Dhawan: As the community evolves, challenges persist

Monetery Members of the first panel during Monetery discuss the concept of supporting a startup ecosystem. (From left) Debi Durham, Brad Feld, Martina Lauchengco and Lesa Mitchell. Photo courtesy of Dwolla

Thank you Ben Milne for rebooting the conversation about our startup community during Monetery on March 20, your Dwolla team shined as a cohesive cohort of individuals.

I fondly remember from your launch events during the nascent days of Iowa’s startup community.

These are my reflections as an ‘aging’ member of Iowa’s startup community: 

Brad Feld spoke for the first time in Iowa as a guest of Thinc Iowa conference in 2012. On the heels of Big Omaha and produced by its parent company—Silicon Prairie News—Thinc brought speakers from near and far. The event engaged about 400 people as attendees and sponsors observed one of the first startup conferences in Des Moines.

As a partner in now-defunct Startup City Des Moines, I sat and listened intently to messages from startup founders and advocates. Brad spoke from the heart about the newly introduced topic of Startup Communities, his eponymous book, and a nifty video produced by Kauffman Foundation. He followed up the conference talk with a fireside chat at Startup City with a couple dozen individuals from the community.

Fast forward to Monetery when Brad returned as one of the panelists to a Des Moines stage. As I sat in the back of the room once again listening to the same engaging Brad—whose blog I follow regularly—I couldn’t help but say to myself:

Things change yet they remain the same.

Des Moines’ startup community has grown significantly over the past six years. We have received an undeserved (in my opinion) amount of accolades and recognition, attention reminiscent of a future we want rather than a future we’ve developed.

Yet have risen, from the rubble of defunct incubators (StartupCity) or startups of 2012 (Pikuzone, Sharewhere, Real Estate Fan Pages, Mens Style Lab) such amazing entities as Global Insurance Accelerator, Funnelwise, Gravitate, Gain Compliance, Clinicnote and more. Geoff Wood remains the tireless advocate for the city’s startups and lone rangers; Mike Colwell has even more startups seeking his sage advice.

We have made amazing strides in connecting members of our corporate communities through these accelerators and brought several hundred (yes, several hundred) mentors who regularly volunteer their time and talent to grow startups. These have funded, bought the startups’ products and adopted the agile and nimble mindsets that are consistent with the startup lifestyle. Our chambers of commerce are no stranger to startup conversations and its leadership remains present, engaged and connected to new and established companies.

Des Moines may be a rare community whose chamber’s CEO is also an advocate for startups, invested in his own family’s startup (Homeditty) and knows the difference between startup (correct) and start-up (incorrect).

What hasn’t changed is the newcomer’s hunger for information. No matter the number of books, blogs, videos, guides and tweets, the new entrants to the startup community are seeking that early meetup, the startup weekend and the reassurance that there is funding for those who are sweating and bleeding on their way to success. There remains the same ‘failure rate’ from which new startups MUST be born.

The government is neither an ally nor an enemy – simply a feeder and supporter amongst many.

What we need is a continued conversation about these topics. Topics that will return to the Des Moines stage on April 5 with AccelerateDSM and then again in September with the Midwest Angel Syndicate’s meeting of angel and early-stage investors. Conversations that happen at Gravitate’s Full-Time Founders meetup. Conversations that need to happen at more venues, without relying upon Ben’s generosity (despite knowing that if he’s in town, he’ll likely show up and contribute!)

I’ve taken away the following from this recent conversation:

  1. When Drive Capital talks about funding 10 companies out of 3,500 applicants – they are exposing a very meaningful statistic – they funded 0.29 percent of the applicants. Startups need to do a LOT more to make their case for someone’s investment.
  2. Diversity remains a catalyst toward success. We, like a majority of the country, have a long ways to go to add this catalyst in startups, venture firms, cities, communities and teams.
  3. Awesome ideas, like Pi515, can starve to a quiet death without friends and allies. Kudos to Ben Milne and Brad Dwyer—who created a fundraiser last year for Pi515—for stepping up to the plate and writing a check that injected life into Nancy’s dream.
  4. We clamored for and got corporate partnerships. Now, the startups must step up, identify, and help solve the problems our corporate partners want solved.
  5. Let’s quit asking for reduced government regulation. If California can birth and incubate startups in one of the country’s most regressive entrepreneurial regulatory environments, regulation is a red herring.

Thanks, Ben, and the Dwolla team for the reawakening. 

Tej Dhawan is the Chief Data Officer at Principal, a co-founder of Plains Angels and a Partner in Mango Seed Investments. 

Previous commentary…

Dhawan: Segregation isn’t the solution to lack of diversity – May 31, 2017