You Actually Aren’t Competing with Bigger Cities

In all of my travel, especially when I visit small or medium-sized cities all over the world, a common theme keeps coming up for me and I think it’s important to address:

It’s a severe lack of confidence.

And, from what I can tell, it seems to play out in a couple different ways:

  1. Victim Mentality: Everyone tells me all of the ways that they’re not like San Francisco. If only they could get access to the types of investors that the Bay Area has, they would be okay. Or if the investors in their town actually understood startups, everyone would be okay. Or if startups actually saw what their city could offer, so many more founders would relocate.
  2. Performative “Over-Confidence”: Most of us know that blatant over-confidence is merely a sign of deep insecurity. So when I hear things like, “We’re going to host or be the next SXSW,” I immediately think that these people are really struggling with their talk track. They’re looking for someone else’s success story to be their own success story. Essentially, innovation for them looks like getting noticed the same way that another city has been noticed.

I’ve done a lot of writing about mental health and talk tracks and how what you think about deeply influences how you act in the world. It’s not only a reflection of our internal state of mind but a reflection of our deepest values. So it should come as no surprise that I also think that the messages that people within a city continue to repeat to themselves, each other, and visitors have drastic implications for how they act—and what they attract.

When an entire city is underconfident, startups (and investors and corporates!) sense it. They’ll realize that it isn’t a safe place for them to start their companies and will most likely pick the city you’re comparing yourself to the most: San Francisco.

So what can we do about it?

The Pre-Work

Here are a couple of things I think are important to shift mentally before you really dig into shifting your actions:

First, Realize That Everyone Else’s Story Doesn’t Have to Be Yours
This (that everyone else’s story doesn’t have to be yours) is the first thing I normally tell people when they start listing off all the resources “their city should have but doesn’t” or telling me they’d like to be the “next SXSW.” And then I ask why. Why is it necessary for that particular thing to happen in your city? Would it bring you more attention? Why is attention important? How would having that thing make your startups any more successful than they have an opportunity to be already?

Because if we’re honest, that thing that they’re doing in San Francisco or Austin or London probably won’t work in your city. And, the things that they’re doing might not even be good for your city.

And, if “scale” is the only answer someone has to these questions, it’s important to ask ourselves, “Scale to what end?” I think this is one of the current startup world’s most pressing questions. We all know that achieving more only makes us want…more. So if your only response to “Why?” is “More,” you’ll probably never feel like what you’ve achieved, what you can achieve, or who you are as a community is enough.

Second, Set a Clear Vision
Just like most successful businesses have a strong vision for where they’re going, cities need to have the same thing. They need to have a strong vision for what they want their collective future to look like.

At GAN, our vision is that startups would have all the human and financial capital they need to create powerful businesses and make a meaningful impact, wherever they call home. It’s a lofty vision, but we know that—every day—we get incrementally closer to it becoming a reality.

What if your city adopted a vision like this? There’s a good chance it would change your focus from all of the things your city isn’t to a focus on helping empower startups. The change in semantics alone is enough to feel the shift in energy. It takes you from all of the ways you’re lacking to all of the ways that you already possess all the tools you need to help startups, exactly where they are. It gets you (and the rest of your city) actually focused on healthy, positive ways you can all contribute.

The Real Work

But here’s the bigger, important work I think cities and startup communities need to do together:

Understand Your “Customer”
Cities have “customers” the same way that businesses do. There are certain people they want to attract—to “buy in” to a place and to spend time investing in it.

And if there’s one area where I think cities trip on themselves, it’s this. They don’t understand who those customers are. And while this sounds so simple, here’s how I see it play out.

Startup folks in most cities think they know their customer. All startups need capital, mentorship (or “connections”), and talent. It’s true for everyone; all founders deeply need these things. But that’s where most people seem to stop and, before you know it, there’s another new accelerator or incubator in another city that actually addresses all of these needs.

What so few people realize is that everyone is focused on solving these problems. Your city, the cities next door, and cities all over the world are providing similar solutions to similar problems and so are all of their accelerators. But if you’re going to differentiate yourself, you have to go beyond, “We help all startups get access to all the resources they need.” It’s vague, it’s overly common, and it tells your potential customer nothing about who you really are and what you’ll do for them.

Here’s an image we found when GAN went through a rebrand and it’s exactly what I mean:

Only, replace each instance of “companies” with “cities,” and it’ll drive home the point.

If you’re going to be unique, you need to not only have different solutions, but you need to stand for something different. How do you do that?

You get to know the startups. You travel around asking them what they’re working on and some of their biggest pain points. And you ask each of the startups coming to and visiting your city what they’re working on and some of their biggest pain points.

In doing this, you’ll start to hear trends and challenges that you might be uniquely suited to solve. Yes, you’ll hear everyone say that they need capital, mentorship, and talent. But that’s where you need to keep digging in harder. Here’s what I mean—

Shining Examples

Chenoa Farnsworth runs Blue Startups, a GAN Accelerator in Honolulu, Hawaii. I spoke to her last week and she never fails to impress me. For the past few years, she’s traveled all over Asia. In all of her travels, as she’s talked with founders across the ocean, and as she’s heard founders tell her their needs around capital, mentorship, and talent, she realized something else.

Founders in Asia are looking for access to all of the standard things, but they’re specifically looking for them in the States. They’re hoping to push past the local market and expand internationally, into another massive customer base. So what did she do? She created a conference focused on bridging the gap between Eastern and Western parts of the world and aptly named it “East Meets West.”

She could have just started a typical accelerator. But instead, she heard startups’ desires and built something for them.

Another great example is GAN Accelerator, Lightning Lab in New Zealand. After talking with a bunch of startups, they’ve realized how many of them are offering solutions that can drastically change and impact a national government. So they built an accelerator focused on innovating government. It’s not just focused on capital, mentorship, and talent (although the startups going through that program will get those things). Rather, it’s focused on something specific that will pull startups their way.

Or, take TEN50 in Huntington, West Virginia. Tons of startups around them were focused on the coal mining industry. Because of increasing demand to move away from coal to alternative forms of energy, founders weren’t sure how to keep their doors open. So TEN50 realized it could help bridge a gap between legacy coal technology and energy technologies of the future.

And you know what? Blue Startups, Lightning Lab, and TEN50 are getting an insane amount of interest because they know exactly who their unique customers are. Its connection between the East and West is what makes Hawaii different than any other place on the planet. If you’re looking to cross the Pacific, it’s where you’re going to go. And, the number of startups focused specifically on changing the government or innovating around energy are what make Wellington, New Zealand or Huntington, West Virginia the places to be if you’re a founder working on solutions in those verticals.

The Harder Work

At the end of the day, the difficult thing is actually merging all of this together.

Simply thinking the right things and knowing the problems faced by startups you want to attract won’t automatically help you become great and different.

But I would argue that once you know that you don’t have to be like everyone else, have a real vision for what you can accomplish, and then figure out which problems need to be solved, you’ll start seeing what it is you can and should act on—solutions that become your own.

Your accelerator and your city will begin to attract attention from the people who actually matter—the startups in need of your specific help and the people and resources perfectly suited to support them and what they’re up to in the world. You’ll become more confident in your power to deliver. Scale will become less important than substance.

And you and your city will embrace an identity that doesn’t have to compare itself to everywhere else because it’s doing exactly what it’s here to do instead of trying to replicate the success of something—and somewhere—else.