A City Is A Startup: The Rise Of The Mayor-Entrepreneur

On stage at last month’s Le Web conference Shervin Pishevar, a Managing Director at Menlo Ventures, stated “The World is a Startup.” It’s an interesting perspective, and I think what’s true for the world is also true for countries, states and municipalities. With developments like last month’s announcement that Cornell was selected to build a new tech campus in New York City, it seems to follow that if “a city is a startup,” then the best mayors are the ones who are looking at their cities in much the same way as entrepreneurs look at the companies they have founded.

The ingredients for a successful startup and a successful city are remarkably similar. You need to build stuff that people want. You need to attract quality talent. You have to have enough capital to get your fledgling ideas to a point of sustainability. And you need to create a world-class culture that not only attracts the best possible people, but encourages them to stick around even when things aren’t going so great.

Paul Graham has written extensively on this topic in essays like How to Be Silicon Valley and Why Startups Condense in America. Much of his thinking no doubt played into the decision to base Y Combinator entirely in Silicon Valley. Boston’s loss was the Bay Area’s gain and a striking example of why it’s important for mayors to view their cities through an entrepreneurial lens. Paul viewed Y Combinator through that lens and it led him to believe that Silicon Valley simply had more of the ingredients that would make his companies successful than Boston did.

So let’s take a look at those ingredients. Making products and services people want to buy has to be at the top of the list of any forward-thinking mayor. Extensive research by the Kauffman Foundation shows that virtually all job creation comes from companies less than five years old. So if you’re running a city and want to increase the number of jobs in your city, you should be doing whatever you can to encourage more viable startups. It’s something that Ed Lee, San Francisco’s newly-inaugurated mayor seems to understand, telling TechCrunch back in November “I want them [tech companies] to start here in San Francisco, and I want them to stay and to grow.”

Talent is another important factor and lies at the heart of Bloomberg’s efforts in New York City. Creating a world-class engineering campus in New York can be thought of as the municipal equivalent to Facebook’s acquisition of FriendFeed or Gowalla. By having more talented people in the city, New York is better able to compete with other cities in the same way that Facebook better competes with rivals by having more talented engineers under its roof. (What’s more, Facebook recently announced that it will open an NYC engineering office in 2012.)

Of course, getting top engineers and designers to actually work for a city might prove challenging (with a notable exception to be seen in the success of the Code for America program), but mayors can have a significant impact on helping a city to attract the best and brightest.

I recently spoke with Daniel Huttenlocher, the dean of the Faculty of Computing and Information Science (CIS) at Cornell University, who played an integral role in Cornell’s bid for the Roosevelt Island campus (read more about this effort in Eric Eldon’s interview with Huttenlocher).

His observation that Bloomberg’s history as both a technologist and an entrepreneur helped him and others in his office to better understand the need for New York to increasingly be a hub for the best technologists on the planet. Bloomberg is to New York City as John Calipari is to Kentucky basketball, intuitively adhering to Vinod Khosla’s notion that CEOs should be spending a very high percentage of their time recruiting.

Capital is another necessity for a city’s success. In some cases this might mean mayors actively courting angel investors and venture capitalists. The success of the Silicon Valley ecosystem is due, in no small part, to the availability of early-stage capital and its density of investors. Other metro areas have historically struggled to replicate this investment ecosystem but more attempts are underway.

Sergio Fernández de Córdova, the founder of Fuel Outdoor and chairman of New York Entrepreneur Week, pointed me to an effort underway in the state of Connecticut to provide more funding to early-stage companies in the state. In addition, New York City announced $150 million in funding solely devoted to startups in the city as part of the tech campus announcement. While these efforts might pale in comparison to the latest billion-dollar fund raised by a Silicon Valley venture firm, they are a step in the right direction for states and municipalities trying to spur innovation.

