All entrepreneurs are on the hunt for the next Silicon Valley, and if they’re not hunting for it, they’re striving to manifest it in their own backyard.
We’ve all heard, or least read about, U.S. cities promoting every imaginable selling point, from affordable housing ("C’mon, folks, nearly everywhere is cheaper to live than the Bay Area"), to tax incentives, local culture, thriving startup scenes and more. Basically, if you’re looking to launch an entrepreneurial venture in one of these “second-tier cities,” you'll find support for your venture all over the Web.
I personally live in a city that's offering a pile of goodies to entrepreneurs to relocate. My city, Reno, Nev., was recently highlighted on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, which detailed the city's vision for the future, diversification strategies and interest in attracting tech companies. While cities' and states' promotions efforts have been a subject of both praise and controversy, Reno has taken strides to convince entrepreneurs to seriously consider this metropolitan area of less than half a million people.
With a front-door view to the integral people and organizations who can roll out the red carpet to become Silicon Valley’s Back Office, here are five things Reno -- a faded gambling town that was down in the dumps less than six years ago -- has done to turn itself into a potential hotbed of entrepreneurial activity:
1. Encourage public officials to get involved.
Perhaps the most powerful component of Reno’s bid for business is the willingness of local and state representatives to greet and woo potential implants. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve campaigned on a platform partly based on fostering the entrepreneurial environment. Senator Ben Kieckhefer actively fought payroll tax-increase proposals, and regularly lends support to entrepreneurial programs and organizations, such as the University of Nevada Reno Ozmen Center for Entrepreneurship.
There are few cities I've heard of where a new-to-town prospective entrepreneur can find himself or herself in the mayor’s office as a result of having made four or five connections. Paving that golden road is something the city has done well and offers a warm welcome and opportunity for entrepreneurs to meet the right people with little difficulty.
2. Offer a wealth of resources.
As noted, the region's willingness to personally guide newbies to resources like hiring pools, legal advice and funding outlets and more is important for luring new business to a city. Reno is awash with organizations and active community members ready and willing to help. In this vein, the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDWAN) developed the Reno Startup Deck, a deck of cards with a twist: Each card features either a local resource’s photo, name and company, with a list of its services, or a specific organization/entity whose services are essential to any aspiring business owner.
For its card game, EDAWN selected pillars of the community dedicated to fostering the needs of potential recruits, and, as is essential for any game, established a set of rules to ensure authenticity and a code of conduct.
Money is important, too. Venture funds include the Battle Born Venture, which backs early-stage, Nevada-based enterprises, and the Silver State Opportunities Fund; both keep sustainable funding opportunities ever-present in the region. In addition, private backers such as Newbean Capital, Sierra Angels, Holland & Hart and more are popping up, providing multiple avenues of funding for startups throughout the city. And of course, Reno is only a short flight or drive to the Valley goldmine.
3. Ensure proactive university support and investment.
A mid-sized city can only be so attractive to potential startup migrants unless it can offer the labor to support the ecosystem. Reno wasn’t a hotbed for technically trained and higher-educated employees; in fact, the city has long been known for graduation rates on the lower end of the scale and a lack of programs to support an innovative workforce. That’s all changing, and doing wonders for the positioning of the city.
The Ozmen Center for Entrepreneurship supports UNR programs that develop entrepreneurial capacities and foster the creation of new business ventures, and was an integral part of the InNEVation campus extension. It continues to work closely with EDAWN, expanding and adjusting curriculum, programs and resources on campus to train students in specific skills and technological languages in high demand for startups and those technology companies that might relocate to Reno.
The University has also made strides to foster drone development, wooing nearly ten manufacturers to the area, to date, including the world's first autonomous aerial delivery company, Flirtey. And these companies are bringing jobs -- an estimated 400 to the area -- while UNR is working hard to pump out educated and well-trained professionals to meet the demand, a key aspect that can make or break an entrepreneur's decision to set up shop in Reno.
4. Develop a thriving creative community.
Entrepreneurs are no longer high-society socialites, hobnobbing around private clubs and executive lounges. The new era's founders and execs want to live and work in a place bustling with creativity and inspiration to feed their active minds. A city that cannot offer a population of artists and visionaries isn’t going to be appealing nor will it foster the “maker” workforce tech leaders need.
Thanks in large part to Burning Man, and the artistic endeavors it helps fund and support throughout the year, members of Reno’s creative class have many opportunities to exercise their passions and enjoy community support. Downtown plays host to a co-working space for photographers and videographers and several artist co-ops, including one backed by Paul Buchheit, the inventor of Gmail, and an all-ages arts and music organization. It's this arts community that creates perhaps the most unique draw for relocators.
5. Keep the public in an 'organic state of mind.'
Perhaps the most essential component to the creation of a startup community is a culture that entrepreneurs and their employees want to be a part of. That's not something marketing gimmicks or massive incentives can build. Instead, it requires a collective drive to do more than just make a profit, and just play the game.
Cities have to cultivate a climate for livability that people will talk about. In Reno, on the edge of downtown’s riverwalk and white water kayaking park, is a collaborative workspace designed to support an urban workforce of entrepreneurs and creatives. This space serves as the centerpoint for "Startup Row," collectively established by an early group of entrepreneurial settlers in downtown.
Districts of culturally diverse and locally owned restaurants, bars, speciality stores and community centers are thriving. Ongoing movements, such as Burning Man-led art initiatives, make up cultural initiatives attractive to serial entrepreneurs looking for a collaborative, non-aggressive environment in which to live and work.
In any city hoping to attract entrepreneurship, residents and evangelists have to band together to offer the best of all worlds, then tout that to outsiders. Bringing together artists, policymakers, influencers and professionals to drink the Koolaid and build an appealing community built from passion and desire for a new future is what fuels hope that Reno or any city can draw in new entrepreneurs for years to come.