Jan 26 2021

Startup Communities | Rural Entrepreneurship

I’ve always loved Brad’s Startup Communities – it’s long been my favorite of his books, built upon ideas that are clearly stating the test of time. In it, he talks about the key ingredients to building a startup community and talks about our experience in Boulder – one of the first startup communities to really thrive outside of the traditional tech hotbeds of the coast (but certainly not the last). He’s recently come out with a new version of the book, as well as a companion book called The Startup Community Way. They are outstanding.
In the nearly 10 years since the original book was published, the Startup Communities landscape has changed quite a bit. Robust startup environments began to develop in communities across the United States as entrepreneurship became more and more democratized. These changes appear to be accelerating due to Covid-19, as more people flee larger cities and the wide-spread adoption of technologies that enable seamless remote working has become even more rapid.
I believe these changes will have an even more dramatic impact on rural communities. Once largely left out of the startup conversation, rural communities began to emerge even before the pandemic as places where innovation and new businesses can thrive. I saw this first hand as part of the board of Startup Colorado, a public/private partnership that focuses on economic development outside of the front range of Colorado, as well as through my work with the Greater Colorado Venture Fund (I’m an investor in the fund and an advisor; the fund invests in companies outside of the metro areas of Colorado). I’m excited about the potential for rural communities and the economic boost that can come as more people discover the potential benefits of living outside of the main metro areas of the US.
Back before the pandemic, Brad asked me to write a chapter for the new edition of Startup Communities that focused on the development of rural entrepreneurial ecosystems. It’s one of several new themes that are included the 2nd edition of Startup Communities. To do that I partnered with the three partners of the GCVF, Mark, Jamie, and Cory.  There is a great vibrancy in the entrepreneurial regions outside of urban centers that are often overlooked. These businesses are a huge part of what ties rural communities together and keep them thriving. A few excerpts from the chapter are below. If you haven’t already done so, I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of both the new Startup Communities as well as The Startup Community Way.
Rural communities are by their nature different in composition, size, resources, and proximity to other communities…rural communities require a different approach to startup community building and fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Rural startup communities are entrepreneur-led, perhaps even more so than in urban centers. 
Rural startup communities thrive when many people are involved in creating an entrepreneurial environment and the activities around the startup community aren’t centralized. Since these are smaller communities with participation from fewer people, the impact of each member’s actions on the community is that much greater. In rural startup communities, respect and trust are earned, not assumed; but, once given, they are not questioned again. The role and importance of #GiveFirst are magnified in rural startup communities while at the same time received with greater skepticism.
Think of this as the “reinvention of Main Street,” as all of the local businesses on the main road in a rural community—from a coffee shop to a cleaning business to a clothing company—are a key part of the local startup community. The motivation for starting a business can be different in rural communities. Founders often aspire to create jobs for themselves and their friends instead of an internationally known high-growth company that eventually goes public or sells to a larger business.
Capital follows density of activity and companies. Developing this density, especially throughout geographically dispersed areas, is important for sources of capital to see the potential in the rural startup community. Getting people together from all different parts of the business community on a visible and regular basis will generate early momentum and identify others in your area who share your passion for helping local businesses thrive.
By encouraging startup neighborhoods to be inclusive of their neighbors around their entrepreneurial activities, these areas are better able to create the density needed to drive more meaningful entrepreneurial activity over time. Once people from these startup communities start working together, they are eager to continue to do so.
Many rural startup communities are still at a critical early stage of their evolution where the density of startup activity and culture is limited. The tipping point to get the startup community flywheel spinning can seem unreachable within town limits. Just as rural communities need to align around a hub for their regional startup community in order to start the startup community flywheel, the regional startup community should intentionally also rally around the nearest urban hub.