The Boulder Thesis
- Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
- The leaders must have a long-term commitment.
- The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
- The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
When we set out to start our first company, we built it while still at university for the first year. From theory to practice, we raised some capital and moved operations to Harare, Zimbabwe. We had a small team of developers and rented out a spare cottage behind Tommy’s family’s house. It was bootstrapped to the core.
Back in 2009, there were no other startups in existence in Zimbabwe. The talk was all SMEs and the nation had just come out of the highest hyperinflation in world economics (prices doubled every 25 hours and there were 21 zeroes on the dollar bills).
We built our business, but no one in the community knew how to take us. They were generally excited and upbeat, but had little knowledge of what a startup was, how we were trying to scale our company, and why we needed so much capital to grow.
Fast forward to 2 years ago…
Globally, startups are still not viewed as an asset class per se, but it’s quite a widely popular topic in the entrepreneur world. "Did you hear Dropbox just hit over $1 billion valuation?" "Yeah I heard that…" was a popular convo.
We launched Emerging Ideas and had a handful of small companies in our portfolio. We wanted to equip more entrepreneurs in southern Africa and the Midwest USA.
What we quickly realized was in order to grow companies holistically, it took a lot of education and a lot of legwork without the right ecosystem surrounding the up-and-coming entrepreneurs. It is actually near impossible without the right environment for this kind of learning.
So we set out to partner with organizations that were educating entrepreneurs. Only one of decent capacity existed in Harare at the time, called Empretec. They educate about 200 entrepreneurs a year, and some of the more renowned entrepreneurs of Zimbabwe have come through their educational courses.
Here’s the thing we’ve found in Harare:
- Ideas are not freely shared. Most everyone slaps an NDA down on the table and is afraid you’ll steal their idea.
- Virtually no one was committed to the startup community because they didn’t even know what startups were.
- Entrepreneur was a term and it was foreign. “What’s an entrepreneur?”
- Therefore, continual activities didn’t happen. In fact, that’s why Pitch Night started. We were looking to get involved with local entrepreneur events during Global Entrepreneurship Week last November and only 1 other event existed.
Building An Ecosystem in Harare
So, now we’ve begun focusing on building a startup ecosystem in Harare. This starts firstly with entrepreneur education, which is why we write twice a week and once a week under a pseudonym for a local paper. We partnered with Empretec last year and started working with some of their entrepreneurs as well.
Since Pitch Nights have started, there’s been a hum in the community. ‘Treps are coming from everywhere with really brilliant ideas (and the quality of the ideas are rising each month). This has also ushered in municipal, financial, and academic interest and support is slowly starting to creep in from local banks, investors, governmental departments, and universities.
After the start of Pitch Night, we’ve already seen other new entrepreneur organizations rise up and begin their own events. With hackathons, meet-ups, dinners, coffees, pitch nights, and more starting to surface, we’re very excited about the community connection points happening weekly in Harare. These events may have been happening prior, but very few people knew about them until the past 6 months. It’s just a matter of time before there are multiple events each day that our community will have to choose between. And we believe that’s healthy and positive.
Startups are still not viewed as something to be invested in from local investors—that’s something that we hope to bridge the gap on in the coming years. We’d like to develop startup service providers and packages to help the financing of startups in Zimbabwe be a more ironed out and smooth process. This is uncharted waters in the national legal system and is something that we’re working on with a few of the best up and coming legal minds to create a system that can be widespread and used across our community.
Also, we’re creating trusted network partners for startup services like banking (it currently takes too long to get a bank account set up), bookkeeping (in our experience, it’s been hard to find a trustworthy bookkeeper), legal, structural, web, design, etc. All in all, our hope is that a company can work with Emerging Ideas and be equipped with all of the t-crossing and i-dotting they need to take an idea to fruition quickly and affordably.
We’re looking at creating a small fund to invest in startup ideas. This is necessary to jumpstart many of the great entrepreneurs in Harare that have ideas but face liquidity problems—it’s a huge challenge. We think with minor success and taking on some of these risks on our part, we can encourage future rounds of investment in our new companies and incite competition and other investors looking to jump on the southern African, startup bandwagon. We’ll keep you posted on the developments here.
Resources & A Final Word
The preeminent resource to read regarding participating in a startup community is Brad Feld’s book, Startup Communities: Building An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem In Your City (link). It highlights the various roles institutions, government, entrepreneurs, investors, mentors and more can play in their respective city’s ecosystem.
Our goal is not to position ourselves at the center of any ecosystem or city—the point is that if everyone collectively comes together to support each other and help grow entrepreneurship, new startups will thrive and everyone benefits.
We want to see startups in Zimbabwe rise to the next level and be able to play on not only a national scale, but also regional and beyond. This can only happen if we support one another.
Additional reading, Empirical Support for the Boulder Thesis. Kauffman Foundation also released a study on 1 Million Cups last week—talking about building startup communities across the USA. Very interesting findings you can read about in the first page Exec Summary.
The basic findings are such:
- Entrepreneurs follow local entrepreneurs.
- Entrepreneurship is a local phenomenon.
- Local network thickens over time.
- Different programs reach different entrepreneurs.
- Entrepreneurial demand is high for peer-based learning and networking.
Think local, act local. Every community is unique—that’s why we love ours so much.
(photo via s.turtle)