February 13, 2015 in Culture

StartupIn the late 1300s, the Medici family came into power in Italy. Whether due to temperament, environment, or chance, they became the family who godfathered the Italian renaissance, and helped spark the many revolutions in science, art, and politics which formed the world we live in today.

Since then, many people and cities have aspired to recapture that magic. Can one city launch a new revolution in human culture? Can one era kick off a new level of creation and innovation?

Today, San Francisco is the primary claimant to this role. As the epicenter of startup culture itself, they aspire to cultivate the kinds of innovation which will reshape the world at every level. And in many ways, they have. With Facebook, Twitter, and Paypal, San Francisco has helped launch products that have changed the way we interact with each other. Even our concepts of friendship and family have been impacted.

But even San Franciscans recognize that one startup city is not enough. Each city brings its own history and culture to the table, and fosters the kinds of ideas that simply don’t occur elsewhere. If our technological culture rests entirely on San Francisco, it will be a culture that lacks depth and resilience, and misses touching on key parts of the human condition.

But what can a city do to unlock its potential, and create a startup culture all its own? What circumstances are needed for the latent DNA of a city to break out into a fertile startup ecosystem?

1. A culture that encourages risk-taking

In a lot of ways, startups are the machinery of bold risk. Peter Thiel defines a startup as a company attempting to scale exponentially. That entails risk: any business model which is known and proven may be safe, but it is unlikely to be able to scale by orders of magnitude.

So the founders of startups have to be people who are comfortable going against the grain, and against the proven ways of doing things. They have to be willing to take on enormous odds, chasing an idea they believe in.

Frontier communities probably have a head start in this area. San Francisco is fairly young, and retains some of the frontier spirit of its founders. But the older a community is, the more difficulty it will most likely have in reconnecting to this spirit.

What can be done to lead the way?

A culture of risk-taking requires people who are willing to take risks. Ideally, this starts at the level of investors; instead of looking for “safe bets”, the capital in a city needs to get into the mindset of taking deliberate long shots, placing bets on unproven ideas pursued by passionate and driven individuals.

2. A network of resources

As a startup grows, it needs to be able to scale quickly, tapping into resources to match the obstacles it encounters along the way. Those resources can be anything from database servers to growth marketers.

In this regard, it’s important for more traditional, “old growth” businesses to be available for leadership and guidance, as the startup enters “uncharted areas” that the city’s business community already has a lot of embedded knowledge about.

It’s also incredibly important to put the “community” into “tech community”. With local conferences, interest groups, and mentorship opportunities, both startups and the people who work in them can tap into knowledge and experience far beyond what they’d otherwise have available.

The most pressing need, though, will always be human resources.

3. A dynamic workforce

Startups need a pool of developers, designers, freelancers, marketers, and strategists to pull from. And this, in turn, means a community of learning, growth, and experimentation.

Is the community training new developers? Is it actively drawing new participants into the field? Is it continually upgrading the skill-sets of seasoned members of the development community?

Is the community conducive to freelancers, small business owners, and independent workers? Is there infrastructure and community support for non-traditional working arrangements?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but if the community wants to encourage experimentation and risk-taking, it needs to support fluidity in its workforce. This can mean everything from revisiting local legislation to providing hubs for developer interaction, to paving the way for new workforce education initiatives.

Most significantly, though, it means listening to non-traditional workers, to discover the blind spots the community may have to their needs. By uncovering these blind spots, the community can pave the way for an influx of new human resources, jumpstarting a growing and generative development community.