Dr. Smartwood’s Musings: Startup Communities

Dr. Smartwood’s Musings is a regular column about starting.

Tom Swartwood, aka, Dr. Smartwood, is the inaugural Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship and an Associate Professor of Practice of Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University.

He is the founder of The Pointer Group LLC, a Des Moines-based small business advisory firm.  Before starting his academic career, he was CEO of Dickinson & Co., a Des Moines-based investment banking company, and a Managing Director of Swartwood Hesse Inc., a New York-based investment banking firm that specialized in financing entrepreneurial ventures. He has helped raise more than $120 million for innovative small businesses and has advised hundreds of startup entrepreneurs.

Book Review: Startup Communities – Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City

Clayton Mooney, co-founder of local startups Kinosol and Nebullam, insisted I read Brad Feld’s Startup Communities—Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City (Wiley2012). Actually, he suggested I listen to the Audible version during my daily commute between Des Moines and Ames. So I paused my favorite podcasts (more on these later) and listened. I am glad I did; there were times I stayed in my car until the end of a chapter.  Clear, concise, and accessible, Feld offers informative and entertaining background on successful entrepreneurial communities, and more importantly, terrific tips, sometimes emphatic, on what it takes to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Feld makes a strong case for the “Boulder Thesis,“ his framework for building a successful startup community. He sets out three theoretical explanations for the concentration of startup communities in and around Silicon Valley, Route 128 near Boston, and New York.  The base of his framework is “Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.”  He adds that the leaders must have a long-term commitment; the community must be inclusive, and it must offer continual activities that engage [and inspire] community members.

Brad Feld discusses the concept of supporting startup ecosystems during Monetery 2019 at the Kum and Go Theatre in Des Moines. Monetery is hosted by Dwolla. Photo courtesy of Dwolla.

Feld, a graduate of MIT and a successful startup founder and investor, is intense in person, and he makes a strong case for his framework for developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem.  He likes his lists, enumerating the participants, attributes of leadership, and classical problems of startup communities, and he provides a deceptively simple how-to manual for building a startup community anywhere.

While I get why he argues entrepreneurs must be the leaders, doubts linger as to whether many entrepreneurs are up to the task, and I strongly believe that entrepreneurs need collaborators and help.

Further, I still wonder whether the Boulder Thesis applies anywhere (I mean it is Boulder). Ultimately, however, I felt energized and ready to grab a shovel, actually a roto-tiller, and start turning over the rich dirt in the Ames community to foster further growth of a budding entrepreneurial ecosystem.  I echo Clayton’s recommendation of this manifesto for anyone who wants to build a startup community anywhere.