Sunday, October 27th, 2013

The Magic of Microclusters

If you look at the list of target industries for any given city or state, you usually find several from the same list of five common items: high technology, life sciences (under various names), green tech, advanced manufacturing, logistics. Take a few from this list, and add a legacy industry if there’s one or two where you are already particularly strong, and there you have it.

The problem is that everybody and their brother is now claiming to be a tech or startup “hub”, etc. And there’s probably some fairness in that. Starting companies is much easier than it used to be, and despite the so-called “20 minute rule”, venture capitalists seem very willing to travel to find deals where they can make good money. For example, payments startup Dwolla didn’t have trouble attracting top name backers even though it was in Des Moines.

So in a sense everybody can play right now. At some point though, there will inevitably be another shakeout of sorts. If you want to be a long term survivor, have a claim to fame that will make you stand out from the crowd, generate above average returns, etc., you need to have something that makes you distinct.

One way to do that is to be sub-specialized. “High tech” is an extremely broad category. A city could have a large number of nominally high tech companies that are totally unalike, and which do not form any type of real ecosystem, integrated supply chain, etc. This is a cluster in name only.

One way to stand out is a concept I’ve called “microclusters”. That is, rather than simply saying “We’re high tech”, you have some specialty within the broader tech industry where you can be a real national leader.

A couple of news stories make me revisit this with regards to the internet marketing microcluster in Indianapolis. Like most cities, Indy is targeting, you guessed it, high tech, life sciences, green tech, advanced manufacturing, and logistics. The main promotional organization for high tech is called Techpoint. (I should note this organization does double duty as a statewide group as well).

But somehow, organically, within tech generally Indianapolis had a lot of startups in the internet marketing space. There were something like 70 or so last time I saw someone who had made a list. One of them, Exact Target, was recently acquired by Salesforce.com for $2.5 billion. That’s a legitimate exit by any standards. Also recently, a content marketing cloud provider called Compendium was bought by Oracle for its own marketing cloud suite. (Terms not disclosed but surely much, much smaller).

When two tech bluechip names decide to go fishing in the same pond for companies in the same field, you start to think there’s something to it. (Salesforce and Oracle weren’t the first either. Terradata bought out a company called Aprimo for $525 million a couple years ago). Wanting to build on the momentum, Techpoint just held a big shindig called M-Tech to launch a campaign they are launching in an effort to boost the city’s marketing technology cluster.

What will this turn into? I don’t know. A news report about M-Tech noted potential challenges from competitors. What’s more, if there’s no pipeline of new companies, this sort of thing will fizzle out. But if money and talent continues to develop new solutions and companies in a place where there’s real domain expertise and a bona fide ecosystem, it will potentially give the city a niche where it can be a truly top tier player and not just another me-too startup hub.

On a more mature level, I wrote some years back about the motorsports industry cluster in Indianapolis. Everybody knows the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 500-mile Race, but Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway) in Brownsburg also happens to be home to arguably the top drag racing event in the US. It’s near Brownsburg predominantly where a collection of (as of 2008 when I got the last report) 400 motorsports companies, employing 8,800 people at average wages of around $50,000/year is centered. Thus this cluster is both a sub-industry (a type of advanced manufacturing) microcluster and a geographic one. (I might note it’s certainly not the only global location in this industry as places like London and Charlotte also have such clusters). People have actually moved to Indianapolis from as far away as Australia and England to start companies in this space, a pretty good indicator it’s a real opportunity zone.

Again, both of these grew organically, so I don’t want to suggest that you can conjure one up with an economic development program. But I suspect most cities have a few of these out there or in the process of developing. It just so happens I know Indianapolis well and so can name what’s there. Identifying these and providing institutional or infrastructural support (e.g., specialized community college training programs) is probably a worthwhile endeavor.

Today’s economy doesn’t have one plant employing 10,000 people. But a good microcluster can be as impactful if not more so. Obviously the smaller your metro, the bigger a splash something like this will make. What’s more, specialization and a true integrated ecosystem can produce what Warren Buffett calls a “wide moat” business that can be defended against upstarts. Also recall that Jack Welch at GE famously didn’t want to be in a business if he couldn’t be #1 or #2 at it. It’s not realistic for smaller cities to ever think they’ll be #1 or #2 in tech generally, nor even have the large tech scene of a New York or Chicago. But they can find particular areas where they can punch above their weight. And as the recent Indy acquisitions show, generate legitimate big dollar exits.

Update: Richard Layman posted some additional thoughts on his blog.

5 Comments
Topics: Economic Development
Cities: Indianapolis

5 Responses to “The Magic of Microclusters”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    Possibly a good sign: the co-founder of Compendium was also a co-founder of Exact Target. I think this speaks to the “serial entrepreneurship” aspect of the m-tech sector in Indy, but it also might mean that the sector is unduly dependent on a few individuals.

  2. Tadd says:

    Market Street in Indianapolis is starting to form this startup cluster in downtown Indianapolis. In addition to Exact Target and Compendium you have TechPoint, HALO, the city’s discussions of incubator, Tinderbox, KA+A, Milhaus, Streetlinks, among others. I think this is going to continue to be the tech/startup micro luster in Indy; while the west side of downtown becomes the biotech/medical startup cluster

  3. Eric Fazzini says:

    Brownsburg really needs to work on improving the aesthetics of 136, including their downtown. Maybe they should model what Speedway did. The economic importance of this microcluster on Brownsburg/Hendricks Co. is not visible to the naked eye once you cross the county line.

  4. Hadley Fruits says:

    True to it’s charming aw-shucks Hoosier nature, Indiana has inherently struggled to initiate bold models, relying instead on a consistent conservative growth that ebbs and flows with the generational tide.
    Multi-tiered Collaboration is so vital to the state’s success and will continue to self seed as infrastructure and institutional support emerges…you are dead on there.
    North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park is an interesting example and is consistently infused with new talent from it’s educational partnerships.

  5. myb6 says:

    This makes a lot of sense. When economists do sectoral analysis, I often wonder if the results are weakened by the large grain of the data.

    Doesn’t Milwaukee have a water-technology cluster they’re pushing? That definitely wouldn’t show up in traditional categories.

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