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Donna Harris Headshot

New Startup Communities Breaking Through

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Last week, I was asked to speak at the Congressional Caucus on Innovation and Entrepreneurship and educate Members of Congress about the places around the country where entrepreneurial growth is blossoming and the critical factors making those locations successful.

Before I share what I told them, let's stop and consider the magnitude of that "ask." The sheer fact that Congress is aware that entrepreneurs are flourishing in markets beyond Silicon Valley and Boston is a huge sign of progress. Yes, America, there are startups everywhere!

In fact, if you have been paying attention to the media coverage of startup communities over the past few years (as I have in my role leading Startup America's strategy to help strengthen ecosystems across the U.S.), you will notice a dramatic up-tick lately in the mentions of unexpected places. Forbes recently highlighted America's New Tech Hotspots, which listed places like Washington, D.C., San Antonio, Baltimore, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, Houston, and Jacksonville. The New York Times and CNN have both focused on "next generation of Startup Cities" such as Boulder, Nashville and Cincinnati.

It is not coincidental that each of these communities is emerging onto the national startup scene, as there are major factors altering the playing field at the regional level in the U.S.

First, technological innovation is making is easier and far less expensive to start and scale a company. With the rise of Internet technologies, cloud computing, mobile solutions, social media as a major marketing channel, entrepreneurs don't need significant capital infusions to get initial products developed and launched. The Lean Startup movement has helped, pushing startups to create "minimum viable products" rather than investing in building entire feature sets. And, technology advances have made it entirely feasible to build highly complex solutions from anywhere -- all pushing against the traditional notion that startups need to cluster together around a physical center of commerce.

Second, the amount of startup know-how flowing into emerging ecosystems is dramatically increasing. 2012 boasted a slate of top selling books demystifying the entrepreneurship process and standardizing the tools of the trade from authors such as Brad Feld and Eric Ries. Entrepreneurs from anywhere now have access to participate in top accelerator programs, such as Y Combinator, TechStars, and 500 Startups (and frequently bring their newly minted skills back to their home communities). Colleges are also contributing as more of them are adding or bolstering their entrepreneurship programs (there are over 2,000 full-time entrepreneurship programs in existence now versus just 16 in 1970) and beginning to share best practices among each other.

Entrepreneurs themselves are a big factor in driving new ecosystems. The Startup America "movement" has mobilized and empowered entrepreneurs to be "champions" and lead the advancement of their local ecosystems. Nearly 800 volunteers (serial, successful entrepreneurs) are working in 30 states to improve access to capital, strengthen mentor networks, advance community talent, and more. Unlike traditional models for developing economies, they see no need to compete with each other. They get that every community has the potential to be strong and they're working across city and state lines to make it so -- by connecting in-person and online, sharing ideas, suggesting programs, sending each other playbooks, joining each other's team calls, and being willing to give without thinking about what they get in return.

In fact, beyond the Startup America movement to mobilize entrepreneurs to actively lead the improvement of their home communities, our country's national startup economy is increasingly functioning in unison, with our collection of communities operating as a single national startup economy. Highly successful programs, such as Startup Weekend, are happening in cities all over the country. Communities no longer have to build programming from scratch, as there is a wide array of programs to choose from; and they are able to collaborate with others from across the country who have done the same. The "open source" movement has permeated the industry, driving a willingness among experts to share their knowledge. Leading co-working spaces are actively helping others emulate their models. Accelerators are sharing common practices through affiliations like the Global Accelerator Network. Thought leaders are engaging beyond their home cities or states with iconic figures like Steve Case and Steve Blank actively traveling, speaking, and meeting with entrepreneurs all over the country.

All of these factors are creating the exact right conditions for dramatic changes in the landscape of our national startup economy. Wonderfully, that means startup activity is emerging in every corner of the country; and anyone, anywhere can participate, engage, learn and use the best practices of high growth entrepreneurship. But perhaps more importantly, developing ecosystems are able to evolve in a fraction of the time it took Silicon Valley or Boston to emerge. As we've seen the dramatic surge of the New York City startup scene over the past few years, so we will also see other unexpected places all over the United States breaking through in the coming years.