There’s a great local coffee shop on Guadelupe St., the main drag of the University of Texas campus (which the locals all call Guadeloop St.). For years, I (and a small army of students, faculty, and business folks) have used the shop as an informal meeting spot. It serves a good cup of coffee, and it is also near a few convenient parking lots, so it is a handy place to get together with people coming from off campus.
On a typical visit, I also bump into several colleagues. Sometimes that just means nodding at them as you walk by. More often, it means stopping to say hello. And those brief conversations usually lead to an introduction to someone that colleague is meeting with. And with that, my social network has expanded.
These coffee shops play a critical role in Austin’s economy—above and beyond the impact of coffee sales. They provide a place for people to gather for arranged meetings. Because of the density of people who use these coffee shops, they also provide lots of chances for serendipitous meetings between people who know each other. That creates new ways for people to meet new people.
And some of those new connections will give people a chance to help with new business ventures in some way. Funders meet new potential investments. Business advisors connect with potential mentees. Folks with tech skills find employment possibilities. All without a formal system for organizing the way people interact.
Over the last 10 years at IC2, we have developed a coral reef model of entrepreneurial ecosystems. We have argued that healthy functioning innovation environments function like a coral reef in which there are structures that promote these kinds of happenstance interactions among people from different segments of the economy including business, government, and universities. May players support these interactions in Austin including the many coffee shops as well as the Austin Technology Incubator.
In order for the coral reef to function effectively, the interactions people have must be consistently interesting for them. Coffee shops are great, because you arrive with the intention of having a particular meeting and stay because you see other people that are valuable to talk to. These institutions become a hub of entrepreneurial activity.
As IC2 begins to focus on rural areas, we have noticed that not every small town has good informal hubs like the coffee shops around Austin. And many regions do not realize how important these informal meeting places are. Instead, leaders in these regions typically leap to wanting to create a more formal incubator or accelerator to jump-start new businesses.
It is hard to get a good flow of people around a small incubator or accelerator, though, because there may not be enough companies going through programs there to make it worthwhile for other members of the business community to simply drop by.
Instead, projects like coffee shops and breweries provide the types of meeting spots that give people a convenient spot to hold meetings—or just to socialize—that provides more raw material for the serendipity that is the centerpiece of the coral reef.
To mangle a line from the classic movie Field of Dreams, “If you brew it, they will come.”
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