There has been a lot of conversation here and here about what the Sioux Falls entrepreneurial community needs, as well as some thoughts on what we lack here. It’s great that this conversation is taking place. People CARE about this emerging community and the role it plays in our great city. I moved back to my home state of South Dakota eight years ago, and I can say the Sioux Falls entrepreneurial community is in the best place it’s ever been.
20 years from tomorrow
Brad Feld, Venture Capitalist and author of Startup Communities, the bible for people who care about this stuff, says building a startup community is a 20-year process from tomorrow. Meaning it never ends. You’ve never made it. Feld says,
Part of Boulder’s success was in deliberately not trying to emulate Silicon Valley. The first thing any city trying to create a startup community or a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem should do is get rid of the idea that they’re trying to be like Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has unique characteristics just like every city does, and every city and community should focus on their unique characteristics. They should learn from the things that have caused Silicon Valley to be such an extraordinary, entrepreneurial ecosystem. But they shouldn’t try to emulate it. Silicon Valley has been developing as a startup community for over 60-70 years. This notion that you can create something in two or five years is foolish. So, recognizing that it takes a long time, you have to go on that kind of journey.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, Silicon Beach, Silicon Prairie, or Sioux Falls. Communities rise and fall, ebb and flow, grow and shrink; change is the only constant. You know what that sounds like? Entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurs are in a constant state of change and growth. They have to be, or their companies won’t survive. So it should come as no surprise that elements that support our startup community (coworking spaces, code schools, angel funds, and startups) will come and go. But the element I believe we all need to focus on and talk about is the entrepreneurs themselves. The people.
We need to change our approach
Any good entrepreneur knows that execution > idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has an idea, but it is the entrepreneur who makes it a reality. I believe our current approach is backwards. Sioux Falls is taking a “build it and they will come” approach. We think if we have a coworking space, code school, and angel fund, the entrepreneurs will emerge out of the woodwork or flock to Sioux Falls. I believe if we have great entrepreneurs building great companies, those other elements will become necessities and fall into place.
Invest in our people
In May 2009, my brother Scott and I were awarded a $15,000 grant through the N2Tec program at SDTBC (which is now Zeal). There were only two conditions to receiving the funding:
- Start a technology-based business.
- Start it in South Dakota.
So at 23, I quit my $50,000/year consulting job in Minneapolis and moved back to South Dakota to start my company. I didn’t think I’d be back in SoDak, at least not at 23, but there I was in June of 2009 getting an apartment in downtown Sioux Falls and starting my entrepreneurial career.
The irony of that N2Tec program was that Scott and I thought the $15,000 grant and office space were the big wins. We thought, hey this validates our idea and now we have a runway to start! We have a space to cowork and an investment, what else would we need?
We were way off.
The true value of that program were the connections it gave us to key people who would help us along the way. We were introduced to people who would become our first customers. We met Tim and Vonnie and the Enterprise Institute who helped us rework our go-to-market strategy. I remember Rich Naser telling me to double what we were charging. A fellow member of the program invited us to share an office with him at 8th and Railroad where we met the guys starting an up-and-coming digital agency called Click Rain.
The people, the introductions, and the mentorship were far more valuable than any grant or coworking space. And that $15,000 grant turned out to be money well-invested. Coming out of the N2Tec program, Scott and I launched 9 Clouds, which two years later spun out Lemonly, and today the two companies employ nearly 40 people. Not bad for $15k.
Back to SoDak
This weekend, the good folks at Workforce Development are holding an event called Back to SoDak, inviting former South Dakotans to come back home and see how Sioux Falls has changed and all the great things going on here. It’s a well-timed event on JazzFest weekend with hopefully beautiful weather that will really help make our city shine. And I believe it’s the right approach.
As a business owner, I’ve experienced the challenge of recruiting folks with no ties to this state to move here. It’s very difficult, but not impossible. Back to SoDak focuses on people just like me––people who grew up planning to get out of SoDak. This group of people know and love South Dakota, they just need to come witness the great community we’re building. It’s a great food community, outdoor community, entertainment community, and of course a great entrepreneurial community.
Entrepreneurs over ideas
We don’t have to wait for all the great people who have left to move back to SoDak––we already have a ton of great people here! My point: Our focus should be on the people, not the places and things for them to use. How do we build out a network of mentors to help entrepreneurs with the challenges they’re facing? How do we encourage those who’ve “made it” to give back and share not just their wins, but their losses too? How do we as an entrepreneurial community remember to celebrate our successes (through content, press, 1 Million Cups, etc.) but also celebrate our failures and encourage our peers to get back up and try again?
Investing in people, professional development, and leadership training will yield results for our startup community now and 20 years from tomorrow.