If you are in the tech world, Silicon Valley is your mecca. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe, thanks to its high concentration of technophiles and constant attention as “America’s technology capital.”
But why? Flourishing tech hubs like New York’s Silicon Alley, Austin’s Silicon Hills, and other emerging hotspots prove that Silicon Valley isn’t the only tech-friendly area. What truly makes Silicon Valley unique among its like-minded city counterparts is the close-knit community of entrepreneurs, investors and tech up-and-comers.
Truth be told, there is nothing stopping other cities from cultivating that Silicon Valley community feel. Places like Austin are ripe with potential — we have the high concentration of technology companies, emerging and established technophiles, and entrepreneurs in our downtown corridor, as well as a culture that accepts and encourages innovation. The building blocks are there, but logistical issues and a downtown environment that has yet to embrace intercompany relationship building (despite being well-suited to do so) currently stand in the way of our tech community realizing this city’s true potential.
In an attempt to address these social and logistical issues, my partner, Ed Ireson, and I founded the Brazos Tech District in the summer of 2013. Austin’s Brazos Street spans approximately 10 city blocks and is home to dozens of companies and more than 3,000 tech professionals. The tech district seeks to engage these individuals in a close-knit community that comes together to improve interoffice friendships and partnerships, and to solve issues that affect the group as a whole.
In this year, we welcomed 10 businesses and more than 1,000 individuals into the Brazos Tech District, but more importantly we’ve learned some invaluable lessons about what it takes to successfully cultivate a tech community outside of Silicon Valley.
Keep It Organic
Try as you might, it’s nearly impossible to force people to participate in anything. In order to successfully create a community like the Brazos Tech District, it has to be an organic evolution; though that’s not to say that the process can’t occur without some strategic effort. It has to be planned. Proof of that came from our own city’s Chamber of Commerce, which tried to create geographic communities several years ago, but lack of direction and lack of business interest caused its plan to fail.
There’s a time and a place when something is going to work; it cannot be forced. In this instance, we saw a need in our community — a lack of viable parking and transportation options for downtown tech employees — and assumed that we were not alone in this need. We provided a unique solution to a familiar pain point, and have seen community interest and involvement as a result.
Identify Your Stakeholders Early
This should go without saying, but targeting the correct stakeholders is one of the easiest ways to create a successful community. For the Brazos Tech District, it was important that we represented a specific geographic region — so important that we included that region in the organization’s name, and we stick to it. Stay true to your boundaries. Figure out what you want to achieve, how you are going to do that, and who you plan to represent, and make no exceptions. It might seem a little exclusive, but history has shown that trying to please everyone often results in pleasing no one. Keeping to your own goals is important.
Not only do you need to find the right people, but you need to get them on board early, and gather people with as many diverse viewpoints as possible. While the Brazos Tech District is built around individuals within a specific geographic area of downtown Austin, it includes tech companies, churches, transportation providers and community organizations. The key is to make sure all stakeholders are helping your community to fulfill your overall needs; bringing the wrong people on board might cause everything to fall apart.
Building a community means nothing if you can’t get people to actually participate. It’s important to create activities that further your mission, whether it be a social mission or more logistical. At the Brazos Tech District, we have both.
To satisfy the social side of things, hold weekly events that encourage members to get out of the office and come together for lunch (like our Food Truck Fridays). Ping-pong tournaments, happy hours, and bike-sharing programs are other great ways to help individuals within your community develop new friendships in the area.
To further a logistical mission, team up with local infrastructure in a way that pushes your overall goals forward. We’ve teamed up with CapMetro, the local transportation authority, to find a solution to the parking nightmare that is downtown Austin. We started by providing discounted bus passes to members — which will save thousands of dollars annually for their employers, many of which subsidize downtown parking for their employees. But we’re looking to take it even further, so we’re in the process of developing an API for CapMetro so that its data can be accessed by developers. Once that is completed, we’re going to hold a hackathon so that member companies can make use of that data, and we can show Austin what can be done when communities come together.
There are, of course, challenges in building this Silicon Valley-like feel. There is no management structure within the Brazos Tech District, making the need for self-motivated members extremely important. Securing approval from local companies has also been a challenge, but one that is diminishing every day. As businesses see the value that your community brings to both their employees and their bottom line, they will be more open to participation.
With the Brazos Tech District, we’re only just beginning, but this last year has shown that you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to feel a part of an established tech community. That “new Silicon Valley” is possible anywhere, so long as you have a driven group of people interested in bringing the vision to life.