As someone who has started and/or led companies in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Washington DC, the answer is a simple one: yes, but...
Let me start with a story. The first marathon I ever ran was the Walt Disney Marathon in Florida. When I signed up, I was thinking: "I live in Michigan. Late January. Florida. What's not to love?" Training went well right up until the last weeks when the miles start to pile on. Sure enough, my 16-mile and 18-mile training days both fell during full-on, freeze your you-know-what off blizzards. There I was, bundled up head-to-toe, plodding along with snow biting at my face and icicles forming on my eyelashes. By sheer will and determination not to fail, I powered through those runs. Thankfully, my last long run (20-miles!) was on a day when I was visiting family in Texas. I put on my shorts and ran those miles without giving a second thought about the weather (hello pleasantly cooling breezes!). A few weeks later I successfully completed my first marathon, finished with a faster time than I'd expected and received my coveted "finisher's medal."
Starting a company in the U.S. is a lot like my marathon training experiences: You can do it anywhere. But sometimes, the experience is going to be far more painful, and sheer grit and will power (not location) is what will make or break your success.
There's good news and bad news in that reality.
First, the bad news. There are communities all over the country that really are hard places to build a new company. I know -- I've lived in them and, over the past two years with Startup America, I've visited them; and they have some of the same hallmarks. Cultural values don't support risk taking, and failure is viewed shamefully rather than as a valuable learning experience. Those who have failed are rarely helped to make a smooth transition into a next gig. Capital is scarce; and too much of the communities' wealth is hidden away behind country club walls and locked in "old boy networks" that don't grasp today's startup fundamentals.
When investments do happen, frequently by inexperienced "newly-minted-angels," they often overburden terms sheets with company-killing terms. Experienced mentors who have actually built rapid-fire growth companies are uncommon, leaving startups with well-meaning but inadequate counsel. As a result, despite good intentions of trying to "help" these budding companies, many communities are sending startups down rabbit holes that don't lead to highly scalable companies. Entrepreneurs feel desperately alone, and long for the community, connections, resources and networking they could get in places like Silicon Valley.
Fortunately, despite all of the hurdles, entrepreneurs are a tough lot. They are finding ways to start new companies and successfully scale them pretty much everywhere in the country. Scan the Inc. 500 or list of Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year winners list and you will find highly successful companies in every corner of the US.
Beyond the sheer grit of startups getting it done all over the country, the other good news is the growing movement of successful entrepreneurs volunteering and working to make their communities better places for the next generation of startups. Look no further than Boulder, Nashville, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Raleigh, Houston or Baltimore and you will find highly successful entrepreneurs investing their time in building the fabric of their communities. They're teasing out the local wealth, expanding access to capital, growing the base of highly qualified mentors, making mentors more accessible, being mentors themselves, opening coworking spaces, writing books, delivering training, running meetups, and more. Collectively, these entrepreneurs are chipping away at their communities' challenges, making it easier for each successive generation of startups to succeed, and working to change the mantra from "Silicon Valley is the place for startups" to "Silicon Valley is a place for startups."
The truth is, it isn't easy to start a company in many parts of the U.S. But, it can be done, it is getting easier, and nobody should let the existing hurdles be an excuse for not diving in. Like training for a marathon, sometimes the environment just won't cooperate, but that shiny finisher's medal makes toughing it out well worth it.
Donna Harris is Managing Director of Startup Regions at the Startup America Partnership and the cofounder of 1776. Having founded or been on the senior leadership team of four separate companies, Donna is working with entrepreneurs all over the country to build strong startup communities that can generate more successful startups and accelerate the trajectory of their growth.
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