissing each others asses.
- I'm going to stop using size of the state/city/etc as an excuse not to try something. Want a StartupCity in your town? Try it! Want to start a TechBrew at your community college? Why the hell not? Lets try it all, and focus on the quality instead of the quantity. We just might be surprised what we learn.
Credits: Photos courtesy of Christian Renaud
About the author: Christian Renaud is the CEO of Present.io, as well as a principal of StartupCity Des Moines, central Iowa's technology startup incubator. Renaud is also one of the guiding principals behind StartupIowa and a co-founder of Plains Angels, an angel investing consortium in Iowa.