Understanding and nurturing the garden where tech startups grow
Recently I started a conversation with Mike Bradshaw of CoLab about GigTank 365, the new year-round version of what used to be a summer business accelerator for companies that capitalize on Chattanooga’s ultra-high-speed internet. Early on, the conversation detoured into some high-octane topics that are tough to corral into a short column: the mathematics of complexity, higher levels of organization and order in states that looks like disorder, and how these ideas might help understand Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Here are some highlights. Maybe next time we’ll make it all the way to GigTank.
The conversation started with metrics. CoLab needs to understand traditional markers of success for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, like the number of startups created, employees hired by those companies, and investments made in those companies.
“All those metrics are right, but I don’t believe they’re descriptive of the things we’re most interested in, they don’t help you control or nurture the ecosystem, understand it,” says Bradshaw. “The qualitative side of this entire culture and its effects on the larger community are barely told by those metrics.”
Now that Chattanooga has some startups that are successful enough to be interesting from an economic development point of view, he asks, is it more important to nurture those companies or to nurture the ecosystem from which they emerged?
“What about these single founder firms and these small companies that form and then dissolve into this flow that is the start up community,” he asks. “Suppose those are actually the most important element of the whole system, but your attention goes naturally to these more traditionally successful startups.”
One of the critical success factors Bradshaw sees, compared to the efforts of other communities to seed an entrepreneurial ecosystem, is that the organizations supporting entrepreneurship in Chattanooga did not attempt to build the ecosystem according to a formal plan.
“Chattanooga’s startup community emerged from the bottom up with support from the community,” he says. “The entrepreneurial ecosystem had a life of its own and people were supporting it without trying to direct and control it and make it into something.”
He compares this phenomenon to the scientific understanding of open systems that move from equilibrium into a state of turbulence. Think of a river flowing freely then encountering an obstruction. When the water hits that big rock, the whitewater chop looks chaotic but is actually a highly ordered response that can be mapped and understood.
CoLab emerged several years ago from what might have looked like a chaotic hodgepodge of tiny projects supported by CreateHere. The mission was not to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem, but some of its many projects went in that direction, then coalesced into the larger program that became CoLab, which in turn pursues a variety of projects at different scales aimed at nurturing an environment where people with ideas can develop them. The Edney Building and the Innovation District work in the same way, Bradshaw says, creating a terrain where a diversity of small companies can nurture each other through the collisions that happen every day.
Here’s my takeaway from a conversation that was longer than I can share here:
What if the key creation of the last 40 years of change in Chattanooga isn’t the revitalized place or the new companies or the more active economy of money and jobs that flows through the place? What if those are side effects, and what we’ve really created is some kind of “change machine” whose moving parts are found in an intangible network of relationships and beliefs and shared history?
And if we want more economic and cultural goodies—for everyone, not just people who enjoy them now—what if the golden-egg-laying goose that CoLab and Lamp Post Group and the Enterprise Center and others seek to nurture is as subtle as the idea of order behind the seemingly disordered flow of water around a boulder in the channel?
And if that’s true, then how do we understand and nurture this beautiful ghost? And more importantly, what do we change next?
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic website in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com
Photo illustration by leedsn