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Jun 23 2017 by

The Boulder Thesis: A Theory for Social Entrepreneurs

Guest post: Andrew Greer is an experienced program manager, sales manager, and community builder. He’s a Community Catalyst and founder at Purppl, a social enterprise accelerator and the Programs Strategist at Accelerate Okanagan, a tech accelerator, both based in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.

This article originally appeared at

The approach to supporting entrepreneurs globally changed the moment Brad Feld, Managing Director at the Foundry Group, published Startup Communities in 2012. Community building and economic development shifted from a top down approach to a bottom up approach which has proven successful in communities, large and small, around the world.  These entrepreneur driven best practices described in the book, although happening in pockets, became a main street recipe for community building around the startup culture in the technology sector.

While ‘technology communities’ and ‘startup communities’ have flourished, the world of social entrepreneurship hasn’t benefited from the same approach to collaboration and community building. There is an excellent opportunity for social entrepreneurs to adopt these principles and build an ecosystem of support (think capacity building) around people who are using entrepreneurial models to build long term solutions to community and social challenges.

Here are the basic principles  of the Boulder Thesis, copied word for word from Startup Communities.

  • Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
  • The leaders must have a long-term commitment.
  • The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
  • The startup community must have continued activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.

Let’s take a brief look at each principle a consider how this could be applied for social entrepreneurs.

First, there is no globally accepted definition of a social enterprise. We will use an inclusive definition of: an organization that is setup to use a business model to solve a community or social challenge.

Keep in mind, the business model may simply be used to generate revenue and profit to financially support the cost of long term solutions to community or social challenges.


This is usually seen as the most critical principle of the Boulder Thesis. Entrepreneurs must lead. Not government, universities, economic developers, funders, foundations, or service providers. Feld differentiates between leaders (those who have co-founded a high-growth business) and feeders (those who have not). The role of a feeder can still be a very proud, important role and there are many examples in the book of those who have helped to shape the community in Boulder.

The social sector has often looked to philanthropists, government, and researchers as leaders. There is an opportunity in every community for social entrepreneurs to take a long-term leadership role (see Murad) that will not be swayed by the politics or the funder of the day.


Feld talks about how entrepreneurial leaders “have to make a long-term commitment to their startup community. I (he) like to say this has to be at least 20 years from today to reinforce that this hast to be meaningful in length.” While focusing on large, complex, long-term challenges, many social entrepreneurs and social innovation practitioners are stuck in short-term view because of a dependency on unpredictable grant and donor relationships. A shift to more entrepreneurial revenue models can reduce the dependency on grants and donations and allow for a more predictable, sustainable revenue model based on long-term customer value. This may allow social entrepreneurs to align their funding model with the long-term challenges they are aiming to solve.


Fostering a philosophy of inclusiveness means accepting students, career changers, wantrepreneurs, for profit companies, newcomers to your city, and more. It can mean those who have started social enterprises, those who want to, those who want to work with or for social enterprises, any anyone who is interested. Taking this inclusive approach help to support growth of the entire community of those involved rather than a zero-sum game when people are competing for the same funding, customers, and stakeholders. This #givefirst approach (thanks Techstars) has helped to redefine how leaders and feeders operate in communities. There is an opportunity to create collaboration instead of competition and improve stubborn community and social outcomes.


Following on a philosophy of inclusiveness, the community must have regular events and activities that “engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.” In the social sector, this likely needs to include those who want to start social enterprises, existing social entrepreneurs, leaders of non-profits who have the capacity to start enterprising models, for profit companies who want to shift to social models, impact investors, employees of social enterprises and non-profits, mentors and potential mentors, and more. There is a clear difference between networking type events and then those events which engage in entrepreneurial activity. Best practice type events in the tech community have emerged; Startup Weekend, Startup Week, open coffee, peer-to-peer roundtables, and training/mentorship acceleration programs. See examples in Toronto. These activities have started for social entrepreneurs – social enterprise accelerators are now popping up alongside or within tech accelerators. The lean startup best practices that provide globally tested tools are now being implemented within social enterprise.


The Boulder Thesis is proving true for social enterprise startups. Practitioners are finding overlap between tech startups and social enterprises; they are both trying to build sustainable organizations which solve problems. Some social entrepreneurs are using technology to scale their solutions while some tech entrepreneurs are directly focusing on social challenges. The overlap is real. Investors are often already philanthropists. Funders are looking for great, sustainable ideas. Mentors like the impact focus. Corporates are looking for great impact partners. Accelerators are looking for sustainable impact ideas. Governments are looking for new ways to solve old problems. The Boulder Thesis is a blueprint of best practices to borrow and build from. Let’s take it on, borrow the best practices, build in collaboration with established community initiatives, and make it our own. We can drive innovation, business creation, and job growth while building capacity for social enterprises to solve some of our toughest community challenges.

To chat more about community building, Purppl, or social enterprise acceleration programs, connect directly with

Jun 23 2014 by

A Surge in Startup Networks

One book, Startup Communities by Brad Feld, has been having a deep impact in Cleveland, OH.

As this piece in Crain’s Cleveland Business details, Feld’s work has been the inspiration for new meetups around town, new forums for discussion, and a new mindset towards development the startup ecosystem. By focusing on Feld’s “Boulder Thesis,” the community builders knew to give entrepreneurs the space to lead the ecosystem.

Read the full piece here:

Jun 5 2014 by

Startup Community in a “One Horse Town” – Nick Such

The PR Tech Summit just finished up and there were some great conversations about how to build startup communities and stories from startup community from around the world.

