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Starting Up

8 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Joe Petrucci has taken a snapshot of the state of tech startups in Philly as this week’s feature on Flying Kite. He titles it an “underdog” story, an apt reference to a part of the Philly attitude that we know so well from our history.

I was a bit anxious prior to the release of this article, since I know I tend to be one of the few dissenting voices about “startups”, in Philly and in general. In the simplest of terms, I’m turned off by the common sense of privilege and entitlement in the media’s version of tech/startup communities, but worse, that people in those communities actually live like it’s true. I find it toxic, and don’t want anything to do with things that perpetuate that in Philadelphia. We deserve better.

To the contrary – I was quite pleased that this article was missing that tone, almost entirely. I enjoy the fact that it was headlined by a photo of four primary voices in the article who, while we have varied perspectives, are sitting around a table in the Indy Hall kitchen, smiling. The article reads with the honesty of a reality check without being too “up” or too “down”. My takeaway is, “things are changing, for the better, and ‘more of the same’ isn’t going to work anymore.”

That’s an attitude I can get behind.

Photo by Jeff Fusco


I also appreciated the strong overtones of “lets be a better Philly” instead of the usual “let’s be more like city X” that the media usually picks up on. In the Flying Kite piece, comparisons to other cities are limited to the fact that the growing pains Philly’s startup ecosystem are going to AREN’T unique to Philly – a fact which I believe to be completely true.

I believe that will be one of Philly’s biggest advantages over time, the thing that will help us outlast other cities: it’s ability to be itself, instead of trying to live up to being a competitor to Silicon Valley.

Some choice quotes:

“I think our identity should happen organically.” – Brad Oyler

“You need to have people at a common level that are comfortable with each other,” says McNeal of Startup Therapy, noting that as the area’s startup community has evolved, the need for more than basic happy-hour networking and base startup knowledge is evident. Todd is talking about the need for Communities of Practice, rather than simply Communities of Interest. I expounded on this in Brian Glick’s recent blog post about Startup Therapy, with hopes of keeping them on the track to becoming a strong community of practice.

RJ Metrics, Cera says, is almost a “model citizen” in the local startup community. I couldn’t agree more. The guys at RJ Metrics are sharp, motivated, and chose to be in Philly – moving into the city from Camden earlier this year. Among my favorite traits they exhibit that most other startups can’t seem to get – they’re quiet, except for when they have something meaningful to say.

RJ Metrics the kind of leading by example I want to see more of in the city I choose to call home. I’d take 100 more “RJ Metrics” type companies over a single “exit strategy” company making headlines anywhere in the nation.

Cera already has an idea for the startup community he is leading. “The best thing you can do is totally kick ass here.” This is why I love Chris as a leader. He’s often reluctant, but he knows what he wants for the community he’s a part of.

I had a number of citations of my own quoted in the article, so I thought I’d share the Q&A I did over email with Petrucci for context and reference. Joe’s questions are in bold, my answers follow:

Q. What word(s) or phrase(s) would you use to describe Philly’s startup community?

I suppose that depends on which startup community you’re talking about. There isn’t just one.

There’s at least two styles of startup communities evolving in Philadelphia:

One version is a hyper connected community of interest, full of people who are passionate about the idea of startups but don’t have a lot of practical experience. They’re quick with rhetoric, read TechCrunch every day, and cheer whenever their “favorite startup” gets funded or acquired. I think this is more “scene” than “community”. This is endemic of most “startup” cultures you’ll find in cities across america, though. We’ve got one too, but that doesn’t make us special.

Another version is much smaller than the first. It’s populated by people who are in the early stages of building a business. That group is full of people sharing what they learn as they learn. They’re sharing practical experiences, problems and solutions. They recognize that Philly’s biggest missing asset isn’t funding, or talent, but a lack of mentors. They’re building communities of practice around early stage web-business creation to fill in that gap. If they’re lucky, they’ll become the future generation that Philly doesn’t have today, but that’s going to take some time. If this group pulls this off in a way that can last more than one generation, we’ll had a unique and valuable resource in our city.

At least one more version is much larger than the other two communities combined; mostly by nature of the fact that while it’s not self-aware enough to be a “community” by most measures, there’s an ecosystem of people starting new businesses in Philadelphia. They’re driven by pure entrepreneurship, the kind that doesn’t know any other option. These people are the most exciting to me because they’re both kinetic and potential energy. These people are building businesses because they want to, they need to, and they’ve either explicitly chosen to do it in Philly or they can’t think of a good reason to leave. They’re already in motion, not waiting for anybody. But there’s still potential energy because they haven’t yet realized that they aren’t alone.

Q. Do you still feel as strongly — like in your early July blog post “The funding ecosystem in Philadelphia: The empty can rattles the loudest” — that incentivizing startups coming/staying in Philly is not a good idea?

Its not so much that I think it’s a bad idea, it’s that I think we deserve better than the kinds of people/companies this attracts.

Q. What traits/practices have you found among Philly’s most successful bootstrappers?

  • “Philly”, as a brand or an attitude, is a part of why/how they do what they do
  • View constraints as benefits, not weaknesses
  • Honest/authentic expectations of themselves and others
  • They are unwilling to settle for status quo
  • They have strong mentors. They have at least one local mentor
  • They are involved in more than just the industry they are bootstrapping. Civic engagement, arts involvement, some creative endeavor.
  • They’re willing to let go of things, or transition them to new leadership.

Q. What supports are needed for those businesses and organizations in Philly that have already “proven their will to live against the odds … without begging”? Who should provide them?

My stock answer has always been: stay the fuck out of their way. I still think that’s the best answer.

The second best answer is to ask them. And don’t take their first answer as their only answer.

Q. How is what you’re working on contributing to the growth and/or potential of the Philadelphia-based startup community?

I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’re a both a place and a group of people that people can find comfort and support in trying to accomplish things on their own. We’ve never been a “services” business, we’re more like a community of practitioners where:

  1. You can learn about things you didn’t even know were possible.
  2. You can discover interests and skills you never knew you had.
  3. You can rest assured that you’re not alone, and there’s always somebody who’s done the thing you’re about to do. All you have to do is ask for help.
  4. You can be honest with yourself and the people around you.

The biggest thing for me, very personally, and I’m 100% certain that has led many people down a path of blazing their own trail is the comfort in knowing that you’re not alone in the way you think, the way you want to act, the things you want to do. Simply knowing that good, honest, hardworking people like you are doing this thing every day is inspiration enough for many people to leap into their own great unknown potential.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.