Over the past six years I’ve had the opportunity to visit and learn about startup ecosystems in cities around the world. While it’s obvious that Silicon Valley and New York are leading hubs, I’m personally interested in how less mature tech communities create entrepreneurial environments to support business growth.
Many people credit Silicon Valley’s early success to the slew of nearby universities that funneled graduates into the tech ecosystem early on. But I don’t think entrepreneurs are born in universities. To be an entrepreneur you have to do, which you cannot do while you’re in school.
In order to attract talent, cities need to create an environment that’s both supportive of startups but also a place where people would want to live. Housing costs, public transportation, nightlife, access to funding, number of startups— all of these things factor into whether a highly-skilled developer will choose to root himself in Austin or Silicon Valley or Berlin or Singapore.
Government support is also critical in attracting global talent. Countries outside of the US have seen an influx in talent in recent years due to progressive government actions — the UK has the Tech Nation Visa, France recently launched their French Tech Visa, Estonia grants e-residency. A global exchange of talent builds more diverse startup communities and governments must make it easier for companies to hire foreign talent.
One main reason Silicon Valley is more mature than other tech hubs is because successful entrepreneurs in the region have invested back in the community over the past 40 years. When someone has a successful exit, they reinvest it in the community, whether financially or through mentorship. You see this in other areas around the world obviously, but it’s much more recent.
My father is an entrepreneur who worked in the tech industry his entire career and IPOed a company when I was 13. I barely paid attention to it at the time, but I’ve since realized what an advantage I’ve had growing up in that environment. When I started working in the UK I noticed most founders were first-time (and first-generation) entrepreneurs and the cultural mindset shift towards accepting this non-traditional path was still in progress.
The opportunity for a chance meeting with a potential co-founder or investor is much more likely if you’re in a buzzing environment surrounded by like-minded people. Our environment shapes who we are and how we think; tech hubs with lots of startup activity will obviously spawn more and more entrepreneurs and innovative thinking.
As important as the above-mentioned items (and access to late-stage funding) are, cities should really focus on what makes their city unique. What are their local strengths and how can they utilize them to attract talent and build their own unique startup hub?
Columbus, Ohio is not the first city you’d think of when thinking about US tech hubs, but last year they won the Smart City Challenge and received $50M to reinvent mobility and ultimately foster sustainability. Detroit has seen a boom with partnerships across the automotive industry. Toronto is home to MaRS, one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs. One of the most interesting challenges to me is how we build strong bonds between these innovative cities and countries to foster global connections and growth.
No city will ever be Silicon Valley, but it shouldn’t try to be.