A final ingredient is culture which can loosely be translated to livability when we think about cities. This was impressed upon me recently during a meeting with Eric Garcetti, the former Los Angeles City Council President and leading contender to become the city’s next mayor. Garcetti recognizes the challenges that LA has when competing against the Bay Area to be the home base for the next great technology company. Indeed, Los Angeles has lost a number of its most promising companies to the north such as Lookout and Yammer (born out of Los Angeles-based Geni).

Still, Los Angeles is one of the most desirable cities in the country to live in and the recent Silicon Beach resurgence is due in part to this. Listening to Garcetti talk about LA’s strong points reminds you of Larry and Sergei discussing why Google’s culture made it possible for them to attract so many outstanding engineers or Tony Hsieh sharing why Zappos’ quirky, fun work environment helped them retain top performers. By emphasizing LA’s strengths, Garcetti hopes to retain talented USC, UCLA and Cal Tech grads who might not be so keen on spending “Junuary” in San Francisco.

As we roll into an election year, many cities are in a state of crisis. Budgets are a mess and job growth has been minimal for a good swath of the country. Cities in need don’t just need strong leadership, they require transformational leadership. It’s no easy feat but it’s likely that the more that mayors view their cities through an entrepreneurial lens, the better they will be able to adapt to a rapidly-changing world.

Bloomberg seems to be leading this charge with his efforts in New York City and mayor’s offices around the country are taking notice. Others like Ed Lee, Garcetti and Newark mayor Cory Booker appear to be taking a similar tone in their respective cities. Perhaps these are the first examples in what will become a long line of mayor-entrepreneurs.

Excerpt image by Greg Knapp via Creative Commons

This post originally was taken from TechCrunch.com

How To Start Smart: The Five Things To Know When Approaching An Incubator

Incubators are playing an increasingly vital role in acquiring meaningful investment for first-time entrepreneurs. TechCrunch reported that elite accelerators like Y Combinator receive on average one application every minute, and AngelPad reminds its participants that it is many times more selective than the Harvard Business School.

Incubators ask for a 2 to 10 percent stake in your company, a sum that could alternatively be used to attract a junior co-founder or provide meaningful ownership to the first few engineers you enlist. In return, incubators offer intensive coaching, networking with other founders, and warm introductions to likely investors. Incubators give first-time entrepreneurs and international teams alike a crucial link to Silicon Valley.

In addition to the giving up meaningful equity there are other downsides to consider before participating in an incubator. Most have a schedule that’s built on a demo near the end of the program. While many companies view that external structure as helpful, others can find that working with such a timeline damages their business.

The long lead up to D-Day could mean a delay in fundraising or product lunch, which in turn can translate into missed opportunities. There are other potential pitfalls, from committing too quickly and prematurely to an idea, to trying to scale before properly understanding a market and the company’s place in it. And with any robust community, there’s the danger of succumbing to groupthink. Founders need to remember they understand their market better than anyone.

For most first-time founders, these downsides are far outweighed by the benefits. Below are some lessons I regularly share with prospective entrepreneurs interested in applying to incubators.

1. Know their interest and expertise

When planning to apply to such incubators as 500 Startups, Y Combinator, TechStars or AngelPad, watch any and every online video you can find of incubator leaders outlining what they are looking for and what they can offer your company. Numerous incubator leaders, including Paul Graham, Thomas Korte and Dave McClure, have explicitly mapped out what they can bring to the table and what kind of companies they are targeting.

Know what’s important to the investors: Dave McClure at 500 Startups will want you to have a deep understanding of the micro-economics; AngelPad loves great B2B opportunities; and Y Combinator appreciates founders who have already demonstrated their smarts with submissions on Hacker News. They all will make exceptions, but you should pitch in a way that will resonate with the specific incubator.

