(This post was originally published in the Wall Street Journal).
Last year, the city of Manchester, New Hampshire, reached a milestone when Twitpic founder Noah Everett tagged us as the #SiliconMillyard. That badge, earned through years of dedicated work, signified that we were on the map as one of the Silicon-branded ecosystems.
How did we do it? And better yet, how can your city find the variety of ingredients and catalysts needed to bootstrap a self-sustaining economic engine and then figure out what’s next after that?
In his book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, Brad Feld wrote that entrepreneurs must lead the charge and that there is a 20 year timeline for success. We are in year five in Manchester, but we’ve picked up a few tips along the way.
First and foremost, you need to love where you live and be willing to fight for it.
When I graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and was pondering where to live and work, everyone told me I needed to head to the Bay Area, New York, or Boston. Instead, I returned home to Manchester.
People were skeptical and reminded me Manchester didn’t have a rich ecosystem. There were few startups, no investors and sparse talent, but that didn’t deter me. I knew that what Manchester had far outweighed what it lacked.
It was an industrious city, named after the textile mills in Manchester, England, before our Manchester became one of the world’s largest textile producers in the 1920s. (Here’s the history of our office.) Over the next 100 years, it reinvented itself and became home to Autodesk, Texas Instruments, and entrepreneur-inventor Dean Kamen, a keynote at this year’s Geek Summer Camp.
My former high school principal was the mayor. With optimism, my co-founders and I moved Dyn from Worcester Polytechnic Institute to Manchester in 2004.
As Dyn grew, we met companies doing great things and saw people make a difference. We learned that our accessibility to both the Manchester-Boston and Logan Airports was excellent. We could meet like-minded people when we traveled, but we wanted to see these types of people creating startups in New Hampshire.
We needed to encourage other startups.
Success begins with ideas, and educational institutions are incubators where good ideas are born. Both New Hampshire and the Northeast in general are blessed with having excellent colleges and universities, but the key is to connect them to businesses.
For years, this didn’t happen. Students received great educations, but were geographically detached from the economic centers of the state. This connection retains talent. If kids graduate with great ideas but don’t see how to locally realize them, they will flee to a place that welcomes them.
Internships are the bridge to retaining and attracting talent. Dyn benchmarked a 10% internship-workforce goal. We stayed in close contact with my alma mater and formed a pipeline from Worcester to Manchester. I joined the board of the community college system and pushed for a greater concentration on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Our co-founder became chairperson of the New Hampshire High Technology Council and challenged our university system to attract and produce more STEM students. Manchester also benefited from the rise of Southern New Hampshire University, well-known for its innovative online programs.
But ideas without action are like a rocket without fuel — they’re not going anywhere. Entrepreneurs are the catalyst of innovation. Students pouring out of school are thrifty and energetic, but require the hunger to organize talent and ideas into a company.
They also need a place to work.
For years, Manchester had the Amoskeag Business Incubator but it had become stagnant and wasn’t a voice for innovation. So its board members made a bold pivot, changed its leadership team and rebranded as the abi Innovation Hub. These past three years, the abi has been leading the cause, offering business plan competitions and networking with investors.
Investors are attracted to success.
As Dyn continued to succeed, we were proud that we were an anomaly in Manchester. But one success is a single story while many stories make a self-sustaining engine. More companies and more life cycles make the ecosystem a richer backdrop.
In an effort to inspire creativity, we offered Un-Roadmap Days where all technical people devote several days a month to side projects. Sometimes these projects spin off into their own companies with two recent examples being GearFreedom, an outdoor sports equipment rental service, and MyGunDB, a way for gun owners to organize their firearm collections digitally.
But even the brightest entrepreneur needs helps from controllers, directors of technology and senior marketers who have the experience to support the businesses. In Manchester, we benefit from a rich history of small businesses and a “Live Free or Die” attitude. More seasoned professionals are willing to take a chance on a booming company if you give them a reason. Success is the best reason.
Building an ecosystem is a challenge.
The Northeast is a great place to live, work and raise a family, or to ‘Stay Work & Play‘ — a nonprofit that we had a hand in creating whose mission is to expose more young people to the advantages of remaining in or returning to New Hampshire. Your city may be fantastic too, but to get the rest of the world to notice, you need people from a wide cross-section of society — education, business and government — to come together over a single cause.
This isn’t easy, but when it happens, there is nothing more rewarding.