In spite of the recession, more Americans became entrepreneurs in 2010 than any other time in the last 15 years. The best climates for business start-ups now, however, aren't the same as they were a decade or two ago. The top American cities for today's entrepreneurs have robust economies, expanding populations, access to an educated and talented workforce, and strong technology. They also tend to be filled with highly creative innovators who are not necessarily conformists.
Sound familiar, Austinites? Our city's perfect cocktail of factors that foster entrepreneurial success has placed it in the number-one spot for starting a small business in the United States today.
"Austin is the U.S. market that is most conducive to the creation and development of small businesses," G. Scott Thomas wrote as he unveiled Business Journals' 2011 On Numbers ranking of the top cities offering the best climates for small businesses. Austin emerged as the clear leader for the second year in a row, thanks to its strength in three categories: Population (adding 20 percent between 2004 and 2009), employment (job expansion of 9.5 percent between 2005 and 2010), and the nation’s top small business growth (up 1.5 percent from 2007 to 2008).
But the Austin magic isn't just about growth and high-tech - don't discount the cool factor. Creativity is high in the “Live Music Capital of the World,” home to a density of musicians, artists and writers. Austinites not only embrace non-traditional lifestyles, people and businesses, they create an atmosphere that is highly conducive to their support. We have a plethora of angel investors, business associations such as RISE and Bootstrap Austin, and plenty of cool co-working spaces where a biotech founder might be sitting next to a guy who is starting Austin's next darling of the trailer food scene.
"Mix all these elements in what many call a classless society, where hippie communalism coexists with no-nonsense capitalism, and you’ve got a breeding ground for start-ups," wrote Bob Frick in a Kiplinger report that named Austin as the best city of the next decade. He added that music and business creativity riff off each other, citing the South by Southwest festival where musicians and filmmakers inspire bright ideas for other businesses.
Mix all these elements in what many call a classless society, where hippie communalism coexists with no-nonsense capitalism, and you’ve got a breeding ground for start-ups.
Nadia Elhaj, owner of Cornucopia Popcorn Creations, agrees that these elements combine to make Austin a great place to start a business. "I think Austin has smart and creative entrepreneurs, and a public that is willing to support them. Not everywhere could a popcorn shop survive for three years. Austin makes it a point to buy local, and support their small businesses."
The Go Local Card is an example of how much Austinites back their hometown entrepreneurs. For ten bucks, card holders get instant discounts at participating businesses and support the local economy. Cornucopia accepts the Go Local Card, as do 598 other places around town - and the card has nearly 120,000 subscribers.
Carrie Arsenault, another woman business owner, feels that support in general as well as specifically toward female entrepreneurs. Arsenault started Accountability Resources, an executive search and recruiting firm, in 2005 and has seen several economic cycles since that time. "Since early 2011, we have seen as healthy of a hiring/employment climate since following the 2002 downtown. The majority of our clients, 90 percent of whom are in Austin, are adding several new positions whereas before it was simply replacement staffing." She believes that now is as good a time as any to start a business, if you are driven and passionate about your idea.
"Austin businesses tend to be based around founders' passions and talents," says Bijoy Goswami of Bootstrap Austin. "Austin as a city supports individuals on their 'be yourself' journeys and this results in businesses like Alamo Drathouse, Runtex and others."
The Martin Prosperity Institute, the world's leading think tank on economic prosperity, looks heavily at the role of factors such as creativity and quality of place. "New ideas generate new businesses," says Kevin Stolarick, the Institute's Research Director. “We suspect that it’s all about spontaneous, accidental, and planned interactions that end up generating an innovation.”
Our sources' top tips for new entrepreneurs
Carrie Arsenault: Make sure you are passionate and love what you do. I have never felt like I've “worked” since starting my company. Know that there will be ups and downs; it helps to have a self-confidence and determination to handle the pressure that comes with not being able to blame anyone but yourself if goals and targets are not met.
Nadia Elhaj: The first years of owning a small business are tough, but you learn a lot. Make sure the business you create is something you're interested in, as you’ll be spending most of your time there. Good employees are key.
Bijoy Goswami: Austin's collaborative culture is a huge contributor; particularly the use of social capital. Members of the entrepreneur scene share their knowledge, connections and time, which helps young startups and founders to progress. There are huge resources and communities to support entrepreneurs in all paths and all stages.
Kevin Stolarick: Don’t just go to the networking events for your industry—go to ones for other industries. Hang out in the coffee shops where you can run into artists or engineers – if it’s the same coffee shop, consider yourself incredibly lucky. But, mix things up. Use the density and diversity to your advantage.