2. Understand their challenge

All incubators play an arbitrage game, curating great early-stage startups for the community of larger investors. They need to believe they can readily convince other investors to put in an even larger sum at the end of the program. It is your job to convince them you have the raw material, which usually means great engineers (preferably branded by great universities or companies), beautiful design, strong team dynamics, and an ability to get a meaningful user base. If you have these ingredients, the incubator can help you polish your pitch and get in front of investors.

3. Intros matter

Getting a friendly introduction from someone the incubator knows can prevent your startup from getting buried in the application avalanche. The best intros come from people they trust who have insight into what it takes to start an effective company. Founders, fellow investors or former colleagues (hint: search LinkedIn for shared connections) can help get that needed extra attention. Intros from their friends and family members outside the startup ecosystem will be much less helpful. I got a key intro to AngelPad from the MoPub founders and to Y Combinator through Posterous co-founder Garry Tan.

4. They will be watching closely

Many incubators now require a video submission with your application and will follow up with an in-person or video chat with you and your co-founder(s). While these might cause the incubator to miss great people due to some unconscious bias, they also give a glimpse of confidence, charisma and, perhaps most importantly, your relationship with your colleagues.

The least you can do is ensure that everyone pays attention to whoever is speaking. If the engineer rolls his eyes, yawns or corrects the CEO when he speaks, the incubator might regard your startup as radioactive. If you get a live interview, make sure everyone has defined roles, with the CEO answering all market and business questions, the CTO answering all technical questions, etc. And practice the interview dozens of times. Enlist smart friends to barrage you with questions in rapid succession until you can confidently provide short and clear answers.

5. You’ll get a new Alma Mater

Incubator provides fantastic coaching and rich networking opportunities with other companies and investors during their programs. This is especially helpful for international teams that can boast great products and meaningful traction, but lack connections to the Silicon Valley investor community. But the time in the incubator is just the beginning. Months out, the mentors continue to provide trusted counsel and meaningful introductions.

Our incubator class provided us with thousands of dollars in free services and have consistently been among the first to try our new products, provide honest feedback and give them a five-star rating in the App Store. The camaraderie runs deep, fostered by shared experience and an understanding that each companies’ success will elevate everyone’s status.

Many first-time entrepreneurs succeed without participating in an incubator, in the same way many professionals can have successful careers without going to college. But this will increasingly be the exception. Young companies passing on the incubators can squander time, even years, when they could be building their networks, getting greater market feedback and scale their business with investor dollars.

In the past year, I have seen four great teams with early traction and Stanford founders stagnate while trying to do things on their own. Each had a few connections with the investor community, but they didn’t compare to what the best incubators deliver. Don’t make their mistake — if you want to build a company with world-wide impact, joining an incubator may be your most important early step toward achieving success.

This post was taken originally from TechCrunch.com

5 Ways For Startups To Grow Their Brands On Twitter

This is a guest post by Ryan Spoon (@ryanspoon), a principal at Polaris Ventures. Read more about Ryan on his blog at ryanspoon.com.

Last week I began an effort to answer the questions I get asked most frequently by entrepreneurs, starting with how to create an early-stage pitch deck. Today, I address a topic as relevant for early stage startups (vying for consumer attention) as it is for more mature companies (focused on customer relationships):

How to grow your brand on Twitter?

Twitter is the ultimate marketing platform. But the scale of Twitter activity is so extraordinary (250 million tweets per day) that it is quite easy to get lost in the noise… particularly if you are an early-stage startup and/or an emerging brand.

Separating yourself from the masses really begins with the recognition that Twitter is first and foremost a platform for conversation. If you believe that, you avoid the mistake most brands make: treating Twitter as a mechanism to push content rather than create engagement.

And once your goal is to foster conversation and engagement, you can follow these five guidelines:

1. Listen.

2. Be authentic.

3. Be compelling.

4. Find the influencers.

5. Extend off Twitter and onto your site.

In the below presentation, I break down these core themes and provides examples of people and companies successfully using Twitter to drive engagement and grow their brands.

The post was originally taken from TechCrunch.com