Building a Commercial Tech Startup Community in Huntsville

Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit down with Mayor Battle for the purpose of chronicling the emergence of Huntsville's commercial tech startup community. It was an honor to visit with someone who has done so much for Huntsville, and who has such progressive views for its future. I also prepared him for his talk tomorrow night at Coworking Night, where he will be leading a Q&A with our guests.

A sampling of Huntsville's commercial tech startups and product logos

A sampling of Huntsville's commercial tech startups and product logos

Over the past year, I've worked hard to develop Huntsville's commercial tech startup community. Between Open Huntsville, Code for Huntsville, Coworking Night, and 3210, I've invested thousands of hours toward facilitating community events and connecting cofounders. In doing so, I've become passionate for the idea of 100% free community development. I haven't made a dime off of any of my startup community endeavors over the past year, nor do I believe I should have. It's not that I or others don't deserve to be paid for our work, it's that the community won't come together unless the barrier to entry is as low as possible. Here are some thoughts on that:

The largest barrier to the growth of Huntsville's commercial tech startup economy is community development

Despite the fact that Huntsville has thousands of talented engineers and tons of brilliant ideas and a wealthy economy, our startup-inclined community is fragile. App developers at Army Game Studios do not go out of their way to meet app designers at Digium. Nobody wins by charging even $10 in an attempt to connect these folks. On top of that, these people are wary of any attempt to connect them with each other in the first place. Many of Huntsville's engineers are perfectly content with their jobs, their families, and their circle of friends.

However, in order to build a commercial tech startup community, these people HAVE to meet each other. You can't force them to meet each other; they have to meet each other on terms that satisfy each of them. You have to provide the lowest possible barrier to entry. Secretly, everyone desires to meet new people, but social barriers make it a lot more comfortable to stay within our comfort zones.

Lowering the barrier to entry means 1) providing great value 2) for free. Free community development requires a large investment of time and resources, but if your goal is to help connect a fragile, networking-averse population, it's a requirement. The exception I see to this is the development of reputable value in an established community, at which point people might start paying money for services. Until then though, the barrier to entry must be free.

In the case of the app developer and app designer above, you also have to help them meet each other many times, since a relationship cannot be formed on the basis of a single encounter. If these two folks are going to embark on a startup company together, they must meet each other on equal terms and develop trust before they will feel confident enough to found a company together.

Case in point: Coworking Night

Coworking Night is "a free community events platform for creative professionals". Every Wednesday night for the past year, has generously given us their office to use for coworking events and, in turn, we have offered the space to community members for free. The space provides 10 conference rooms, two floors of desks, and a number of projectors and whiteboards - just the right decor and materials to accommodate entrepreneurs and artists.

Local entrepreneur Lisa Williams speaks with a captive audience at Coworking Night

Local entrepreneur Lisa Williams speaks with a captive audience at Coworking Night

Each week, we bring a headliner guest to speak for our audience: an entrepreneur, a CEO, someone who has made something or organized a community, someone who is passionate for their product or business or project, etc.

Following this, we break into workshops and user groups that meet to collaborate on projects: writing projects, design projects, startup projects, hardware projects, etc.

Finally, to cap off the evening, we meet in a designated room to GSD (get shit done). This is a quiet, distractionless workplace where attendees can really focus on the side project or startup they're working on.

Of course, it should go without saying that if your goal is to GSD, you are welcome to arrive at 6pm, claim a desk or conference room, and GSD the whole night.'s lights turn off at 11pm, providing you 5 hours of free workspace.

1 year anniversary party

Tomorrow night at Coworking Night, we'll be celebrating our 1 year anniversary party. Mayor Battle will kick things off with a speech about the future of Huntsville and some Q&A, and afterward we'll dive into our regular routine of featuring speeches and user groups for all different creative capacities. Local entrepreneurs Nemil Shah and Noah Huber-Feely will launch their "Uber for Urgent Care" app, ApproXie, among other groups and events. We'll have beer, food, and hundreds of guests. It will be a good time.

And, of course, everything will be free. I hope to see you there!