One standout presentation was from Nick Such. He talked through his experience of building a startup community in a “one horse town”, otherwise known as Lexington, Kentucky.

The presentation touches upon Brad Feld’s Boulder Thesis from Startup Communities.

You can find the deck used for the presentation here. A big shoutout to Nick Such and the community from Lexington, KY.

Dec 2 2013 by

Building a Lacrosse Community

This is guest post by JP O’Brien, Managing Director at Integrated People Solutions, a Mentor at Techstars, and, of course, a lacrosse coach.


About 5 years ago, I was recruited to join the Boulder Valley Lacrosse board, probably because I grew up playing lacrosse at a high level, was coaching my son’s team, and knew a couple of the board members. When I joined, it felt a little like a secret society – I don’t think anyone knew that a board even existed. When

I was elected to run the organization as president, we all agreed to make swift changes to open up the communication, create transparency, and build a customer-centric culture.  We’re not close to perfect, but we are on the right path.

Over a coffee, a friend and I were discussing the Boulder Thesis and the subtleties of the concept of a long-term view perspective.  I was looking for a way to articulate the importance of looking out and thinking about how to build communities for 10 or 20 years down the road. Each year, the parents and coaches of a lacrosse team get so focused on the current season, game, or practice

right in front of them, we as a group forget to look up and make sure we are headed in the right direction for our 20-year vision.  These are the key components of the Boulder Thesis and how I see them applied to the Boulder Valley Lacrosse organization.

Startup communities put great importance on this concept of the long-term viewpoint – check. But who are the entrepreneurial leaders in our lacrosse community?  The thought came to me this summer when meeting with Andrew Davies, our Executive Director.  We were planning for our fall season and he lamented that finding good coaches was still our biggest challenge. That our growth as a community, the sustainability, will be based on our ability to continue to attract great coaches every year.  I went back to the Boulder Thesis and realized that instead of trying to create, or worse control, the development of coaches every year, perhaps the coaches are the entrepreneurial leaders of the lacrosse community.

Leaders – But does that make sense? Can a coach really have a long-term view and lead, or will it always just be about their team, son, or daughter? If you use me as an example, I started as a ‘dad-coach’, but now help lead our community of over 1200 families.  I play men’s lacrosse with Boulder guys, I coach 11 year-old boys, and my daughter plays with a team of 12 and 13 year old girls.  I have become a leader in this Boulder Lacrosse Community, in part because I am a super-user and participant in the community.

Feeders – Next, we need to make sure we have all of the service providers. There are training organizations, most very good, that offer lacrosse training, camps, and club teams (Denver Elite and 3d Lacrosse are the two largest). We have local retail stores (Breakaway Sports and Player’s Bench). We have colleges (CU and DU) and high schools (Fairview, Boulder, Dawson). We engage with each of these organizations and need them to be key participants (service providers) to our community.

Inclusive – We have always had a pretty inclusive policy, but we need to be more public about it and market the opportunities of how to get involved. And with our new Boulder Thesis concept, we can communicate better to new feeders as to how to become the fabric of the community, and not try to be the sole leader.

Engage the Community – Engagement is an area we need to continue to work on.  A few weeks ago, I held a coaches meeting with about 30 of our top local coaches and shared with them the concept and philosophy behind the Boulder Thesis. I asked them to be a part of this new concept and lead the community.  One of the coaches I had not yet met, spoke up to elaborate on the concept. It happened to be Jim Booth (COO of Orbotix), someone that understands the Boulder Thesis well from the traditional concept. Jim and I later had lunch and debated the motivation of a coach – will there be enough intrinsic motivation to invest in the long term community, if it is not specifically associated with a career?

This story has just begun. There are more debates to be had and more ideas to test.  In the meantime, we are recruiting more coaches to be leaders and build the 20-year vision for Boulder Valley Lacrosse.  If you live near Boulder, call me about getting involved or if you have additional ideas!


JP O’Brien is the managing director at Integrated People Solutions, a retained executive search and strategic talent revolution company. JP is known for his business and strategy acumen and his keen ability to build meaningful and influential relationships with some of the industry’s most sought after executives. JP is also a mentor at Techstars Boulder, leads the Boulder Valley Lacrosse Association, and teaches entrepreneurship at the Colorado School of Mines.

JP has held a mixture of CEO, CIO, and CTO roles, building strong teams and executing in rapidly growing and ever-changing markets.  JP’s prior roles include: Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of SageFire, Inc., a leading provider of cloud-based, enterprise management software for multi-unit businesses including eBay, H&R Block, and Home Depot; Founding Member and acting CIO of Headwaters MB, a middle-market private equity and M&A investment banking firm; and Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Learning Productions, LLC, an education outsourcing and technologies business that was acquired by SkillSoft. JP began he career at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) where he was the lead architect on global, multi-million dollar system implementations including Sprint, JP Morgan and GE Capital.

JP can be reached at

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Oct 1 2012 by

Denver Startup Week – 10/22 – 10/27

Denver Startup Week is happening from 10/22 to 10/27. This is the first year for it and the schedule looks awesome.

This is a great example of the type of “activity and event” I’m talking about in the fourth item of the Boulder Thesis:

You must have activities and events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.” A week-long “startup week” event once a year is exactly what I mean.

I talk about the story of Boulder Startup Week in Startup Communities. I’m psyched to see my neighbors in Denver implementing something similar!

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Sep 20 2012 by

A Three Minute Explanation of the Boulder Thesis for Startup Communities

I recently did a short three minute “drawing board” video with the gang at Starto in Denver that is an excellent overview of the Boulder Thesis, my framework for creating a vibrant, long-term startup community wherever you live. I think they captured it really well.