(Photo by Aidan Un)
Here in Philadelphia our startup scene has recently entered adolescence (hat tip to Alex Hillman for that analogy). We have pimples, our voice is changing, and our emotions are all over the place.
Ultimately, it’s a good thing! We are growing up and getting bigger! You can measure it in lots of ways, but whether it’s a bootstrapped startup or a venture-backed one, there are more of them getting past MVP, past product-market fit, into growth mode, than we have seen in a long time (definitely since 2000, when I started my first company here).
I tend to believe that many of the criticisms directed at Philly are not actually unique to Philly — they are just challenges that all startups face.
Yes, we have talent challenges, but every city does. Ask any startup in San Francisco if it’s hard to find and retain good talent and they will say it is one of their top three challenges. Yes, it is hard to raise money in Philly, but ask any first time founder in any city if it is hard to raise money and they tell you it has never been more competitive of a market. Philly-based investors are too risk averse? Then go pitch VCs in other markets. There are more externally funded companies in Philly than there ever have been.
Use the fact that you are based in Philly as an advantage because you can attract very smart people to your startup, and they tend to stay much longer than other more competitive markets. I believe it is an advantage to start a company in Philadelphia so much that I chose this region to start my second company here as well.
So if you have ever wondered, “How can I help Philly succeed as a startup community?” Here are some ideas I would offer:
1. Try local
- If you or your company is the target of a local startup’s offering, try it out and offer them feedback if they want it. Ticketleap CEO Tim Raybould wrote a great post on this subject. If it’s a fit for you, buy it/use it and be a reference customer. If it’s close, try to partner with the startup to make it a fit. If it is not close and a competitor has something genuinely better for your needs, then buy that, so long as you 1.) Give the Philly company a shot, and 2.) Give them candid feedback about why you went with their competitor (if they want it). This is a tough one, I know, but if you buy local and it is substantially inferior, it’s actually net negative for Philly, because now you are using a product that is unhelpful to (or negatively impacting) your business, and the startup is getting a false sense of success.
2. Be a cheerleader
- Genuinely root for a startup you know. When they announce something, help them share the news via social media and tell your friends about it.
3. Get out of the office
- Go to events, meet people here. I really don’t like small talk or “networking” in the traditional sense. But I go to events all the time. It works for me because the people I have met here I consider friends, so it doesn’t feel like networking any more.
4. Get WAY out of the office
- Experience other startup scenes, and share what you learn. Let it inspire your startup. There are exactly zero startup communities that got big by being closed. Go ask around, they will happily share what worked for them. I have immense respect for the startup communities and relationships I have been fortunate to make in San Francisco, New York and Austin.
5. Share what you know
- Maybe you tried a new way to get Twitter followers and it worked. Awesome thing to share. Try mentoring a first-time founder. Mentoring has shown to have a HUGE impact on startup success rates. (See below, though, false mentoring can have a similarly devastating effect on a startup.) And when you share a best practice, share it publicly if you can, not just locally. You get more visibility for your company (and ultimately Philly) that way! Ever read the Buffer blog? They are total pros at this and it drives a ton of traffic to their product. Here is a great example that was inspirational to Guru.
6. Intros, intros, intros
- Right now you know the perfect customer for a startup in Philly. You also know the ideal product manager for someone local who is hiring, and you may even know a high net worth individual who likes to do angel investments. It is amazing once you wire your brain to look for these connection opportunities how they start to appear.
And while we are at it, here are a few things I would encourage you to NOT do, if at all possible:
1. Stop comparing Philly to other cities
- My favorite is when I hear “the next Silicon Valley.” Silicon? Even if the descriptor wasn’t way outdated, did you ever compare your significant other to a prior significant other you used to date? Yup, it’s pretty much the same outcome. Every place is different, so let’s focus on what makes us unique, and stop trying to be like others.
2. Stop talking about “Philly vs. the Burbs”
- Please. I beg you. It’s the last thing we need to be talking about right now. When people talk about the tech scene in “Silicon Valley” do they exclude Salesforce.com, Twitter and Slack because they are headquartered in the city of San Francisco? Nope, they don’t. SAP is part of Philadelphia’s tech scene. So is DuckDuckGo, Zonoff, Clutch, LeadID, GSI Commerce (eBay), Kenexa (IBM), Boomi (Dell), and those are just a few examples. We are a region and need to take full advantage of what we have to offer in the aggregate.
3. Resist the urge to predict failure
- “That will never work! Ha!” Yes, 75 percent of startups fail, Captain Obvious. The next time you have the urge, instead try to predict something that will succeed. You call that right, you just became The Startup Prophet and can update your various social media handles accordingly. Optimism is infectious.
4. Be REALLY careful when giving advice
- Early-stage startups may seek you out for advice because of an experience they think you had. If you lived through something they are going through, at a similar stage they are at now, then offering advice is terrific. Otherwise, the best thing you can do for that startup is say “I don’t know, but XYZ may, let me intro you.”
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