Day One from the StartUp Phenomenon Conference in Boulder, CO

As some of you already know, in addition to writing this blog, I’m also the co-director of the StartUp Portland website.  A few months ago, we were invited to this amazing conference in Boulder, CO.  It is expensive so we built a crowd funding campaign, and raised the money we needed, thanks to the generosity of our friends and supporters. Yesterday, I left on the 3:15am bus to Boston to head to Boulder for the conference. I’m doing daily reports on my activities, so here’s my report from day one (Wednesday). I will post reports on Thursday and Friday events too.  These are all cross posted on StartUp Portland blog as well.

The first breakout discussed techniques for measuring the success of one’s startup community. Before it started, I found myself next to the gentleman that organizes and run’s Boulder’s StartUp Week.  (By the way, when I introduce myself as some from StartUp Portland, I always have to add Maine – due to the good work already being done by the good folks in Oregon). He asked me what we have going on. I started to tell him about all the good things going on in Maine (especially with only 1.3 mill people), like MTI, MCED, the innovation work at UMaine, JAX and also our Tedx and StartUp weekend events.

He told me how Boulder, despite being the densest areas for startups in the world, continually nurtures their entrepreneurship culture and social fabric. We talked ways of connecting and telling stories of the entrepreneurs. He emphasized the importance of profiling both successful startup efforts, as well as failed ones. We talked strategies for helping Boulder’s “want-trepreneurs” to take the leap and seek to be the best in the world.

We also talked ways that they showcase the startup and entrepreneurial culture to the folks not in the “community.” Each year the team the organizers invite people from all over the country to attend.  Moreover, they purposefully invite other Coloradans to share this wildly optimistic and forward-looking event. They open their doors to the world for visitors and locals to enjoy the great outdoors scene, food scene, etc.

I realized all sorts of ways a Maine-version could work.  As the program began, he mentioned to me that he may have some ideas that could help us in Maine and that he would be happy to offer us his advice on things to avoid and things to celebrate.  I quickly secured a time for coffee with him on Thursday.

The program really focused on two ways to measure one’s startup community: (1) quantitatively through the StartUpGenome project, and (2) though qualitative surveys.  On the quantitative side, the StartUp Genome project is one I’m familiar, and impressed with. Shane Reiser, one of the founders, and I discussed Maine and strategies for recruiting additional to populate the data for this Kauffman Foundation-backed, free, tool. Because it is a free and neutral platform, everyone in Maine’s startup community can own it (hear the silos crumbling).

Then some folks from the Governor Hickenlooper’s office presented their effort to measure the qualitative aspects of startup communities. They unveiled an online survey they that they use to gather data from existing companies. They’re really in the beta phase of their effort so a rather robust conversation with the audience followed their presentation. There were many comments about the measures, as well as the influences on why people stay or leave an area. I wondered allowed if they were really trying to measure the contagiousness of an area on entrepreneurship. Lots of good data tools that Maine can consider as we continue to build our effort.

One other point on Shane. He used to be the COO of Startup Weekend and ran events all over the world.  Now he lives in Omaha, NE. In some previous work, I visited Omaha and saw how much work they’ve done to grow their community, break down silos and have all this great job creation. Even the Chamber of Commerce gets in the act in Omaha.  Here is a great article from the guy at the Chamber who is a part of the effort.  It is worth the read.

The last session of the day was this incredible event called House of Genius.  House of Genius is a collaboration session for an existing entrepreneur. The collaborators are an incredibly diverse group of almost anonymous folks (almost because their last names and backgrounds are not revealed until the end), who provide very structured and directed feedback.  The structure of the event is fantastic and it lacks any pretense, ego, or grandstanding.

Instead of trying to describe it, just watch this video.

Finally, after some opening remarks by conference organizers, I ended up spending time with a group of folks that included a guy named John. John runs an accelerator in a town of about 100k near Vancouver, BC and is a frequent Boulder visitor. John spent some time telling us about their work to harness the success of local startups that have grown into larger companies or been acquired.

One example was a local animation company who was just acquired for $500 million by Disney. The founders are local and the company is staying put, but John described their efforts to leverage that success by providing existing middle managers the comfort they need to spin off, start their own companies, and thus increase the density within the local entrepreneurship ecosystem.

John also described their challenge of integrating the local angel community into the social fabric of the ecosystem as community members, not just as angel funders. Understandably, their angel investors want to be a part of the community and don’t want to be pitched at every turn on investing in someone or something. Their solution so far, is to curate events where local angels are invited as attendees, but where “pitches” to the angels are barred. They do this to encourage the growth of the community and the social capital between entrepreneurs and all the other actors in the ecosystem. It left me wondering if this is an issue at all in Maine.

It was a really good first afternoon, but on Thursday we start to really dive deep.

Jess Knox

About Jess Knox

Jess Knox is a former political consultant and high-ranking SBA official who is passionate about entrepreneurship and Maine. These days he helps companies manage growth through his firm Olympico Strategies.