How VCs, Accelerators, and Coworking Spaces Put Communities in Buildings vs. Buildings in Communities

I'll bet you don't know where the Center of NY's Tech Community and Center of Creativity is.

Give up?

It's in the Financial District--right at 55 Broad Street.  It says so right on their website.  In fact, it is "well-known internationally as the original home of New York's technology community."

I'll bet you didn't know that--mostly because it never was.  Back in the late 90's, a lot of money and real estate brokering went into trying to make it so, however.  Names like Sun and Cornell (ironically, given the new tech campus) were brought in to try and tech-ify NYC's downtown area.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much actual tech being built in 55 Broad.  Sun's space was for it's customer assistance unit and Cornell just had a demo space patched into a supercomputer back on campus.  There was a computer training lab run by a company called Prosoft, but that's like having an Apex Tech and expecting to be the next Detroit. 

Despite the attempts at seeding things way downtown, Flatiron and Soho is where tech startups grew, just like today.  So why didn't it work?

What you had with 55 Broad was a case of trying to thrust a building into the community without necessarily seeding and connecting the community to the building.  Just because you put up a structure doesn't mean it's going to sprout a whole innovation ecosystem.  You need a lot of other elements crosspollinating. 

One of the reasons the NYC has such a vibrant ecosystem in place for startups is because of its seemingly more "permanent" community structures--not the buildings themselves, but the fulltime people and dedicated money that have a stake in the future of innovation of NYC.  These are people whose business it is to support startups.  

VCs and fulltime angels bring a lot more than just money to the communities they invest in.  There was never a shortage of money in NYC--and there really isn't a shortage of money in any big city.  You can get just about any wealthy person to part with some small portion of their wealth to put into risky investments, but these people don't contribute back to the ecosystem.  They don't have a stake in it--and by not actively putting themselves out there as a source of capital, they're not in the information flow.

The currency that VCs deal in that's just as important as any other is information.  Like pollinating bees, VCs bounce from meeting to meeting interacting with dozens of startups per week each.  They carry with them information about patterns of success, pitfalls, best practices and trends to look for.  They have a huge information advantage that startups can tap.  On top of that, they tend to be the locus of innovation networks.  It's no accident that the people who give out money have the largest networks of people floating around them.  It connects them to all the companies they've met, invested in, the bigger companies that could acquire their companies and hundreds if not thousands of employees that have worked within their portfolio.  They also meet a ton of press.  Government and academic professionals also seek them out to get connected to the startup ecosystem.  If you want to connect to an innovation community, there isn't a better place to start than someone who invests in it.

This is effective because, without a ground war, it's tough to start an innovation revolution.  It needs to go house to house--founders and employees getting matched through individual e-mail intros, deals happening over handshakes, and startups getting recruited into your ecosystem one at a time.

When communities lack a critical mass of fulltime investors, you get a lot of inefficiency.  Ideas get poorly vetted because the funders aren't current on tech trends.  Companies can't find the partners and employees they need.  It's not quite the same when you're putting government money to work supporting new companies.  Grants are nice, but they don't come with the expertise of investors who have worked with tons of startups before.

Plus, you lack for visible champions--which is the complimentary air support.  As much as a local community member might want to talk up a scene, the media always wants to follow the money.  Startups had been located in Brooklyn for years, but it seemed that once the idea of more money flowing here came about from my fund, the media suddenly had an interest in what was on the other side of the East River. 

I've come to appreciate how the same approach works with the physical spaces that have become startup hubs.  General Assembly is making a business out of fostering the community--and only because of that are they able to commit the kinds of fulltime resources necessary to create the quality and frequency of events that bring entrepreneurs together to learn.  When I was running what seemed like half of the events we had in the tech scene five years ago, I couldn't make nearly the kind of impact that a team working on it fulltime could.  Individuals running meetups have done a fantastic job helping the community flourish--but it's a major burden to find space, get speakers, and market your event when you have another job to do.  It happens and people do it, but it really helps when you have an organization focused on it as a goal.  Plus, that organization and the individual meetup organizers tend to find synergies around space usage, teaching best practices and crosspollination of speakers and ideas.

Techstars and other accelerators have also become major network hubs in the NYC ecosystem, bringing investors together from all across the country.  Brooklyn Beta will be accomplishing that same thing for the Brooklyn ecosystem.  I'm sure their Summer Camp demo day will be the first time a lot of VCs have set foot in the thriving outer borough. 

If the dreams of expanding the Tech Triangle footprint of Dumbo, the Navy Yard and Downtown Brooklyn are going to come true--and Williamsburg is to see continued expansion as its own supporter of tech, its going to need more of this kind of fulltime support from people who make a business of startups.  Just putting up buildings and spaces without enough fulltime support of organizers and investors won't do it.  That's what I fear when I see places like Berlin, Chicago, and Toronto putting on startup events--not enough anchors to make the whole thing stick and to turn the excitement into real opportunity. 

This also goes for lawyers and teachers, too.  Are your lawyers fulltime startup lawyers who do nothing but startup deals all the time or are they working on new companies as an exception?  What about your academic programs?  Is your business plan competition a fun thing you do on the side each year, or do you have real programs with fulltime staff dedicated to teaching full stack development and how to incubate real businesses?  What faculty member sees it as instrumental to their career to connect to the tech community around them to get in the flow of best practices?

So if you're checking off all the ingredients you need to build your own startup ecosystem, just count how many people you have whose fulltime profession it is to support the ecosystem through their normal course of business--not just a side gig or an economic project.  Get enough of those and you'll have your community.