How can a city help — actually help — its local startups?
I had a meeting the other day with folks from the City of Cincinnati. They stopped by Ahalogy to chat because they were looking for answers. How could they, the city, find ways to pitch in and support startups like us?
Earlier that morning before our conversation, I jotted down a few ideas. Best not show up unprepared. The list was interesting enough and fodder for the conversation, but there was no rhyme or reason to it, no apparent theme. It was only later that day when I realized the thread that strung them together.
Here’s what I wrote down:
A few ideas on how we can make Cincinnati even better for startups:
A company’s relationship with a city begins with its physicality — the office. So where are the spaces? Once a team outgrows its dining room headquarters, graduates from the Brandery, or doubles its headcount, where do they go? Do they know what’s available? How to navigate those options?
Office space for startups doesn’t need fax machines, generic art, or receptionists. We don’t need incubators. Good space is square footage, flexible leases, fast internet, and a great vibe. An office is a recruiting tool. The character, buildout, and location of an office are important when hiring great people. They’re going to spend a lot of time there. They know the effect that their environments and commutes have on their quality of life, and they make career decisions accordingly.
Do I feel comfortable here? Can I focus? Is there natural light? Can I walk to work? Could I take the streetcar? Do I have to drive through highway traffic and then park in some dank garage every morning? Most of all, does it have the conditions for me to do the best work of my life?
This is the stuff that matters.
Community density and diversity means better access. Access means bumping into smart people during the day. It means your next hire is down the street. It means the thing that changes your perspective — intellectually or emotionally — could be just around the corner.
From Paul Graham’s classic The Future of Web Startups:
“The value of startup hubs, like centers for any kind of business, lies in something very old-fashioned: face to face meetings. No technology in the immediate future will replace walking down University Ave and running into a friend who tells you how to fix a bug that’s been bothering you all weekend, or visiting a friend’s startup down the street and ending up in a conversation with one of their investors.”
This is true not just of entire cities as Graham alludes, but of our neighborhoods as well. I pass by two startups and the Brandery on a walk through Over-the-Rhine to my favorite coffeeshop. How do we maintain and even increase that density of connection? As rents rise, how do we facilitate the creation of those close connections for more companies in other neighborhoods?
Access also means spending less time on commuting to work, getting a great cup of coffee, grabbing carryout, walking to a bar, sneaking in a workout, or transitioning from work to life and back to work again. When you devote so much of yourself to the vision and growth of a company, these switching costs matter. When cash is expensive, it’s access — not ownership — that unlocks so many opportunities.
Defining startup is actually an important step. The word gets tossed around too much these days. Everything is a startup now, because everyone thinks it has to be. Look, all startups are new businesses, but not all new businesses are startups. They’re just young companies destined at the outset to grow fast, and they usually raise outside equity capital to fund that growth.
We as a city should be encouraging entrepreneurship regardless of whether it’s a startup or not. A business is a business; they’re all difficult as hell, and entrepreneurs of all stripes deserve our admiration. Because of that we should provide connections between new businesses of any variety.
As an example, why isn’t Brian at Steam Whistle Letterpress making every local startup’s business cards? His work is beautiful and his storefront is right on Main Street. There’s no reason to get cards shipped in from somewhere else, no reason why a Cincinnati artisan shouldn’t support — and be supported by — growing, business card-spitting companies.
Do our startups know support like that is in the neighborhood?
Resource awareness goes a step further: city incentives, available talent, lunch spots, lawyers, accountants, printing, and apartments. Knowing what’s available makes it easier and cheaper to solve these non-core problems which every startup faces. Providing visibility to what’s around lets us connect all these businesses better.
A subset of Awareness is local talent. As our companies are fortunate enough to grow and need even more talent, how can we facilitate connections with our universities? Let’s help startups see the skill sets of smart kids coming out of local programs so there’s every opportunity to show off what we offer. Then we can keep the smart, driven ones working on exciting stuff here, not running off to San Francisco or settling for some corporate gig.
Likewise, lets facilitate young startups sharing their needs with these institutions. I know, curriculums change slowly. But building relationships and sharing our engineering, design, and product challenges means that hopefully we can help schools evolve courses and materials even faster. That means smart kids, already living in the city, can make meaningful contributions even earlier.
And then I found it
The night after the meeting, a bourbon in hand as I was reflecting on a day full of scattershot meetings, it dawned on me what united my list from that morning:
The scarcest commodity at a startup is attention.
Because it’s never been cheaper to start a business, but never more difficult to create something great, they often say that the only thing that matters is people. They say that it’s a startup’s only asset. That’s just not true. The thing that actually matters is the focus of great people.
If we want startups to grow so they can, in turn, create jobs and a more vibrant city, the undivided attention of founders and their teams is the only thing matters. The more making stuff and talking to customers a company does, the higher probably of market success and team growth. No one or thing can will a business to grow. It only happens organically. But we can cultivate the conditions that produce growth.
Getting teams into great spaces easily, nestling them in dynamic communities, and giving them awareness of what’s available are all ways to help them stay inspired, connected, and focused. These are the conditions that manifest growth.
Cultivating a great startup community doesn’t mean we should be heavy-handed. The Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and New York ecosystems of today didn’t come about because local government created programs, built more accelerators, or provided funding with strings attached. They exist because smart citizens found an important problem, secured capital, and built something awesome that changed the world.
Cincinnati is a beautiful city of vibrant neighborhoods and diligent people. We can go as far as our vision and our faith in the future will take us.
Till the soil, give them plenty of light, and the seeds will grow.
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