This is the first installment of a blog series called “Startups, Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and Economic Development” introduced by CO.LAB Executive Director Mike Bradshaw. This series raises the questions of how can we understand the value of startups and startups communities’ impact on economic growth. Understanding a current entrepreneurial ecosystem like Chattanooga and how it was formed can ultimately help develop and drive the ecosystem forward in the future.
Mike raises this discussion as a converging of two of his major career experiences: an academic and an entrepreneur. He studied Complex Adaptive Systems (also known as complexity science) at Georgetown University, where he graduated first of his class. He is also a veteran entrepreneur, with experience ranging from restaurant owner in D.C. to being an early producer of CD-ROMs in the early 90s. Mike came to Chattanooga in 2003, began volunteering with CO.LAB in 2011 and joined as Executive Director in 2013.
Chattanooga’s Startup Community
“We are observing the birth of a new science that is no longer limited to idealized and simplified situations but reflects the complexity of the real world, a science that views us and our creativity as part of a fundamental trend present at all levels of nature.”
– Dr. Ilya Prigogine, 1977 Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
I first became aware of startup communities in late 2011, when I discovered I was living in one. A student in an entrepreneurship class I taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga said I should visit The Company Lab (CO.LAB) on Main Street. CO.LAB’s downtown neighborhood was coming back after decades of decline and neglect, and the nonprofit’s work was somehow tied to the Southside’s resurgence. Something was up on Main Street and I was curious to learn about it.
I was captivated by CO.LAB and became immersed in Chattanooga’s startup community. Over the last few decades, I’ve had a hand in starting several businesses located in Boston, Silicon Valley and DC, but I didn’t know these cities were entrepreneurial ecosystems. Nor was I aware that startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems were identified as primary factors in the success of urban renewal efforts around the country. It was intriguing that a startup community was emerging in Chattanooga, that it was playing a role in a whole neighborhood’s rebirth, and that our city was becoming an example that other budding startup communities hoped to follow.
“It was intriguing that a startup community was emerging in Chattanooga, that it was playing a role in a whole neighborhood’s rebirth, and that our city was becoming an example that other budding startup communities hoped to follow.”
Recently, I have met with civic and business leaders from across the country who come to Chattanooga to learn about our startup community. The words that come up most often when telling Chattanooga’s story are culture, collaboration and community. Our visitors appreciated the economic value that a culture of collaboration and a strong sense of community could bring to their cities. But I knew it wasn’t a very satisfying answer to conclude that our community was special because it was, well, a real community. If you don’t already have a culture like Chattanooga’s, what can you do to create it? What is its economic value and how do you even begin to calculate it? What does the care and feeding of an entrepreneurial ecosystem cost? Can an entrepreneurial ecosystem be grown intentionally or does it all just happen, as if by accident?
I didn’t have a solid response to these questions, and the culture story seemed like a cop out. And it wasn’t just people from out of town that needed answers. All of us working in and for Chattanooga’s startup community are seeking answers to questions like these, especially as they affect being able to quantify the effects of our work. We know something important is happening, but what is it, precisely? Getting a grip on the drivers of our own success is vitally important to our startup community’s future, much less other cities’. But mainstream academic research on these questions is in a very early stage, and entrepreneurs, with a few notable exceptions, are too busy starting companies to worry about them.
“What does the care and feeding of an entrepreneurial ecosystem cost? Can an entrepreneurial ecosystem be grown intentionally or does it all just happen, as if by accident?”
Without a reliable objective expression of our entrepreneurial ecosystem’s value, we could potentially fail to appreciate it and nurture it, writing it off as a fashionable curiosity with no lasting worth. But if we accept the value of our entrepreneurial ecosystem, do we know how to sustain it? Are there ways to enhance its performance? What are the risks of intentionally meddling with it when we really don’t understand the way it operates? What are the effects of miscues? How resilient are entrepreneurial ecosystems? What we needed was a framework that could help us understand systems that are in a constant state of transition, where rapid change is the norm and not the exception. We needed a way to think about how a complicated economic social system like Chattanooga’s startup community emerges from what is, for the most part, the unstructured and uncoordinated activities of our city’s creative and entrepreneurial people.
(Photo courtesy Chattanooga Public Library Digital Collection. Used with permission.)