By: Francesca Louise Fenzi
Where is the best place to launch a start-up? Depends on who you ask. Experts explain the pros and cons of straying from the beaten path.
When it comes to start-up friendly cities, San Francisco’s got nothing on… Tulsa, Oklahoma?
On Monday, the personal finance website NerdWallet published a list of its highest-ranked cities for young entrepreneurs. According to the site, the best places for cash-strapped founders are located well off the traditional start-up path–Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley were conspicuously absent from the list.
According to vice president of NerdWallet Stephanie Wei, this is because young entrepreneurs have a different set of criteria when evaluating a good launch pad. But before packing your bags for Tampa, Florida or Omaha, Nebraska, here are a few things to consider about what makes a city great for first-time founders.
Cost of living.
Young is often code for broke. And cost of living is where some of the big cities fall short, Wei explains.
“Young people need to make their dollars stretch. [They] need a rent that isn’t taking up half [their] paycheck,” she says.
Sure enough, the median rent in New York City reached an all-time high this year of $3,418 a month–no small chunk of change for a bootstrapping founder. But what young entrepreneurs sacrifice in rent money, they may make up for in cultural benefits at an established hub, says Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland.
She advises prioritizing hubs where you can find experienced entrepreneurs in a similar industry above a desire for cheap rent.
Availability of capital.
Angel investors are hard to find, and pursuing venture capital can be both tempting and impractical, according to Wei. Young entrepreneurs may hope to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, but in the process they may overlook some of the easier, more traditional ways to get funds in the process. She explains that the NerdWallet rankings were based on an availability of “boring capital” like small business loans, and the underlying economy of a city including its historical record of sustaining growth.
Fine acknowledges that angel funding and venture capital can create a glamour trap for some young entrepreneurs, but she also recognizes that acquiring business loans as an inexperienced entrepreneur can be tough. Instead, she urges aspiring founders to do what they do best: Think outside the box.
“People often overlook grants because they feel so governmental and bureaucratic, but there are a number of government incentives for starting a business… [Entrepreneurs] just have to spend the time and do their research,” she says.
Education, education, education.
Another important resource for aspiring founders is the accessibility of educational tools. In Fine’s opinion, that means looking to cities like Boston, Massachusetts or Washington, D.C. which have strong existing academic communities for entrepreneurs to draw from.
Wei looks at the term “education” more liberally. NerdWallet ranked its cities based not only on their proximity to established universities–but on the overall education and income levels of their residents. Nearly 50 percent of the population in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example–No. 3 on NerdWallet’s list–hold a bachelor degree. Wei explains that by examining the educational standards in a community, entrepreneurs can gain a sense of each location’s value system.
“Highly educated people… and a good median income… are a good sign,” she says.
A diverse network of peers.
On one thing, the experts agree: You really are as good as the company you keep. So surrounding yourself–and your growing company–with peers and mentors in your field is a must. The No. 1 thing for young entrepreneurs to look for when picking a city for their new venture is a strong sector focus, Fine explains.
She says young founders need to ask themselves: “Does [the city] have critical mass in one or multiple sectors? Does it have both young and seasoned entrepreneurs?” Having a diverse community of peers doesn’t just mean surrounding yourself with other 20-somethings or founders of similar socioeconomic status, Fine says. You should be looking for a strong community from which to draw mentorship, as well.
“Look for people who have succeeded and who have failed,” she advises. “People who have learned from messing up–and are willing to talk honestly about that–are great to talk to.”
Take it all with a grain of salt.
In reality, the most important factor in choosing a location is the overall ecosystem, says Fine. And that can be very hard to measure. She explains that while rankings are helpful, they should also be looked at with a critical eye as they are frequently based on relatively few factors.
“I’m not sure if I’d pick up and move somewhere based on what a magazine told me,” she says. Instead, she’d go about it the old-fashioned way: by putting her feet on the ground and talking to the investors and entrepreneurs who actually make up the community.