Startup Phenomenon Launches, Aims to Capture Essence of Startup Hubs

You could call the recent interest in startup communities and entrepreneurial hubs a movement, a trend, a revolution, or possibly just a fad. But whatever it is, entrepreneurs clustered in cities around the world are making something happen, and as with any natural, technological, or economic phenomenon, people are watching it and trying to learn.

Now a group in Boulder, CO, is putting together Startup Phenomenon, a new series of events and conferences to try to figure out what it all means—and how to build on its successes and help transform the global economy.

The centerpiece event will be the Startup Phenomenon Conference in Boulder, which will run from November 13 to 15. The Boulder-based Van Heyst Group, which plans conferences for tech companies and global nonprofits, is organizing the event, and its CEO Carrie Van Heyst has serious ambitions.

“In the next five years, we want Startup Phenomenon to be the go-to [event] for the world’s top innovators in the same way, say, Davos is for the titans of big business, or Sun Valley is for the media/tech powerbrokers,” Van Heyst wrote in an e-mail.

Organizers have put together a list of big-name speakers including Foundry Group managing director and TechStars co-founder Brad Feld, Stack Exchange director Anil Dash, and Jim Collins, author of the famous business books Good to Great, Built to Last, and How the Mighty Fall.

Former Wired senior editor John Bradley is in charge of programming the event. He concedes there is already an abundance of conferences for entrepreneurs looking to find investors and learn what it takes to build companies. Startup Phenomenon will differentiate itself by focusing on the people trying to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Instead of trying to create startups, we’re trying to create environments where more startups are getting launched and thrive, so there’s the whole startup community aspect to this,” Bradley said. “We’re bringing together entrepreneurs and investors, and also economic developers and policy makers and academics to come together and discuss what works and what doesn’t in cities all over the world.”

The global perspective will be an important component of the conference, which will touch on lessons learned from cities as far flung as Auckland, New Zealand, Nairobi, Kenya, and Reykjavik, Iceland.

Bradley was based in Silicon Valley and brings an outsider’s perspective to Boulder. He said the city is an example of a thriving ecosystem, and he noted Feld’s Startup Revolution books, which rely heavily on what he’s learned while working in Boulder, provide the “philosophical underpinning” for the conference.

“While Boulder’s special, it’s not unique. There are Boulders happening all over the country and all over the world,” Bradley said.

The new hubs probably won’t challenge Silicon Valley for preeminence, but they giving entrepreneurs more options about where to build companies, which in turn is creating a thriving “middle class” of cities like Boulder or Santa Cruz.

“People are realizing they don’t have to go to Silicon Valley to create their startups, and that’s enabling communities to remake their communities around entrepreneurial clusters, which I think is better for everybody,” Bradley said.

Startup Phenomenon hosted a launch party Tuesday night at Galvanize, a startup accelerator in Denver. The event was held there, and not Boulder, in part to highlight the emergence of startups in Denver and to continue building bridges between the cities, which are about 30 miles apart.

The event was a preview of what’s planned and why the interest in building communities is important.

Feld said in his remarks at the event that he’s seen startup communities emerge firsthand in the past two decades. Feld has lived in Boulder since the 1990s, but his firms invest in companies around the country. That made him wonder why certain areas seemed to be better suited for startups than others, and if other cities could replicate what was going on in Silicon Valley. It seemed to him like they could, even if it wasn’t a widely shared view.

“There was this recurring theme it could only happen in Silicon Valley. I never accepted that hypothesis,” Feld said.

Feld believed in his own theory strongly enough that he wrote a book about it named, fittingly, Startup Communities. It spells out what Feld calls “The Boulder Thesis,” which brings together what he thinks are the key elements needed to build a startup community.

Feld said recent economic trends and advances in technology show entrepreneurs can do more with fewer people and less capital, which means entrepreneurs, startups, and venture capital companies don’t have to be in a single densely concentrated place. Entrepreneurs in cities all over the world can create networks and hubs that can become self-sustaining and nurture companies that once could only be launched in Silicon Valley.

Crucially, the changes are deep enough they’ll endure, Feld said.

“This phenomenon is a fundamental change in society and business and the way business works,” he said.

A similar launch event is scheduled for San Francisco on Sept. 24.

Van Heyst’s goal is to make Startup Phenomenon a vital part of the change by giving leaders the chance to talk and figure out the best ways to build communities. But while the November conference is its focal point, it will sponsor additional conferences, including an event at the University of Colorado-Boulder on Sept. 3 devoted to issues facing women entrepreneurs.

That event is open to the general public. The Startup Phenomenon Conference is by invitation only, but people interested in participating can ask for an invite at the conference’s website.

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