TechStars is a huge f*ng rocket engine strapped to Seattle’s startup scene

I just got back from TechStars New York’s inaugural Demo Day. This was my third Demo Day (my first was Boulder 2009, followed by our own Seattle version last November) and all I can say is…

“Holy sh*t, TechStars has become an absolute startup juggernaut!”

David Cohen and his merry band of local Pied Pipers (including my Founders Co-op partner Andy Sack here in Seattle) have built the most amazing, reusable startup rocket booster I’ve ever seen.

If you haven’t experienced TechStars up close it’s a little hard to convey how effective the program is at turning raw entrepreneurial talent into fully-realized operating companies in just three months. Since the Seattle program operates out of the Founders Co-op offices here in South Lake Union, I’ve been able to participate as a screener, mentor and now serial investor in several TechStars alumni companies. Based on that experience, it’s obvious to me that TechStars is on an uninterruptible path to becoming the gold standard in startup accelerator programs (yes, even when compared to the universally admired Y Combinator brand).

That’s good news for TechStars, but it’s even better news for Seattle.

Since Andy and I started Founders Co-op a few years back I’ve become obsessed with how successful startup ecosystems are nurtured and grown. There’s no single formula for success here, but TechStars co-founder Brad Feld has been characteristically thoughtful and articulate about his experience in Boulder, and the TechStars program embodies the best of Brad and David’s experience in that market. Four of their key lessons – and how they apply to the Pacific Northwest – are listed below:

  1. It’s all about the mentors

Brad and David created TechStars, but their names are actually kind of hard to find on the TechStars website. Instead, the TechStars brand is all about the mentors, a large and staggeringly accomplished group of entrepreneurs with deep ties in each of the cities where the program operates. The entire model is built around connecting a new generation of founders with earlier generations, on a purely volunteer basis, anchored by a shared passion for innovation and company-building.

Seattle has a reputation as a “closed” city, where relationships and access often play a bigger role than talent and hustle in determining who gets help. TechStars Seattle has succeeded in engaging a long list of Seattle’s best and most accomplished entrepreneurs, bringing some much-needed transparency to the local market for startup support. These mentors are digging in, building relationships not only with the TechStars companies, but also with each other, opening new channels in the entrepreneurial network that extend well beyond the program itself.

  • Engage the communitySuccessful startup ecosystems attract long-term participation from players across the full spectrum of civic life: colleges and universities, corporations, local and state government, not-for-profits, institutional investors, media outlets, etc. Every group needs to have relationships with and understand the objectives of every other player to build effective coalitions and maximize information flow across the community.

    In Seattle (and elsewhere), TechStars has become a pivot point for the broader startup community, attracting participation and support from every institutional investor, major non-market players and leading service providers alike. The program’s Boulder headquarters and mentor-centric design make TechStars an appealingly neutral platform, easily embraced by every key player in each host city because it doesn’t owe allegiance to any of them.

  • Embrace the unique strengths of your local marketTechStars was created in Boulder, not as a way to make Boulder more like Silicon Valley, but to forge a native startup culture that valued *everything* that Boulder has to offer, from mountains and rivers to the intimacy and collegiality of a small college town. Contrast that with last week’s New York Demo Day: there were more blue blazers and slicked-back hair than I’ve ever seen in one room and the pitching companies had clearly embraced the media, ad tech, urban lifestyle and fashion zeitgeist of their host city.

    TechStars is able to thrive in cities as diverse as Boulder, Seattle, Boston and New York because it doesn’t want those cities to be any different than they are, it just wants to bring out the best of their indigenous startup cultures. Seattle has deep Enterprise, Travel, Mobile and eCommerce DNA, since that’s how most of the successful local techies made their bones. We also have funky weather, killer outdoor access and a business culture that – despite all the tech wealth in the area – prefers modesty and privacy over flash and self-promotion. TechStars lets entrepreneurs self-select into the location and culture that suits them best, and in doing so gives them the sturdiest possible platform for success on their terms.

  • Create liquidity in the talent poolInsanely talented entrepreneurs are the rare and precious raw material on which successful startup communities are built. What attracts great entrepreneurs? Opportunities to connect and mix it up with other like-minded and high-performing peers. As Brad Feld puts it,

    new entrepreneurs should have their minds blown when they move from their otherwise dull and disengaged community to your exciting, welcoming and engaging community.”

    Seattle has great schools and companies that attract brilliant and ambitious technologists from around the world. Inevitably, some small fraction of this population will choose an entrepreneurial path. When they do, the local on-ramps to the startup life need to be visible, accessible and warmly welcoming or those folks will gravitate toward cities and communities where they can get the support they need. TechStars is helping Seattle build those on-ramps and shine bright lights on the people and institutions who want to help.

Everything I see tells me that Seattle’s startup ecosystem is on a great path: more talent, more great companies, more investors, more deals, more flow and liquidity than I’ve seen here since I moved back in 2001. Some of that is surely cyclical, but my long-term bet is that the foundation of a new class of entrepreneurial companies is being laid down right now. TechStars is a big reason why.