The Growth of an Ecosystem

This post originally appeared at in 2013

I vividly remember the day I first got excited about working with entrepreneurs. I was a second year law student trying to make it through my Mergers and Acquisitions class, when my professor announced a guest speaker. The visitor was Jim Linfield, the managing partner of Cooley Godward, a law firm based in the Bay Area that had just opened an office in Boulder with the express purpose of working with start-up companies. As Jim talked about the work he did with founders — helping them form their companies, finance their businesses, and navigate through transactions — I was captivated. I knew right away that I wanted to be part of the start-up world.

As I reflect on that experience, a couple things amaze me. First and foremost, the fact that I found Jim to be captivating (now that I have known him for over 15 years, I can say that). The second, more remarkable thing, is that at the age of 26, it was literally my first exposure to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

When I was growing up, my father was in education. He taught history and eventually ran a private school for close to 20 years. He was a great educator, but he was not an entrepreneur. As I made my way through school, I worked at various jobs, but nothing that could be classified as an entrepreneurial endeavor. In college, I took a number of economics courses, and even considered it as a major. But after grinding through the likes of Macro-Economics, and staring down a course load of economic theory, I opted for political science. After graduation, in an effort to put my degree to work, I headed off to Washington, D.C. to work on Capitol Hill — clearly the least entrepreneurial place on earth.

So it came to be that I stumbled into law school without a clue about the entrepreneurial ecosystem around me — a lack of exposure that I am convinced could not happen in today’s world. In fact, I have had three experiences in the last month that have demonstrated just how expansive and embedded the entrepreneurial ecosystem has become in the very world in which I grew up.

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at an event in Colorado Springs, hosted by the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator. It was called “How to Fund Your Start-Up” and it took place on the campus of my Alma Mater, Colorado College. I was amazed with what I saw at the event. First, there was huge turnout from the local community. When I went to CC, Colorado Springs was known for a lot of things (Air Force Academy, Pikes Peak, etc…), but being a start-up community was not one of them. The second surprise was that there was a campus-wide business plan competition underway called “The Big Idea.” It offered $50,000 in prize money, and had attracted submissions from 28 student teams. Even more impressive, it was being overseen by the school’s new Director of Innovation and Incubation. Needless to say, it was not the Economics Department I remembered.

Earlier in the month, I had the honor of participating in a class at the University of Colorado School of Law — the very place where I had taken Mergers & Acquisitions so many years earlier. At the time, Mergers & Acquisitions was one of the few business oriented classes offered. Things have changed quite a bit. The class I attended this year was conducted by the Silicon Flatirons Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, an amazing research center within the law school that was created to promote the intersection of law, technology and entrepreneurialism. Since it’s inception, Silicon Flatirons has become an integral component of the Boulder ecosystem, and has served as a great bridge between the start-up community and the University. I have had the pleasure of speaking to students at Silicon Flatirons on a number of occasions, and I’m always impressed with their knowledge of the world into which they are about to jump. On this day, students were doing mock presentations to venture capitalists like myself regarding a potential investment opportunity. It was so practical and stimulating that it almost made me miss law school… No, but seriously, it was quite impressive.

Finally, I was encouraged this year when I learned that my 13 year old daughter would be taking a STEM class (science, technology, engineering and math) as part of her 7th grade curriculum. Over the course of the year, they have explored everything from how technology and innovation are changing the world to potential careers in the field. Several weeks ago, the students were tasked with building a prototype for a product that could be used to help with an every day issue around the home. Serving as my daughter’s ride to the hardware store, I had a front row seat to watch her build the first (as far as I know) foot-pedal dog-caller. More importantly, I watched her tap the entrepreneurial side of her brain and learn first hand about the power of innovation.

All of these experiences are symptoms of the times in which we live. They each show how far the entrepreneurial ecosystem has expanded in a relatively short period of time, and how pervasive and ingrained it has become in our educational system. And while it makes me wonder what our world will look like in another 20 years, there is one thing I know for certain: I’m incredibly bullish on our next generation of entrepreneurs and the ecosystem in which they will operate.

Oh, and about that foot pedal dog caller. We took the prototype into the field, and, as you can see below, got some good market feedback.

(click picture to play video)

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