Second and Third Tier Markets And Beyond

I am in Nashville for a couple days with The Gotham Gal who is giving a keynote at a startup conference today. I mostly came along for a chance to spend a couple days in Nashville. But I will also be at the conference later today to see her do her thing.

Last night we attended a cocktail party with investors from the southeast and then had dinner with an entrepreneur in Atlanta that The Gotham Gal backed a few years ago. At both we talked about entrepreneurship in the southeast and the funding environment for companies in this part of the world.

The way I think about the startup sector in the US is that the first tier is Silicon Valley. More than half of all startup activity and startup funding activity happens in the Bay Area which now includes SF and the east bay. You could simply focus on Silicon Valley and ignore every other part of the US and the world and do just fine as an investor. Many do.

The second tier is NYC and LA and Boston. Between these three cities, another third of startups and investment capital reside. All three of these startup cities are vital and growing rapidly. You could simply focus on NYC, LA, and Boston and ignore the bay area and other parts of the US and the world and do just fine as an investor. I am not aware of any firm that has that strategy as it doesn’t really make sense. But it could easily be done.

The third tier includes Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, and a few other smaller places like Boulder and Austin. I am doing this entire post from my head and not referring to any survey. There are a bunch of these surveys and I’ve read them all so I am sure this is directionally correct but I am also sure that I am missing a place or two.

This third tier is a decent place to be an entrepreneur and an investor. But there are challenges. Entrepreneurs in the third tier can access the talent and capital they need to be successful in these third tier markets but it is a bit harder to do both. Investors can be focused on these markets if they keep their fund sizes small enough or they can take a hybrid approach by being focused on these markets and also investing in the first and second tier markets. The latter is how we have always approached being a NYC centric investor.

But there is a dynamic that goes on in these third tier markets where the local investors look to investors in the first and second tier markets to come down and “validate” their investments. And the investors in the first and second tier markets won’t come down and do that without a strong local lead. This game of “chicken” happens ways too often in these markets and is incredibly frustrating to entrepreneurs in these markets. These third tier markets need a few strong Series A focused VC firms who have large enough fund sizes to be aggressive lead investors and also have the conviction and stomach to play that game. That is what USV, and Flatiron before it, did in NYC. That is what Foundry did in Boulder. That is the game Upfront is playing in LA. Every third tier market needs a few VC firms like that. And being that investor is a terrific way to make a lot of money.

Beyond the third tier lies a lot of even smaller markets. I am in one today in Nashville. It has a huge health care sector that produces a lot of entrepreneurial and executive talent. It has a decent amount of local seed capital. But it is not a major VC destination. The southeast VCs will come here regularly looking for opportunities. But it suffers even more from the issues I talked about in the third tier. The same is true of places like Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Kansas City. I mention those three cities because USV has investments in companies in all three places.

The truth is you can build a startup in almost any city in the US today. But it is harder. Harder to build the team. Harder to get customers. Harder to get attention. And harder to raise capital. Which is a huge opportunity for VCs who are willing to get on planes or cars and get to these places.

There is a supremacism that exists in the first and second tiers of the startup world. I find it annoying and always have. So waking up in a place like Nashville feels really good to me. It is a reminder that entrepreneurs exist everywhere and that is a wonderful thing.