I’m from California. I love sunshine, hiking trails and blueberries in the winter. So in late 2015, when my company, Tovala, was accepted into Y Combinator after two years of freezing my butt off at grad school in Chicago, I said goodbye to my Chicago friends. I’m sure most of them thought I’d only return as a visitor, not a resident.
But after four amazing, exhausting and productive months spent in the heart of Silicon Valley, we packed our bags, shipped a bunch of ovens and moved back to the Midwest.
At least once a week, I’m asked why we did that. Are we happy with the decision? Do we like torturous weather? After all, there are tons of Chicago transplants in California. Vice versa? Not so much.
It wasn’t the easiest decision. We spent our four months deeply enmeshed in the startup culture. We made friends and found mentors as we forged deep bonds that helped us create the foundation of our company.
We packed our bags, shipped a bunch of ovens and moved back to the Midwest.
We were surrounded by like-minded people all striving to upend their own world, from our friends at Enflux, re-thinking motion capture technology in clothing to the team at Revl, who have turned the GoPro camera on its head.
And our mentors, particularly Michael Seibel, pushed us to stay, citing the abundance of huge successes and the proven track record of startups succeeding in Silicon Valley.
Despite everything?—?advice to the contrary from our most trusted advisors, questioning by our friends, and even my own nagging doubts, there were four factors that pulled us back to the Midwest:
1?—?Cost. From rent to salaries to food for our team, everything is expensive in the Bay Area. It’s a bit ironic?—?startups are so cost conscious when it comes to most things, but when it comes to locating and operating their business, that goes out the window.
2?—?Access to talent. The battle for talent in Silicon Valley is real?—?people switch companies the way they choose new restaurants. With Tovala, we’ve been fortunate to attract and retain amazing talent that come from varied backgrounds and hail from powerhouse institutions like the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and Northwestern.
3?—?Community. In Chicago, we have the support of a group of people that are fighting not only for the success of our company, but also for the success of entrepreneurship in this city. Venture capitalists like Jason Heltzer and Peter Christman and founders like Corbett Drummey and Divey Gulati, both of whom also returned to Chicago after YC. These are folks that believe in Chicago and are personally invested in the success of the ecosystem here.
4?—?A more personal reason: My co-founder, Bryan Wilcox, started his own product development firm some five+ years ago. The Product Manufactory is a thriving entity in Champaign, with a team of brilliant engineers and a shop where amazing R&D work gets done. They’ve played a key role in getting our smart oven (and food truck) ready for market.
It’s been about a year since we moved back, so I’ve had plenty of time to reflect. It was the right decision. 100%.
We raised two rounds of funding, with Midwest investors responsible for over half our money raised to date.
We’ve hired amazing people, from Catalyze/MB Labs co-founder Josh Billions to chef Alexander Plotkin, who trained at Noma and worked at Alinea, to former Redbox VP Taryn Aronson, who cut her teeth at Blackstone and Hulu. And we have kept every single full-time person we have hired.
We’ve gone from an alpha prototype to shipping over 600 smart ovens to our earliest supporters. Many of those customers are in the Midwest, where we have placed roots and hope to see tremendous support from the local ecosystem.
And we’ve built a complex, unique food operation from the ground up, with the ability to change pre-prepped meals every single week. We’re proud to say we shipped our first meals to paying customers this week.
Maybe the biggest reason we came back to Chicago is because if we can succeed here, that success will translate to the rest of the country far better than it would if we were succeeding in Silicon Valley. And for a company that wants to make an impact on people across the country, that’s a damn good reason to stay in Chicago.
(David Rabie is the Founder and CEO of Tovala; this post originally ran on Medium)