Houston and Beyond: The Rise of Startup Communities

Over the last few years, entrepreneurs across the country have self-assembled into regional startup communities.  These communities provide a fabric of support that keeps entrepreneurs engaged, and resources to help them succeed.  The Startup America Partnership connects these regional communities and creates a national network, making our world a little easier to navigate.  

At a recent Startup America summit in Chicago, I met dozens of leaders from across the country.  I had the chance to share Houston’s story, and hopefully I brought home some insight from other cities.

I want to thank all of the people from across the US who shared their wisdom, and all of our community leaders back home in Houston.  In particular, thanks to Marc Nathan for his years of hard work as a relentless champion of Houston.

If you have a startup, please join Startup America.   It’s free.

Down in the basement of a Chicago bar, the Startup America regional summit kicked off with drinks, appetizers, and hugs. About a hundred entrepreneurs from across the country packed into the party room, making introductions and swapping stories. I was pretty tired from an early morning flight from Houston, followed by a full day’s work at 1871, but this room full of strangers literally welcomed me with open arms. They know what it looks like to work until you drop. “These are my people,” I thought to myself, and I ordered a beer.

I found my second wind as I navigated the crowd, shaking hands, memorizing faces, and learning something new in every conversation.  Alongside the entrepreneurs, I met other Startup America supporters, including our corporate sponsors, members of the press, political consultants, policy makers, and university tech transfer folks. The diversity of the crowd wasn’t a surprise. Startup America is a community of purpose that started as a White House program, but it was quickly adopted by a not-for-profit and backed by corporate sponsors. It sits at the nexus of government, business, and academia — all in service to a national startup community led by entrepreneurs.

Bringing a little Houston to Chicago.

What surprised me was how quickly startup communities have been growing across the country. It mirrors what we’ve seen in Houston over the past few years, and it signals a larger, national trend. Generally, entrepreneurs are optimists. And against all odds, that sense of hope is alive in every new venture and in every conversation.  Chicago was the perfect setting for this surprise. In the last two years, they have pulled together as a city and transformed their startup community. We were watching a case study unfold.

The summit was packed with goodness. Between Brad Feld’s book release party, candid interviews with Steve Case, and small sessions with Brad Keywell, Jason Fried, Matt Maloney, and Howard Tullman, there was plenty of wisdom to go around.  The best parts of my trip were the detailed, intense conversations I had with about a dozen entrepreneurs and policy makers, along with plenty of memories that are better left unpublished. Donna Harris does an excellent job of capturing the details in her writeup.

TRENDS ACROSS THE COUNTRY

After the summit, I came back to Houston with a lot on my mind.  It’s difficult to unpack all of the events and experiences that led up to this moment for startups, but it doesn’t make them any less real.  More and more people recognize that working together in a startup community solves two big problems: it makes us better entrepreneurs, and it makes us a little less lonely.

It’s an appealing philosophy. I think there are a couple of reasons why it’s been able to take root and grow:

  • The growth of coworking facilities gives entrepreneurs many more professional and social workspaces.  If you don’t like the vibe of one space, go somewhere else.  There are more options than ever before, and they’re not called Starbucks.
  • Lots of new accelerator programs give entrepreneurs access to a practical education, as well as mentors, capital, a space to work, and a structured environment to grow their startups. These programs also give investors access to a portfolio of early-stage companies.
  • Entrepreneur-in-residence positions have created a safety net for serial entrepreneurs to get started on their next venture, while bringing a little startup energy to established institutions.
  • Successful events, like Startup Weekend, are ubiquitous.  They bring new entrepreneurs out of the shadows.
  • Cities like Boulder and Chicago are held up as successful models of startup communities, inspiring leaders across the country to take action because good things can happen quickly.

It’s exciting to think that we are at the beginning of a nationwide leap forward for entrepreneurs.  But there is more to come.  Specifically, I am watching:

  • How the coworking model is adopted and adapted by people who don’t want to work alone.
  • The impact of crowdfunding on the investment landscape, especially in regions without a strong VC/Angel presence (hat tip to Brad Feld).
  • Experimental government programs designed to encourage entrepreneurship and economic development in depressed areas.
  • The evolution of technology transfer and commercialization programs at research universities.
  • The growth of big company programs designed to nurture startups.  Currently, they take the form of angel funds, credit lines, hybrid corporate/VC investment rounds, idea challenges, and business plan competitions.

