Sunday, March 4, 2012

How to help tech entrepreneurs in your city

I've attended a few meetings lately with groups in Baltimore who want to help technology entrepreneurs. Here's what I've been thinking and saying in these meetings.

First, make your city more livable

You could do the most good by focusing on quality-of-life issues that affect everyone. People who want to start tech businesses are likely to be highly mobile with options and resources. Any city that takes itself seriously as a safe, tolerant place offering diverse choices of lifestyle, housing, and fun things to do, should automatically become a technology hub.

Fortunately, there are already many people working on improving quality of life. I asked Scott Burkholder for some examples of civic and cultural groups that are doing good work with whom we in the business community could partner. Some of his suggestions are below:
(of course Scott was too modest to mention his own public art endeavor, Baltimore Love Project)

Entrepreneurs don't actually need much direct help

By definition entrepreneurs are "relentlessly resourceful", so on some level they don't need any help - they need the government to stay out of their way (I'm looking at you, Tech Tax 2). I always think of my friend Scott Messinger and his company Common Curriculum, which I advise. That dude is not waiting for anyone to give him anything; he taught himself to code, he's overcoming all kinds of obstacles, and he's making a great product.

So if you want more tech businesses to form in your city, what can you do recruit more Scott Messingers and how do you retain the ones you already have? What can you do to make your entrepreneur corps more efficient (in the sense that they either succeed or fail-and-learn more quickly)?

Create a center of excellence

Most of the organizations I've talked to are internally-focused. They have members or clients and are primarily devoted to servicing them, because that's where their revenue comes from. What we need is a "center of excellence for technology entrepreneurship" funded by entities that care about improving Baltimore's tech industry competitiveness. This center would be externally-focused, dedicated to educating citizens about the science of entrepreneurship while helping them practice it more efficiently. This could include:
  • Hosting entrepreneurs-in-residence who offer regular office hours to local startups (perhaps this would be a good way for cashed-out entrepreneurs to give back, a place for them to hang their hats while looking for the next opportunity)
  • Publishing blogs and podcasts documenting new technology endeavors (sort of like what is now doing) and disseminating lessons learned
  • Organizing workshops, bringing in guest speakers, hosting courses in its own classrooms, etc.
  • Coordinating tech education efforts (which might look like DC's new Hungry Academy or NYC's Academy for Software Engineering)
  • Acting as a trusted connector, brokering introductions for startups and investors/mentors/customers/service providers
  • Pooling risk and providing access to shared resources like office space (perhaps by guaranteeing leases)
There are a couple of places where that center could reside. I'm hopeful that one of the organizations I've been meeting with will take on this role. There are also two exciting projects developing this year that might house such a center or take on some of these missions, one of which is opening its doors in a few weeks. The other one, led by the Innovation Alliance, is holding a town hall meeting next week to discuss all of these issues.

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