Making a Startup Communicorn

Learning to cultivate a growing startup community from the biggest little town in the tech world

In the startup world, a unicorn is a company that has hit a valuation of epic proportions (> $1 billion) in the short lifecycle of a startup. Unicorns come in many shapes and sizes. They are rare, appear to be made of magic and are hard to duplicate.

Boulder, Colorado is a shining example of, and possibly the first place ever identified as, a community unicorn — a communicorn.

It’s a perfectly balanced, self-sustaining ecosystem that deeply understands how to create a strong community of people which drive entrepreneurship and reproduce intelligence, collaboration and dollars exponentially. It’s as pleasant as it is powerful. It’s a small place that achieves massively big things in proportion.

I have spent a fair amount of time in Boulder. Enough for the community to earn my deep respect and carve out a very special place in my heart.

I attended Boulder Startup Week and dedicated five days to soaking in the town’s entrepreneurial energy. I spent time in co-working spaces, joined conversation at coffee meetups and went to happy hour inside local startups. This is not your typical tech event, as humbly described by its organizers:

The goal of Boulder Startup Week is fairly simple: Boulder is awesome, and we want everyone to know about it.
Over the course of five days in May, local startups open their doors to welcome any and all to the community by way of free events, meetups, sessions, parties and hootenannies.
We want entrepreneurs, investors, developers and the tech-addled to experience what it’s like to be here in the hope that, I don’t know, perhaps they’ll decide to join us full-time one day. Boulder is full of tech transplants, people who caught the Boulder bug and settled here in the last few years. We never get tired of hearing that story, and we hope you’ll add yours to the pile.

I met folks who traveled around the globe, from Rhode Island to Australia, to attend events in Boulder. I sat in on office hours with respected community mentors, gathered with groups of founders in the park, hiked with VCs, and started writing this at a locally loved bookstore cafe.

All of my experiences have led me to one conclusion: Boulder is the biggest little town in the startup world. It’s a shining example of perhaps one of the most brilliantly executed startup communities. There are many good stories, hard numbers and popular books to back this up. But it doesn’t hit home until you’re immersed in the magic.

Cities like Austin have been attracting out-of-towners for big conferences like SXSW for years. But have you attended Austin Startup Week? This is a different breed of events focused on fostering a close-knit community.

Spotting a Communicorn

Here are some traits of communicorns I’ve identified. These points, like that word, are made up by me. I encourage your feedback and additions to this list.

  • There is constant desire for new people to transplant themselves to the city… and stick around.
  • There is a ‘recruiting’ effort put on by locals to bring new people into the community and an incredibly warm welcome when those new people arrive.
  • The community starts movements that are so awesome, they are adopted and adapted by other communities. For example, Startup Weekend started in Boulder with just a few folks and is now in 135+ countries (thanks, Andrew Hyde).
  • Everyone genuinely cares. Egoless, motiveless, selfless help happens. This is most evident in times of crisis.
  • The jerks have a hard time living in the community and eventually evolve or leave. In a connected community of like-minded individuals, it’s easy to spot a jerk. Boulder is unique in that the people still try to help the jerks become better people. This niceness makes it so awkward for jerks that they eventually learn and change their ways, or simply leave (this anecdote provided by a 2nd generation Boulder local).
  • The community has strength in density, not numbers. A tight network is created in which the members support and elevate each other.
  • Businesses support each other. Buying—and selling—local matters. In Boulder, “made in Colorado” is a credo proudly printed on all packaging and spoken with resounding force. Often in startups, the global access automatically granted to us by the Internet makes us forget to support the businesses in our backyard.

The Secret Formula

How do we cultivate a community like Boulder? The simple answer: you don’t. Like a unicorn, every community is unique. Let’s take my hometown, Los Angeles, as an example for comparison.

Los Angeles has 100x more people and nearly 200x more space than Boulder*. Those multipliers look awesome if you’re investing in a startup, but when it comes to building community bigger is not better.

Like any big city, L.A. is made of up pockets of communities, and self-identified areas based on ethnicity or industry that eventually get recognized by the local government (Koreatown, Arts District, Playhouse District). The residents also designate borders with nicknames. We now have “Silicon Beach”, comprised of all the tech companies along the coast from Santa Monica to Venice.

We have communities within communities, and are growing quickly to over 1,000 bonafide startups, but without cohesion these will not result in a communicorn effect. We have amazing minds, but they are spread far and wide. Where there is no density, there is less opportunity for positive collisions, and that’s what it takes to spark magic.

Are you ready to make Los Angeles a communicorn?

Last fall, in October 2014, with the help of many awesome members of our community, the inaugural LA Startup Week happened. We had over 2,000 registrations and 35 events — all free and open to the community. Connections were made, conversations happened, and the best part of all: our community came together in a way that felt incredibly genuine.

LA has the only Startup Week with it’s own hand signal. And it’s animated like a rocketship.

Let’s keep doing this. This fall we will celebrate our community again for a week over October 19–23. We do this to catalyze a stronger, more connected community and put L.A. on the map as a startup communicorn. Participate, volunteer, host an event, open up your office, lead a hike, invite out-of-towners to stay with you for a few days. Do it all in the name of making our community more awesome. Leave your marketing motivations behind. What do you say, Los Angeles? Are you with us?

LAstartupweek.com | @lastartupweek


*Population and land area:
Los Angeles — 10M people / 4,850 square miles
Boulder — 100K people / 25 square miles

Note: L.A. City makes up a portion of that number and, to be fair, there are other incorporated cities within L.A. I’ve included them all as part of this because we all see ourselves as Angelinos. It’s an oddly shaped community.