Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Helping startups get started

I moved to the far northwest suburbs of Chicago a year ago from Silicon Valley, but I've stayed interested in and involved with new ventures, having founded or co-founded three companies myself. One of the things that surprised me was how much more difficult it seems to be to start new businesses here than it is in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of universities to provide technology and motivate students, including the University of Chicago, Northwestern, IIT and the University of Illinois. The Chicago area also has Argonne National Labs and Fermilab, two of the top scientific research facilities in the country. 37Signals and Threadless thrive here, and I know of a number of startups that are under the radar. Nevertheless, for those startups that do get traction, there's overwhelming pressure to move, usually to Silicon Valley or New York.

I recently signed up for The Founders' Institute, a program of lectures and team assignments designed to help aspiring founders to gain the skills and make the connections that they need for success. I was accepted but had to decline when I learned that I couldn't participate remotely and would have had to fly back to Silicon Valley for all of the sessions, or attend sessions in one of their other cities, none of which is even remotely convenient for me. There are other groups that do similar things, from Y Combinator (the best-known of the group) on down. The problem is that all of these groups depend on getting members and lecturers together in one place over a period of months. It won't work if there aren't a lot of qualified lecturers and interested participants in a city.

Given the success that for-profit educational instutitions such as University of Phoenix and DeVry University are having with remote learning, I'm convinced that a similar approach will work for training and encouraging new business founders, no matter where they're located. We use the Web for collaboration, messaging, teleconferencing and entertainment all the time--why can't we use it to help people learn how to launch their new businesses, wherever they are?

Let's be realistic--there are millions of jobs in old-line manufacturing industries that are gone in this recession and will never return. We have to encourage new ventures across the U.S and create jobs where the people are. Let's use the tools that have so dramatically lowered the barriers to entry for technology companies to lower the barriers to entry for teaching and encouraging entrepreneurs, across the country and around the world.
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