These changes involve serious institutional risk.  They don’t happen in a vacuum. But if the rest of the country is anything like Houston, there are entrepreneurs inside every bureaucracy who “get it” — these entrepreneurs will be the catalysts for big changes.  As they build models and replicate success across the country, it will signal the next phase of startup community development.

 

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN HOUSTON

What does this mean for us?  Certainly, Houston is different than the rest of the country.  Our city has jobs, an influx of new residents, a highly entrepreneurial culture, lots of money, a relatively inexpensive cost of living (for a major city), a mayor who is very much attuned to the quality of urban life, and sheer mass as the fourth largest city in the US.  We’re fortunate, for sure.

But we behave like a city with something to prove.  In the past year alone, we’ve seen new coworking spaces, accelerator programs, and budding communities of interest ranging from animation to healthcare entrepreneurship.  Our tried-and-true institutions (what Brad Feld would call “feeders”) are beginning to embrace the startup community.  Things are converging at a faster and faster rate.

By skipping town, I got to see Houston for what it really is: a great place to be an entrepreneur.

For me, the Houston startup community stands on a three-pronged foundation: face-to-face events, consistent press coverage, and spirited online discussion.

Every two weeks, we alternate between OpenCoffee and GroundUPHouston, two casual networking events for entrepreneurs. There’s no format and no speaker. You come and go as you please. Everyone is welcome. OpenCoffee and GroundUP have become face-to-face touchpoints for busy entrepreneurs who have become good friends over time. In addition to these two meetups, there are multiple events for entrepreneurs every month.

Since 2007, Startup Houston has provided consistent press coverage for the community, by the community. Founded by Kurt Stoll, this blog fills the gap left by traditional press outlets. The fact is, our startups needs press. If it’s not on the internet, it never happened.

Thanks to Javid Jamae, we have the Houston Startups Facebook group. Over the last year, it has become the hub for community discussion, link sharing, announcements, and events.

Building on this foundation, Houston found its oxygen in 2012. It’s like we all woke up with a start. Here are some of the things we’ve done this year:

  • The Houston Technology Center started a technology accelerator called HTC Ignition.
  • The Cleanweb group planted a stake in Texas with the Cleanweb Hackathon.
  • A group of students from the Rice Alliance Life Science Entrepreneurship class started enVenture, a medical entrepreneurship community…
  •  …who launched recently at Platform Houston, a new coworking space in Rice Village.
  • Colleen Brady started MadeInTX.co, a directory of Texas startups inspired by BuiltInChicago and similar sites.
  • Three public coworking spaces opened their doors (Platform Houston, CoInside, and START Houston), while private offices continue to experiment with the model.
  • Dave Morris, Bridgette Mongeon, and Daniel Wu brought Houston our first 3D camp since 2009.
  • At Rice, Tom Kraft and Bryan Guido Hassin model their entrepreneurship classes after technology accelerators, leading to a student proposal for a formal undergraduate business accelerator.
  • At UH, Hesam Panahi brought in 3DayStartup, and used that momentum to develop red labs, a 24/7 space for tech startups launching in the spring.
  • Surge Accelerator is about to enroll a second class.
  • The Houston Technology Center opened a Johnson Space Center campus to assist all of those ridiculously talented NASA engineers who are now entrepreneurs.
  • Javid Jamae, Marc Nathan and I started a quarterly happy hour, where we drink and laugh and meet new friends.
  • Ben Lopez and I launched Startup Softball in March, we played our second game in October, and we’re bringing it to other cities by the end of the year.
  • I redesigned Startup Houston to make it current, responsive, and news-friendly.
  • As a community, we have a stable roster of recurring events, like meetups (GroundUP, OpenCoffee, Social Media Breakfast), social events (happy hours, softball), competitions (Startup Weekend, hackathons), conferences (TedX, 3D Camp, Maker Faire), and city-wide celebrations (cohouston). These events are the mortar between our bricks.

With all of this momentum, we face new challenges as a startup community. There’s a lot of work to be done. Specifically, we need to unite the fragments of our city and make people aware of our inclusive approach. Not so specifically, we need more of everything.

I know what I’ve got planned. What are you going to do?