Startups are more than ideas that just form in someone’s garage over pizza (although that still happens). Startups are the manifestation of ideas; they are catalysts for economic and community development; they bring unique excitement and energy to communities. The people behind the startups, whether they are the founders or employees, help build the community by sourcing local talent, hiring college students as interns, bringing in development dollars and inspiring all of us with their risk-taking and moonshot ideas. Because of startups we all can ask, “What if…” and see what’s truly possible.
The Idea Behind ‘Startup Communities’
Brad Feld is an entrepreneur and investor who co-founded Techstars, an investment-backed accelerator, in 2006. After working with so many startups, and seeing the positive growth in his town of Boulder, Colorado, Feld wrote Startup Communities, a book outlining what it takes to build a successful startup community. Our staff at Emerging Prairie are all asked to read this book because we believe in the philosophy and sentiment that the more startup activity we can encourage, the more community and economic opportunities for all of us. And who doesn’t want to say they supported “the next big thing?”
The Foundation of a Startup Community
After seeing the success in Boulder and studying other startup hubs like Boston and San Francisco, Feld believes strongly that a startup community must start with the following foundation:
Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
This means entrepreneurs must lead programming, initiatives, events and anything that supports startups. For example, at Emerging Prairie, we host many events targeting startups, such as our private capital event, Prairie Capital Summit. We source input from local entrepreneurs and we put startups on stage who want to be featured because if entrepreneurs aren’t behind this event, then what’s the point?
The leaders must have a long-term commitment.
The entrepreneurs who are going to make an investment of time and energy into the community must be here for the long haul. Luckily in the Fargo metro, many people feel invested in this community and have a desire to stay. While we should encourage every entrepreneur to be a leader, our startup community is most likely going to see the most success with someone who is here to stay rather than here to step into the spotlight and then leave.
The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
In short: the more startup activity, the better. Forming a startup and selfidentifying as an “entrepreneur” can be intimidating, especially if someone does not see themselves represented in what they believe a successful “entrepreneur” to be. There are more and more programs forming to encourage individuals of all ages and backgrounds to explore what it means to start a company. Right here in Fargo we have gener8tor, which has two accelerators that provide an immense amount of business support and are aimed at being as inclusive as possible. Additionally, Builders and Backers, a new program to Fargo, invests in very earlystage ideas, helping entrepreneurs test their concepts.
This inclusivity will help our entire community. Feld writes: “Building a startup community is not a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers; if everyone engages, they and the entire community can all be winners.”
The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
There are many key players involved in a successful startup community (see below) and they must all be engaged in meaningful ways. This includes hackathons, startup competitions, pitch nights, deeper networking events and more. By providing opportunity to build social capital and connecting key players in authentic ways, everyone feels a deeper connection to their role in the startup community. For example, Emerging Prairie’s weekly speaking series, StartupBREW, showcases two founders who tell their “founder story” on stage. However, we also highlight community builders and supporters who make the startup ecosystem what it is. The event also allows for low-stakes socializing over coffee, giving people the time to talk one-on-one and create relationships and opportunity. The result? People have been offered jobs because of StartupBREW, found new opportunities, been inspired to start their own companies, have met accountants and lawyers and more. The entire entrepreneurial stack is engaged, which benefits our entire community.
Jenny Sheets is the Director of Startup Programs at Emerging Prairie, a company focused on uplifting the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Key Players in a Startup Community
Entrepreneurs — Like noted above, entrepreneurs must be leaders. They must want to see the startup community succeed and they must lead the charge. Entrepreneurs may be early stage, experienced later stage, students, tech, brick-and-mortar—the point is, they are diverse and representative of an inclusive environment.
Government — Government officials must be supporters, not leaders. They should ask entrepreneurs what they need and be transparent about what can be done and what can’t. Finally, and very importantly, they should be actively engaged in the startup community and excited for the entrepreneurs.
Universities — Universities can be a hub for startup activity: from the students to professors, to research labs and entrepreneurship programming—startups don’t just happen in the business school. Investors — Investors are a key player to a startup community, but entrepreneurs are the ones doing the hard work. Investors should be supporters to the startup ecosystem, not gatekeepers of capital.
Mentors — Mentors are different from advisors because there is no exchange of equity or payment. Mentors are experienced entrepreneurs and investors who want to give their time because they believe in the startup community.
Service Providers — These players are critical and often overlooked: lawyers, accountants, marketing consultants, etc. If service providers want to be really progressive and invested, they will offer their services at no charge to early stage startups. The long-term benefits will come around to everyone.
Large Companies — Large companies can create space and resources that support startups. Why would they spend time and resources to do this? By creating programs that help startups succeed, the larger companies can enhance their own ecosystem. Not only may it be considered “good will” to the community, but allowing employees to engage with startups can improve job satisfaction and retention.
Building a Startup Community in the Fargo Metro
We have a thriving startup community in the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo region and it’s only getting stronger. There are more events for founders to engage with one another and key players in the community. There are more financial resources for startups from the state, private investors and grantors. It’s not a zero-sum game in which there are “winners” and “losers.” The more inclusive we are, the more activity there will be, which benefits us all. As we continue to grow and build our own unique startup community, we must be willing to experiment and fail fast. Maybe we try a new type of funding or a big event; maybe we try offering free support and resources—whatever it is, we owe it to our entrepreneurs and our community to try.
Bree Langemo, the Director of Concordia’s Center for Entrepreneurship, believes strongly in building an entrepreneurial community. Langemo says, “Entrepreneurial communities attract entrepreneurial people who work to solve problems, create value and contribute to society. In a time when people can work remotely and placemake in the location of their choice, it is critical that communities pay attention to cultivating their entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
An easy way to elevate entrepreneurs in our community is to, as Langemo says, “Pay attention.” Get to know your startups and the key players. Ask them what they need, celebrate their successes, and remember that founding a company is incredibly challenging. Let’s build a supportive startup ecosystem and encourage activity. Let’s make the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo area one of the best places to start a company in the world. Because, why not?
Every employee at Emerging Prairie has to read Startup Communities by Brad Feld, a book outlining what it takes to build a successful startup community, in order to further their mission of supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem.