Starter Cities

I was having a conversation last night about the idea of a class of cities that exist somewhere between the staid and the ultimately cool. We could deliberate at length about what cities fall into what classes, but my intent was to reflect on the ways communities market themselves.

In sports parlance, there are programs that have an ability to recruit coaches who ply their trade and build a team from nothing into something substantial. They’re informally called “starter programs” and the idea is, a coach will move on after building a program to head elsewhere and try it in a new market, usually for more money than their previous job. These programs exist regardless of how much a mid-tier program tries to do to keep a coach, simply because the money and opportunities being offered are far too great to turn down after years of toiling as an assistant coach to get a head coaching job.

Cities don’t exist in this paradigm, if you consider the rhetoric of most economic development websites. Whether it’s a big city, rural town hours from a highway or something in-between, there exists this fallacy that all people need to launch a huge, successful business is land and/or some kind of warehouse full of infrastructure. Without getting too deep into all of the components that might make a business work well, I’m just wondering if there’s a way for cities to capitalize on whatever their core market is, for a period of time before almost encouraging people to move on.

Smaller cities and states as a whole do a really poor job of engaging expats. I can understand why, to a certain extent. Why would Patdkoota, Illinois want to spend a lot of time heaping praise on its fictional son who has left to success in a much larger city like Chicago or much better. Still, having communities recognizing their place in the landscape of migration, could offer sustainable advantages. For one, you could attract talent that might not otherwise stay. Another benefit is leveraging talent in your community for its benefit.

I’m working on this actively with students who will eventually leave the city, to figure out ways to connect and engage them while they’re here. Starter cities aren’t bad, it can be a good way to reinvent a community as a destination, without blowing money on boondoggles that don’t help you achieve your goals.

Root, Root For The Home Team


Anyone who knows me well, is aware I’ve lived a lot of places. Almost all of these moves have been some combination of work-based or relationship-based relocations.

One of the challenges of pulling up stakes and relocating is cultivating networks. Since my formative years, I’ve always been involved in civic projects. Not every community is tailor-made for an outsider to show up and participate in substantive ways on issues that might be related to policy and/or innovation.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I fit. Without the connective tissue to keep you rooted in a place, all you have is work and whatever relationships you cultivate on your own. These foundations are not always built strong enough to maintain life in a small place, especially if you’re upwardly mobile and have broader networks in bigger places.

So what’s a peripatetic person to do? This post isn’t prescriptive, it’s reflective of my own path. At the moment, I’m doing what I always do. I try to figure out ways to meld my entrepreneurial goals with whatever established activities are already going on wherever I am. My goal is to get in where I can, but resources matter, as do having the infrastructure and a team to execute big ideas and goals.

I feel like there is a lot we can do, when we’re focusing on our own contributions and let people know we exist. It’s easy to sit at home and expect that opportunities are just supposed to come to you. But most people don’t know the talent embedded in their own communities. While it’s great to create activities to engage and ignite interest, the reality is, we sometimes have to raise our voices and let people know we’re here and what we’d like to do.

Critical mass is important, but so is working within the confines of what your circumstances are as a person or a community.