Last week was Startup Week in Austin, Texas and as I was sitting, meeting and writing on Congress Street I was reminded of Austin’s special place in the lineup of growing entrepreneurial communities across America, from New York to San Francisco.
In addition to being proudly weird, Austin is providing a blueprint for other communities that want to strengthen their local economies by incubating the growth of young high-tech companies. Granted, Austin has some incredible advantages that other cities cannot offer (where else could you follow an incredible farm to table meal and beer pairing with an alt-country show in a venue for fifty people within a half mile of each other -- on a Tuesday) but there are lessons that can be learned and actions that can be replicated.
There are three key elements to Austin’s successful support of the entrepreneurial community.
1) Fail well and let success breed stewardship.
Not every startup is a success. Any entrepreneur will tell you that -- it’s certainly a storyline many have faced. One of the best lessons to take from failure is how best to handle the crisis and move forward. Did you treat your employees as well as you could? Did you learn from how things ended? And, perhaps most importantly, did you tell your story to others? None of us will face exactly the same trials and tribulations in our lives, but often they are similar enough that learning from the experiences of others can be a powerful saving grace when times are hard, especially in business.
Austin shares and learns through its mature network of incubators, investors, and meetups. What’s more, there is a sense that as a community they really take care of each other. The Central Texas Angel Network is one of the most, if not the most, robust networks of seed and angel investing in the U.S. Many members were local entrepreneurs themselves -- they’ve been through the fire and have come out the other side with one or more good exits to their name. And in so many cases, what these individuals do is re-invest. Yes, there is obvious financial upside, but for many of the investors I spoke with here, it isn’t good enough to make a profit, the bigger aim is to create opportunity. In doing that, they make Austin and the startup community here stronger and more vibrant.
2) Open, unfettered communication and collaboration.
Events like Startup Week, “lovingly” curated by Jacqueline Hughes and Capital Factory’s tour de force leader and innovator Joshua Baer, showcase not only the power of the growing community here, where startup focused events dominate the local calendar, but also the opportunity for cross-pollination and collaboration. Brad Feld writes about this a lot in his Startup Life series of books. In practice, the need for collaborative efforts, breaking down siloed communication, couldn’t be more real. The more entrepreneurial folks interact, the deeper they set their roots into the community, and that only means good things for opportunity.
3) Civic engagement.
While there are a multitude of technology-focused business and trade associations in cities and states around the country, no one has tackled community engagement in quite the same way as the Austin Technology Council. Julie Huls and her staff, in true Texas tradition, have taken the bull by the horns and they have been able to source private sector voices from the technology industry, real estate, finance and legal, to meet, and discuss relevant topics with policymakers.
In the recent unveiling of their Stakeholder Advisory Council, and in their commitment to getting voices in their community active on federal, state and local policy issues, t hey have committed to creating a better Austin, and a better Austin for technology. I often remark (only half jokingly) that I’d like to clone Julie and bring her to other cities. But if you’re in Boulder or Missoula or Atlanta, this is a piece of the model you can recreate. Bring in your most influential stakeholders, listen to them and their concerns, and help bridge the divide between those that “do” where you are, and those that “do” in D.C.
Already, ATC has held forums on cybersecurity with their local Congressional delegation, started to work on STEM initiatives with the state, and collaborated with the city and regional entities too. The sky is the limit and ATC are building to reach it. This type of engagement is powerful, and its tangible impact is felt almost immediately.
Austin has a thirty year history of leading on innovation, and they are using that to their advantage. You should use it to yours.
Photo courtesy of Robert Hensley.