It’s been a decade since Philly Startup Leaders started providing an informal venue to encourage startups, allowing would-be entrepreneurs to seek guidance from colleagues and share war stories about building their businesses.
Since that time, the group has grown from an informal network to a professional organization with a full-time staff that provides introductions to service providers, peers, customers, investors and other contacts. Philly Startup Leaders also runs an accelerator and bootcamp, and hosts three major annual events that attract as many as 2,000 participants.
While the city may not be seen as startup central the same way Silicon Valley, New York, or Austin, Texas, are, Philadelphia is still a major national player on the startup scene. A report published by TechNet this March ranked Philadelphia among the top 10 emerging startup hubs nationwide, based on the number of job postings containing the word “startup.”
Today, AngelList estimates that Philadelphia is home to more than 1,400 startups, running the gamut of possible business ventures. That compares to about 30,000 in Silicon Valley; 17,000 in New York City and 3,300 in Austin.
Yuval Yarden, PSL’s executive director, says Philadelphia has an advantage over other locations.
“We often call Philadelphia a big city, small town,” Yarden said. “We've got great big city resources but our community is very close knit, and each community member matters. We've also got a very diverse city, and therefore a diverse startup community”—a community that PSL is devoted to supporting.
With 15 Fortune 500 companies in the region, big customers are never far away, he adds. Furthermore, the city is centrally located between New York and Washington, D.C., while maintaining a “small town feel.”
“People are friendly and personable. Networking and finding your way is manageable although there are always more people to meet especially since so many people are moving to town,” he said. “There is necessary competition, but getting into the local tech blog or winning a local pitch competition isn't completely unattainable. Most of the community events are free or very low cost, so it’s easy to explore without making a large investment.”
Three types of companies have done particularly well in the Philadelphia area: digital marketing and data, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, and education, Yarden said. Some robotics startups also have gotten a boost under the auspices of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.
These startups aren’t clustered in any one area, Yarden said. Unlike other cities that seem to pack startups into hubs, Philadelphia’s are scattered all around town, in nearly every neighborhood, although there is a Science Center, which focuses on digital health solutions that improve patient care and safety; the Gayborhood area, which hosts an eclectic variety of startup businesses from fashion houses to microbreweries; and Old City, where North Third Street (N3rd Street) has become a tech corridor.
City Councilman Allan Domb said PSL has allowed startups to augment their capabilities by networking together.
“One plus one equals three. They share issues and problems and there’s a camaraderie they don’t get anywhere else,” Domb said, lauding the “energy and enthusiasm” of both PSL and the companies it helps, and noting the tech startups have been particularly successful.
The city launched its own startup program, called Startup Philadelphia, in 2012. Lauren Cox of the Philadelphia Department of Commerce said the program provides grants to organizations like PSL, with $200,000 budgeted for the current fiscal year. The money will go to such programs as Coded By Kids and Tech Girls, which seek to promote technical skills to students, as well as Call For Ideas, which helps boost entrepreneurship, especially technical entrepreneurship.
PSL, partnering with Technical.ly Philly, won a $25,000 grant in 2014 from a program called Call For Ideas, which encouraged college students and young entrepreneurs to stay in Philadelphia to start and grow their businesses, Cox said.
“Right now in the overall in the business community, we are seeing rapid changes,” which makes this kind of support necessary, Cox said. “People used to be able to open brick-and-mortar stores with minimal resources, but things are moving to e-commerce and robotics, impacting businesses on a large scale, and it’s moving at a very rapid pace.
“We need organizations able to help these folks.”
PSL annually hosts three large events that bring 500 to 2,000 entrepreneurs together. Most recent was the June 29 picnic, which attracted 850 participants. Some 2,000 people attended the Entrepreneur Expo trade show during Philadelphia Tech Week in May, showcasing more than 75 startups.
Day-to-day, PSL’s 3,500 members use a Slack channel and listserv to share upcoming events, ask questions and introduce themselves to the community.
“While entrepreneurs need capital, customers and many other resources, at PSL we believe they need each other most,” Yarden said. “Starting a company is challenging, and can get pretty lonely. Connecting entrepreneurs to each other helps foster a supportive community.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Philly Startup Leaders.