The Problem with Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest

Is Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest making a big difference for the rest?

What is Rise of the Rest?

According to Steve Cases, Revolution Web Site:

Rise of the Rest is a nationwide effort powered by Revolution to invest in and work closely with entrepreneurs in emerging startup ecosystems. Since 2014, Steve Case and the Revolution team have logged more than 8,000 miles touring entrepreneurial communities by bus in 33 cities.

The Rise of the Rest is all about creating a robust startup ecosystem in 33 cities, by going on a bus tour, awarding $100K to pitch contest winners in 33 cities. In addition, just like 99% of every other VC in the world, Rise of the Rest will invest in worthy startups outside Silicon Valley. Basically, it’s the startup version of the American Idol tour. It spreads some money around, some temporary excitement, anoints one company, Queen for a Day.. and they bolt out of town.

My problem with Rise of the Rest is it reminds me of the reason so many companies fail… its lack of focus.

The sun shines all over the world… it shines on the leaves of trees every day. The trees grow. The leaves thrive. But if you apply some focus, use a magnifying glass, shine it on one single leaf, the leaf will burst into flames. That’s the power of focus.

If you took 33 thin tree branches and tied them into a single bundle, you would never have the strength to break that bundle over your knee. If you separated them and applied enough force to each individual branch, one at a time, you couldn’t easily break them all.

Maybe instead of trying to kick-start 33 startup ecosystems, it would be more effective to pick them off one at a time.

So far, I count 29 cities that Rise of the Rest has blessed with their presence. Many of them prime candidates to apply extreme focus and maximum pressure for the win. Yet attacking them all doesn’t seem to me like it has accomplished much.  I just did a cursory, non-scientific, seat-of-the-pants survey of the cities. Then quickly made notional judgments of which cities needed help, could use the economic boast and have the infrastructure (University, Work-Force, Airports, Special Stuff (like Chattanooga has the fastest internet in the country)) to support and grow a startup-ecosystem.

City Need Readiness
Albuquerque High High
Atlanta Low High
Baltimore High High
Birmingham  High Low
Buffalo High Low
Charleston Low Low
Chattanooga  High High
Cincinnati High Low
Dallas  Low High
Denver Low High
Des Moines High Low
Detroit High Low
Kansas City High Low
Lincoln NE High Low
Louisville  High Low
Madison WI High High
Manchester NH High High
Memphis  High Low
Minneapolis Low High
Nashville Low High
New Orleans Low Low
Philadelphia High High
Phoenix Low High
Pittsburgh High High
Raleigh-Durham High High
Richmond High High
Salt Lake City  High High
St Louis High High

My problem with trying to help 33 cities by making a short whistle-stop, pitch-contest tour and then leave a few nickles behind as you hot foot it out of town is it accomplishes little except for some sweet memories of temporary excitement. It reinforces one of the failures of many startups by not focusing their energy on a small winnable battleground. When you go bowling, you don’t throw ten tiny little bowling balls at each of the ten pins. You throw one big heavy ball at one pin in such a way that that pin knocks out all the other pins.

If you drive in your bus by a man dying of thirst in the desert. You won’t help him if you stop, spit in his mouth. Leave him there and drive on.

If I was a brilliant, wealthy businessman, like Steve Case, I think I’d want to apply my energy and treasure in the purpose of making a difference by moving one meaningful needle at a time. I’d want to make a lasting difference instead of temporarily move the needle of a decibel meter in 33 towns. I’d pick a city like Philadelphia that has a great Airport, great universities, close to major population centers like New York City with an affordable cost of living and then focus my magnifying glass there. I’d focus $3.3 million at one winnable city instead of 33 meaningless $100K investments.

Which made me wonder. Steve Case is a smart guy. Let me reach out and find out what he was thinking so I wrote him an email:

Hi Steve,

Glen Hellman, AKA Mr Cranky here. I’m writing a series of articles about the DC Tech Startup scene. One of those articles will be about rise of the rest. The thesis of the article is two fold.

One, that some cities are not meant to be startup meccas and two, that Rise of the Rest would be better directed if it focused energy on one city as a time. That it is focus and continued investment of resources to build an ecosystem. That the road show is a great morale booster but not an effective ecosystem booster.

Would you be available to discuss and convince me differently or have any comments?

Thanks

I received the following response from a Rise of the Rest spokesperson,

“The Rise of the Rest strategy is more than just a morale booster—although publicity to illustrate what is happening in startup communities between the coasts is critical both at the local and national level. We believe we are creating a network of founders, regional investors, elected officials, ecosystem builders and university leaders that now spans 38 cities and 26 states. Both the bus tours and investments made through the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund are deliberately designed to be catalytic for local ecosystems, bringing more capital, more attention and more talent to companies and communities across the country.”

I’m not buying that any “network of founders, regional investors, elected officials, ecosystem builders and university leaders is taken place in these bus tour fly-bys. I look at the over one year Startup DC, and 1776 that resulted from it and I call Bullshit that they created a nexus of passionately reinvented citizens empowering kickass startups. DC is still DC. Not much nexing going on here.

The Rise of the Rest, looks good, and for a day or two it may feel good but does it leave a true lasting effect? Hey looking good isn’t a bad thing. Take a hit of weed and you can feel good. It doesn’t make you good. Some people would rather look good than feel good. I’d rather be good for a long time than feel good for the one day that the Rise of the Rest Bus Tour is in town. But that’s just me.


Disclaimer: I volunteer my time and am an independent contractor for many organizations. The Views on my blog post are my own and do not represent the views of any of the organizations with whom I dedicate my time. That includes my clients in my coaching practice, the members of my Driven Forward ThinkTank, the University of Maryland. Mach37, The Founders Institute. These views also do not reflect the opinions for any organization that I was formerly associated with including, James Monroe Elementary School, where I graduated with distinction from 6th grade, Lexitron which I left in 1982, Montgomery Youth Hockey or Vistage an organization was grateful to be a part of and happily parted ways in 2014.