Silicon Valley is the envy of the entrepreneurial world, and it deserves to be. It’s a seamless ecosystem for entrepreneurs: if you’re in the Silicon Valley system, and have a great idea, you can find the resources you need to succeed.
But in other cities, local leaders have had to create this ecosystem from the ground up.
In 2007, in Boulder, Colorado, Brad Feld and Dave Cohen built Techstars as an early “accelerator”, surrounding new businesses with the resources and mentors they needed to succeed. Since then, local leaders have launched accelerators in more than 1,000 communities across the world.
But do accelerators and other entrepreneur support programs actually work? In 2013, our team at Village Capital joined with Emory University and the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs to release the first global research study on entrepreneur support programs: Bridging the Pioneer Gap. Three years later, the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative published a first-of-its-kind study to find out what works and what doesn’t in acceleration: looking at 15 of Village Capital’s investment-readiness programs, they found that our model was helping entrepreneurs raise more capital — and that we might want to spend less time on certain things, like teaching financial modeling.
Last year, our team at Village Capital set out to take this question — “What works in entrepreneur support?” — one step further. We teamed up with the DOEN Foundation, the Kauffman Foundation, and the Sorenson Impact Foundation to conduct a real-life experiment called VilCap Communities. In the pilot year, we selected 26 community leaders who committed to using Village Capital’s peer-selected investment model to invest $50,000 into local entrepreneurs. While not every program succeeded, all the programs provided instructive insights into how to build effective communities.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Know the problem you’re solving: Helping entrepreneurs raise money isn’t a natural outcome: it’s a distinct skill set
Most companies are under-capitalized: 78% of startup investment in the US, and 50% of startup investment in the world, goes to just three states, while less than 5% goes to women and less than 1% goes to people of color. Ecosystem builders can help.
Yet if the problem you’re solving for is helping entrepreneurs raise money — getting companies ready to close a deal with an investor — make sure you’re building the right solution.
Too many entrepreneur support programs promise everything to everyone. There’s a distinct difference between ‘business model development’ and ‘leveling up for investment’, but most entrepreneur support programs spend their time teaching the former, with the goal being to help companies validate their business model (think: “Lean Startup”, or “Business Model Canvas”) and then let entrepreneurs loose on a Demo Day, introducing them to investors — often with poor results.
I started Village Capital in 2009 to help entrepreneurs specifically level up for investment. Our core innovation: a peer-review process through which entrepreneurs in each program actually play the role of investor. Does this make for a better program? Although most of our 26 Communities chose to customize the tools we provided (only 23% used the full curriculum), 100% of the communities used peer-selected investment.
The results were positive: 92% of businesses felt that the program made them more ready to raise investment for their next stage of growth. Beyond that, 92% of entrepreneurs connected with a meaningful mentor, 80% connected with a potential partner, and 64% connected with a potential investor.
The lesson: Know the problem you are solving. Not every accelerator or entrepreneur support program should focus on investment-readiness. Some specialize in offering product validation; others help founders develop strategic partnerships with big institutions. But if your promise and goal is helping entrepreneurs raise capital, make sure your pedagogy and learning outcomes are targeted to measurable increases in investment-readiness.
2. Be honest that building an ecosystem isn’t a profitable end in itself (and that’s ok!) Entrepreneur support organizations are infrastructure, not businesses. Get real about your goals beyond profitability, and track them.
There’s an old saying: “The cobbler’s son has no shoes.” The idea applies here: accelerators and incubators that are helping local businesses often have trouble with their own business models.
In our evaluation of the pilot, we found that 55% of every dollar taken in by the 26 programs was philanthropic. At the end of 12 months, 11 of the 26 communities were unable to reach their capital goals for launch — and none of them were “sustainable” without philanthropic subsidy.
As it turns out, entrepreneur support organizations may never be “revenue-sustainable” in a traditional sense. That’s actually OK! These organizations, when effective, are critical infrastructure for a city or a community, and should be treated as such.
There are two important takeaways here. For policymakers, foundations and elected officials who commit publicly to supporting entrepreneurs: remember that you’ll more than likely need to put your money where your mouth is, and support those who support entrepreneurs.
For entrepreneur support organizations: make sure you are accurately communicating what your goals are and sharing your progress with entrepreneurs, funders and any other stakeholders. Are you trying to make every company that goes through your program ten times more profitable? Are you trying to build a more resilient community? If you fail to set expectations, you risk alienating those who can support you financially.
3. Topophilia: Communities should focus on sectors with deep and local resonance
Last fall over breakfast, I asked John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado, why his state had four of the top 10 best-performing ecosystems in the country. “Topophilia,” he answered. The word, meaning “love of place,” highlighted a Colorado truth: Fort Collins is distinct from Boulder and Boulder is distinct from Colorado Springs, and they are all thriving because they are trying to be the best version of themselves.
Our VilCap Communities hypothesis from the beginning was that cities shouldn’t try and recreate Silicon Valley; they should be the best version of themselves. Many of our programs embraced a sector focus that resonated with the city. For example, Philadelphia launched a financial technology program, building on Philadelphia’s institutional history of financial services R&D since Benjamin Franklin designed the coins for the first U.S. Mint. Cincinnati’s program focused on water innovation, building on their history as a bre town and their private sector leadership in the water sector.
The results for these sector-specific programs were strongly positive. The cities that embraced a sector-meets-city thesis raised money more quickly, attracted better entrepreneurs, and were more likely to run and succeed.
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