Feb 27 2012

Columbus, OH – Building the Startup Ecosystem

Today’s post comes by way of Brian Zuercher, the CEO of FlyMuch.com in Columbus, Ohio. In it, he describes his experience returning to Columbus as an entrepreneur four years ago, some background on Columbus, and two specific lessons that he’s learned: (1) stop trying to be Silicon Valley and (b) take the long view.

Reid Hoffman describes entrepreneurship as jumping off a cliff and assembling the plane on the way down, and this seems to hold true for entrepreneurship no matter where you live. The difference for an entrepreneur in Columbus, who decides to jump off the cliff, is that he or she will also need to wear the hat of entrepreneurial eco-system builder. In other words, the entrepreneurs need to assemble the plane, and source all the parts (recruit crazy people to work for you), find thermal updraft (funding), and convince some passengers to ride this extremely risky flight (evangelists, government, etc.).

It’s been almost four years since I returned to Columbus after a decade gone for school, work and more school. We returned to Columbus for many of the reasons people return to where they grew up. The one difference in my thought process, albeit naïve maybe, was that I believed you could start a company anywhere and make it happen.

Now that I am in my 4th year back, I know what is in front of me and it’s a decision many entrepreneurs in Columbus and cities like Columbus will face. Entreperneurs will have to wear two hats for their foreseeable future. One hat is that of the entrepreneur for their company and the second hat is that of the entrepreneur for their community. The main challenge this creates for entrepreneurs is time and stamina. The difficulties and stress associated with entrepreneurship are already tough, so the key is to know the hurdles in front of you before you start.

First, a little background on Columbus.

Columbus, OH has many of the ingredients that are not easily replicated in other cities. We have one of the largest universities in the country in The Ohio State University, a relatively large base of experienced corporate IT staff, and generally a nice (lower cost) place to live. With the exception of mountains or an ocean, we are ahead of most cities that are trying to build entrepreneurial eco-systems.

There is a unique size to cities like Columbus. Cities like Columbus that have just shy of a million people in the city and another half million in the metro area, have a small enough size that navigating the network to find people is still relatively easy, but still enough people to warrant corporate investment and workforce build.

Within two weeks of my return to Columbus I had coffee with an incubator representative, attended Startup Weekend, and created my first company. The problem in cities like this is not getting to the right people; it’s what happens next. We started our company and had revenue and traction in the first few months. This sounds like a story most entrepreneur’s dream of. The challenges started when there was really nowhere for us to go after that. We tried to get some local incubator funding, but the committees voting were scared of web market and it’s uncertainty. Additionally, most angels in Columbus had backgrounds as Doctors, Lawyers, Corporate Execs, etc., but not as ground up entrepreneurs, which ultimately meant they were extremely risk averse and not interested in funding any deals that did not have obvious cash flow break-even tangible products.

It’s easy to get frustrated when you get into these situations. The easy answer is to just move to somewhere like Silicon Valley where the ‘get it’ crowd around new tech and funding is already at critical mass. There is a ton of bad logic in making a decision like that, and I continually fight my own pull towards it.

There are two lessons I have taken away from my early experiences in Columbus.

1. Stop trying to be Silicon Valley. Columbus is constantly being ranked the ‘Next big tech city’ or whatever. It makes me want to vomit when I hear this, because inevitably the next week some local paper says puts out a headline that says, “Is Columbus the next Silicon Valley?”. The answer is and should be NO. Columbus is going to be – Columbus version 2.0. It is our job to stay true to the steady, smart backbone that built cities like Columbus, but begin to shift the future economic engine to entrepreneurship. One nice thing about Columbus is its lack of parochialism. Most people ‘from Columbus’ are first generational. The city was relatively small until the 70’s and 80’s, so the benefit is a lack of legacy rewriting. The community is ready for chapter 2 to be written, but it’s not going to be the next Silicon Valley (unless you can move some mountains and an ocean closer).

2. Take the long view. We do not live in a long-view world, so making investments today that will have maturity years from now is really painful. Most people think it’s the money, government or big wins that will make the eco-system build. I would argue the longest and most painful, but ultimately the most important ingredient is Culture. We are trying to change generational thought processes of risk, process and opportunity and it doesn’t happen overnight. To take the long-view you need to celebrate the wins incrementally and set achievable goals that don’t jeopardize the long-term progress.

Finally, some signs of progress.

We recently started WakeUp StartUp, a monthly pitch breakfast for entrepreneurs. What is unique about this meetup is that there is only one requirement: you need an ASK. The ASK doesn’t have to be funding, it can be customers, employees, advice, etc. The first two events we maxed out the venue and it’s continuing to grow with submissions and attendance. The most important aspect of WakeUp StartUp is that the entrepreneurs run it.

I am bullish on new entrepreneurial eco-systems and the people building them. My advice to entrepreneurs is to treat your community like a startup your investing in. This let’s you transfer your hats you have to wear a little more smoothly.

Our motto here is “why the hell not Columbus.”