Startup Places and the companies that call them home

Crossroads District
Baltimore Street in Kansas City, MO’s Crossroads District. Photo by Chris Murphy via Flickr.

This Thursday we’re hosting Tech in the City: Startup Communities in Startup Places, a conversation about DC’s startup companies and the neighborhoods they call home. Follow the conversation on Twitter later this week at #TechintheCity.

Small tech startups are coming together in cities across the country to build communities of innovation and collaboration. Why are these communities taking root in the places they do? And what can cities do to foster these leaders of the new economy?

It may seem counterintuitive for competing companies to move close to one another, but there are reasons for startups to work together. As Brad Feld explains in his book Startup Communities, startups can be more successful, create more jobs, and attract more talent by working together to create an inclusive community of people who gather together to share ideas.

Dozens of cities in the United States are now home to one or more startup communities. These clusters of companies are often grouped around a shared resource like co-working space, a tech accelerator or university. It takes more than that, though, for a startup community to flourish. In city after city these communities are forming in neighborhoods with a common set of characteristics.

I call these neighborhoods Startup Places. Whether in former industrial neighborhoods, a city’s downtown or an historic district put to innovative new use, Startup Places have places to gather, a dynamic mix of people nearby, and affordable commercial spaces. These neighborhood features meet the needs of startup communities by giving startup leaders places to meet fellow entrepreneurs, mingle with new ideas, and find flexible office space affordable enough for a new business. Here’s a closer look at how neighborhoods like these come about.

Kansas City’s Crossroads District

Kansas City, MO’s Crossroads District a great example of a Startup Place. Originally an industrial neighborhood, the Crossroads’ former warehouses have been transformed into art galleries, restaurants and loft space, and the startup community that calls the neighborhood home has earned it the nickname “Silicon Prairie.”

“We wanted a place that we thought could be attractive to the sort of demographic we’re looking for in our company,” said Robb Heineman, co-CEO of Sporting Innovations. “Just spending some time down here in the Crossroads has been really energizing for our people. I like it personally, but I also know that our associate population is really fond of this environment so we wanted to do everything we could to foster that.”

For its part, Kansas City has made an active effort to make the startups feel at home, and has helped tailor the neighborhood to meet their needs. The city’s LaunchKC initiative provided tax abatements and financial incentives, affordable office space, a data center and co-working spaces as well as free wifi throughout the neighborhood. Kansas City Mayor Sly James was named one of the Most Innovative Mayors in the U.S. for his efforts, and the city’s economy has benefited:

[N]ew businesses and entrepreneurs are already starting to come to this Midwestern tech mecca. James helped create the environment for this investment by embracing local tech startups and a business incubator that crowd-funds companies…These investments have already helped spur a resurgence in the downtown population, expanding the tax base while improving the quality of life. “Partnerships pay dividends,” James says. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Kansas City entrepreneurs are using these lessons to create more Startup Places like the Kansas City Startup Village. The Startup Village is the first neighborhood in the country with Google Fiber, an internet connection 100 times faster than today’s broadband, and the neighborhood’s startups are working together to create a great place. The community there has grown from just 2 companies a year ago to 21 companies now, thanks in part to companies like Local Ruckus, which led the way.

Boulder’s Pearl Street

Boulder, CO’s Pearl Street Mall is another great Startup Place. This four block pedestrian mall in the heart of Downtown Boulder is home to over 1,000 businesses – many of them startups.

“If you walk from one end of Pearl to the other, you’ll pass 200 start-ups,” said Holly Hamann, co-founder of TapInfluence. And she’s not exaggerating: The city of only 100,000 people is home to 240 startup companies, investors, accelerators and incubators, giving it the highest concentration of software developers per capita in the country.

The focused development on Pearl Street and in the heart of downtown has created a strong center for the startup community. The city’s zoning supports vibrant mixed-use spaces like Pearl Street, and efforts are underway to create more great places in different neighborhoods while continuing to preserve the surrounding wilderness, a strategy which helps attract startup companies to Boulder and keep them there.

Creating new Startup Places – with the help of startups themselves

Kansas City and Boulder are just two of the many, many Startup Places developing across the country. Perhaps most promising, though, is that startups themselves are helping to create the next Startup Places.

Startups are creating new platforms and programs that help people anywhere get involved in reimagining their community. Neighborland helps individuals and organizations share ideas and collaborate on creating better cities. Fundrise is a platform for individuals to directly invest in real estate development projects in their neighborhoods, Smallknot invites people to invite in their local small businesses, and is a similar platform for civic projects like parks and playgrounds.

We can see this happening right here in DC. The City’s new Economic Development Strategy for DC highlights the need to create more affordable work space for startups, provide citywide wifi, and invest in more walkable neighborhoods with local stores as steps to create the largest tech center on the East Coast. And DC’s own CrowdsourceDC allows individuals to share and vote on ideas for making DC’s neighborhoods more socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. We’ll be talking about initiatives like these and many more at Tech in the City on Thursday.

There are lessons here for towns cities across the country. By changing public investments, updating regulations and making it easier for Startup Places to emerge, cities can create great places and home-grown industries.

Who knows what the companies in Startup Places will create next. No matter what that is though, we’ll all benefit from creating great neighborhoods.