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Ecosystem development

5 lessons Delaware can learn from an unlikely ally: Birmingham

Small tech ecosystems are different from larger ones — and they can have a lot in common, as we learned during the Builder’s Conference.

Deontée Gordon, president of TechBirmingham ( Quinn)

When Birmingham Bound, a tech economic development organization in Alabama, held an event at SXSW 2024, some people didn’t know what to make of it.

“People thought we were from the UK,” said Birmingham Bound president Maria Underwood at a Builder’s Conference panel. “It made more sense to them that we were at SXSW from Birmingham UK than Alabama.”

It was a swing the emerging tech ecosystem city, nicknamed “The Magic City,” took, and by all accounts it was a success. With Birmingham Bound and fellow org TechBirmingham having a presence at Philly Tech Week’s Builder’s Conference last month, parallels between the deep south city and our own small tech ecosystem in Delaware became even more clear. 

Small ecosystems are different from big ones. It’s something sees every day — the Delaware market can’t be treated the same as Philadelphia or DC, cities with more access to VC funding and larger tech and entrepreneur pipelines. 

But it can be treated like Birmingham. And ecosystems like Delaware and Birmingham represent tech’s future, if not its present: Tech ecosystems are in all of our backyards, including small and mid-sized cities in different regions of the country.

Delaware’s major city, Wilmington, is too small at a population of 70,000 to be a standalone ecosystem without including Newark, and, increasingly, downstate. We have organizations similar to Birmingham Bound and TechBirmingham, like the Delaware Prosperity Partnership and the Tech Council of Delaware, the latter of which also had a Builder’s Conference presence

These emerging ecosystems can learn from each other. Here is some Birmingham advice from the Builders Conference that could apply to Delaware:

Every business owner is an entrepreneur

In large tech ecosystems, the word entrepreneur is often linked to software — even while the ever-popular “Shark Tank” uses it to mean something closer to consumer gadget or inventor. By contrast, small cities may overlook software tech when it creates resources for small businesses, which leads to tech entrepreneurs leaving. 

“We are too small to say that we are going to support small brick and mortar businesses and not the small startup entrepreneur,” said Underwood. “All business owners are entrepreneurs – it generates more resources for everyone.”

VC isn’t everything

One of the challenges of small ecosystems is that venture capital funding just isn’t as prevalent as it is in big cities. Alternatives include state grants, crowdfunding and getting creative.

“There’s a [Birmingham] founder who is taking a swing at the childcare industry,” Underwood said. “Instead of finding VC partners, she started a group called Founding Mothers. Any mother who comes in at $10,000 or above is given free childcare in her system for a year.”

Embrace that you’re not Silicon Valley

Tech ecosystems don’t have to look up to the Big Tech model, for multiple reasons. It’s less inclusive than some smaller ecosystems (including both Delaware and Birmingham), and the culture can be more toxic.

“Something is broken in the tech ecosystem in general where if you’re an entrepreneur you have to eat, sleep and die for your company or you’re going to fail,” Underwood said. “What we try to do when we bring people to Birmingham is to show them how they will love to start their business here, but also how they will love to live here.”

Show people exactly why they’ll love your small ecosystem

One of Delaware’s known tech ecosystem pain points is that people on the outside know very little about what the state is like, giving it a reputation of being nowhere with nothing to do. A “cool” image is necessary when you’re trying to draw entrepreneurs and tech talent. 

Birmingham Bound, Underwood said, will customize tours for people interested in potentially moving to the city. For example, after an intake form noted that an entrepreneur can’t live without good coffee, they arranged a coffee tour of the city. They highlight things like hiking trails alongside resources for business owners.  

Embrace your history, even if it’s difficult

In a flash talk, TechBirmingham president Deontée Gordon noted one of his city’s challenges.

“Birmingham is unique because a lot of people think our chief export is racism,” he said. 

Instead of hiding from the dark aspects of Alabama’s history, Gordon embraces Birmingham’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement and sees it as a badge of honor. Though Delaware’s place in Civil Rights history is less famous, this can apply here, too.

“When you think about the conversations that are going on right now around tech about access and inclusion,” Gordon said, “I think Birmingham is in a prime position to start leading the charge to figure out what it truly means to have an ecosystem that is accessible for every single individual.”

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Companies: Tech Council of Delaware

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