Victor Gutwein is the founder and managing director of M25, a Midwest-focused VC firm focused on early-stage tech companies. Over the past few years, Victor has invested in over 50 startups in 10 Midwest states. Here Victor writes every month to share his thoughts from his travels and experiences working with founders, VCs and others in the region.
The Midwest has long struggled with a general lack of awareness of their growing tech economies, so many have put on big, organized events to coalesce attention. Two recent events offer examples of success for us to analyze.
Last month, I visited Cincinnati for Startup Week Cincinnati (SWC). My partner, Mike, visited Minneapolis that same week for Twin Cities Startup Week (TCSW) – which I had the pleasure of attending the year earlier. They were both excellent – minus the fact that they were scheduled for the same week, making it difficult for Midwest investors trying to visit both. I frequently refer to them as prime examples of what communities can do right when it comes to startup and tech promotion. And I count them as “musts” for anyone seriously considering investing in, working in or launching a startup in that city. Let me dive into what makes these so special.
Holistic & Inclusive
Traveling to another city takes a lot of time, no matter what role you play. As a VC, it is particularly important for me to maximize my limited amount of trips to a city, and packing a lot of events into one week is incredibly valuable. In Cincinnati, I saw two accelerator demo days, attended a local fund’s annual meeting, shared drinks with a few dozen VCs and hung out with founders at a community pitch night – and that’s only the first two days. Because of the density of activities, people were all in the same place at the same time, perfect for lunches and coffee meetings between events. And the coordination amongst different stakeholders is vital – TCSW brought together two cities, several coworking spaces, two accelerator demo days, and dozens of non-profit, government and service provider resources to commit to something bigger than themselves that week.
So they built it, and then they came. Seriously, a poorly attended startup week creates a vicious cycle trying to get attendees to come, but TCSW and SWC bring strong numbers that create a virtuous network effect and even the all-important FOMO. We had a very busy travel season from late August through early November, but we prioritized these two startup weeks in part because… everyone else prioritized them. Why is this so important? Dense serendipity. Rubbing shoulders with dozens of my colleagues I don’t get to see that often, and the information exchanged / introductions made in the conversations that follow, are more important than grinding out emails back home.
Fun & Urban
It is a common perception that Midwest cities are sleepy, sprawling and boring, while tech startups are generally assumed to spawn in dense, urban, hip environments. Nobody wants to travel to a different city to spend your time under fluorescent lights in convention centers and hotel lobbies, the bane of corporate-type trade shows and conferences.
Rather, the venues at these startup weeks ranged from drone races in breweries, demo days in beautifully restored theaters and pitch events in nightclubs and movie theaters – almost all within a short distance of city center. At Beta.MN you even get to vote on the best company with shiny gold tokens and Cintrifuse gave visiting VCs a sample of the local flavor… of whiskies. It may sound silly, but showing off active downtowns and trendy neighborhoods create a buzzy, energetic week and leave a positive memory for participants.
These ingredients are not easy, but they are the recipe for a great event that can be an annual apex of their startup ecosystems. The ultimate benefits are unclear – out-of-town investors finding startups, local rising stars breaking out, a shared experience for often-isolated tech founders – but they are certainly important and worthwhile. And I can’t wait for next year – though for FOMO’s sake, please don’t make them on the same week!