Following the post on Building Digital Communities a few weeks ago, some friends forwarded me an excellent article from New Zealand tech evangelist Dan Khan on what he learned from from observing the development of Boulder’s tech community.
Khan’s view is values are at the root of building a startup community, an open and distributed network of people bringing their disparate but relevant skills to a region is what builds an industry cluster.
Equally it’s about values being aligned so the community reinforces its own strengths and advantages.
To many, the startup community is not a tangible thing. Instead, it’s an amorphous, ever-changing network of support, knowledge, resources, and relationships which gives those creating ventures, a boost up to the next level when they need it.
It’s simultaneously a safety net that eases founders down when their ideas fail; and a resounding cheerleader and network of scale for those flying high.
The New Zealand experience is informative as Wellington’s tech sector explodes on the back of special effects studio, WETA along with Xero and the vibrant startup community based around initiatives like Enspiral. So much so the city is offering free trips to prospective workers.
Enspiral itself is a good example of grass roots community initiative where a contractor’s collective has grown to 300 strong organisation building connections between Wellington’s creative, tech and businesses groups.
History is on the side of those building grass roots communities as almost every industrial hub has grown out of motivated individuals harnessing a local region’s advantages to dominate a sector.
As Steve Blank’s Secret History of Silicon Valley describes, the rise of today’s venture capital tech sector business model came out of a group of driven individuals leveraging the United States’ massive electronics research spending through the mid Twentieth Century along with a boost from tax changes in the late 1970s.
Silicon Valley’s startup culture owes a lot to government spending and policies but the development of today’s ecosystem took fifty years and many motivated individuals working together.
Which brings us to to the Victorian state government’s funding the establishment of a 500 Startups outpost in Melbourne. This is part of a sustained campaign to subsidise global tech companies’ setting up their regional offices in the city.
As part of that campaign the Victorian state government has promised to spend sixty million Australian dollars on building a startup ecosystem in Melbourne, it’s a classic example of top down planning.
History hasn’t been kind to Victoria in its tech industry subsidies, with the state government spending ten of millions at the beginning of the century to develop region’s gaming industry only to see the sector collapse as a high Australian dollar and soaring costs saw international studios leave and local producers close.
In 1998, then Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, triumphantly proclaimed subsidising Netscape’s Australian office would lead to Melbourne becoming a global tech centre. Twenty years later, that game continues.
500 Startups founder Dave McClure hints at how the outpost will be limited, “Partnering with Melbourne and LaunchVic helps us bring a slice of Silicon Valley to Australia through our startup, investor, and corporate programs.”
So there’s a strong sense of deja-vu, dare one say even cargo cult thinking, in the weekend’s announcement.
While bringing a slice of Silicon Valley to Melbourne is nice, it doesn’t build an ecosystem which will take years of patient encouragement of local, motivated individuals. What’s worse, the government intervention threatens to distort the market and stifle the culture of grass roots development Khan identifies as being critical.
The question for Melbourne’s startup community is how much patience does the government have? The nation’s political culture of announceables, which the current state minister is an enthusiastic participant, doesn’t bode well.
For the moment, the priority for the Melbourne startup community is to decide if public sector funding should be a critical part of their ecosystem. If government subsidies for foreign businesses are the answer then ensuring bipartisan and long term political support for strategic initiatives should also be close to the top of the list.