Friday, June 05, 2009

Smaller. Cheaper. Faster. How about for rural economic development?

Inc. Magazine has just given their June cover story over to Paul Graham and his wonderful Y Combinator startup machine.

I've written about Paul Graham a number of times in the past and linked to his sites, which I'll do again at the end of this post. You should know about Mr. Graham and his model for doing - not talking about - actually doing, economic development.

The cover story is titled "The Start-Up Guru. Paul Graham has launched 145 companies. His formula? Smaller. Cheaper. Faster."

In a great story written by Max Chalkin, he opens with the this position: "Graham's system generates scores of bold ideas, churns out dozens of new companies, and creates hundreds of jobs - for a lot less money than you might think."

At its core, Y Combinator is a venture capital fund, operating with small ball investments of $10K or so. More importantly, Paul Graham trains his startups to make things people want and change rapidly as they learn from their mistakes. He doesn't have any high finance back-office structure to accomplish all this. Y Combinator runs out of Graham's home office. Yet he has generated more than 500 jobs with his startups over the last couple of years and this job creation pace is accelerating as his startups mature and are acquired.

The Inc. Magazine piece is too short to do justice to what Mr. Graham is pulling off. It also doesn't give much background about his philosophy, which you can learn more about through his essays (below). Suffice it to say that he builds his entrepreneurs into realistic enterprises ready to face the world. A quote I really loved from the piece sums it up: "Running a startup is like being punched in the face repeatedly. But working for a large company is like being waterboarded."

OK. All of the startups Graham and Y Combinator do are software related. Logical. Graham is a Silicon Valley guy. However, here is where I would introduce my question. Why can't this model be adapted for all kinds of industries and geographies? I would posit that all that would need changing is the exit strategies for investors/stakeholders.

In fact I'm proposing just this kind of model in my day job doing rural economic development. I will say very specifically that the move toward rural small business development highly favors boomers and knowledge workers, typically people wearing both hats.

Why can't we launch many small, fast, fun, smart new farms and ag processing enterprises? Why can't we make training and tools and small ball investments available that will allow people in rural and urban areas to tie into each others economic and cultural self interests in ways that benefit both?

Certainly there is a vast structure of entrepreneurship talk therapy out there. What's needed even more is strategic and financial participation, as well as launch help for farmers in transition, new farmers, and cool new processing facilities emerging to meet the rapidly evolving new world of regional food economics.

My new friends at U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development have shown me a powerful organizational structure that can be used to accomplish these kind of goals. Adapting that structure to Y Combinator like 21st century speed, nimbleness, and adapt-as-you-go enterprise training seem like a perfect marriage for doing effective rural economic development.

With my new friends, especially Mark Olson of Renaissance Farm, we hope to make Iowa County Wisconsin a 763 square mile business incubator for progressive, effective rural economic development. We will be having a roll-out meeting for regional stakeholders to discuss this proposal on June 15 from 3 to 5 PM. eMail me for details if you have an interest.

It's high time we put the coolest startup smarts (Y Combinator) into projects that build our rural communities, grow more farmers and create a growing network of sustainable food infrastructure.

Smaller. Faster. Cheaper. Yum!

Y Combinator

Paul Graham essays

Renaissance Farm

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