I was texting with my friend Wade Arnold a few weeks ago. He said something that resonated with me: “A long ways from running around Cedar Falls trying to raise $100K”. This resonated because I got my start in the same place and probably in the same circle(s). I remember those conversations in Cedar Falls very clearly.
Wade and I both worked on FinTech companies before it was a thing and we both got our start in the same Iowa town.
Wade’s company Moov just raised a $27M round from A16Z and Dwolla just served its 10 millionth account. This put a smile on my face and truly got me thinking about the opportunity created by the Cedar Falls community and how important our communities are for creating opportunities for entrepreneurs. For all of us, frankly.
While I don’t get to Cedar Falls as much these days, I do see the community creating opportunities in Des Moines over and over. Some through accelerators and some not. Roboflow is a perfect example; their Des Moines ties didn’t get them where they are but probably did help in some doors opening and I think they’re on the verge of something really special.
Silicon Valley money, influence and talent are now running rampant through the Iowa technology ecosystem; it’s not a little thing here or there. As of typing this I’m aware of two fairly large funds being formed here that will push the boundaries of the ecosystem even further than many of us thought possible here at one point. After talking with Mikayla Sullivan at ISA Ventures last week, we were trading notes on intros, the webs of the ecosystems started coming together right in front of me.
2020 has been a dumpster fire in many ways but in even more ways I think it’s been a demonstration of the resilience of our local ecosystems and the new diaspora of people involved in them. It’s removed the physical barriers in the state and opened up so much talent.
Techstars was a twinkle in a few people’s eyes two years ago and it has just recently launched its first class. In their mentoring sessions, I noticed multiple Dwolla alumni and I know many more are involved at various other accelerators like the Global Insurance Accelerator (run by Dwolla alumna Nicole Cook), BrokerTech Ventures insurance accelerator (run by Dwolla alumnus John Jackovin), and many more. Taking a step back and thinking about the macro pieces, Jainen Thayer relocated to Iowa and while at Grinnell (a liberal arts college whose made quite a name for themselves as an incredible LP to many funds) has changed University contributions with a focus on enabling entrepreneurs through his efforts at Techstars Iowa. Jeff Russell, CEO of Dental Dental, has had an incredibly powerful role transforming the ecosystem through multiple efforts including becoming Dwolla’s first board member and shaping the Global Insurance Accelerator.
Somewhere at the heart of all of this is Debi Durham who probably took on three new jobs while I was typing this to create opportunities for the community. After a decade of layer caking opportunities and evolving programs to help our ideas and businesses grow she’s planted the seeds for so many of us to start.
Even this publication is a launching point for so many messages and for many of us has become the place we learn about what’s going on in our community. Geoff Wood and I started Clay & Milk to fill that niche. He and Jake Slobe have done a marvelous job of keeping it going and fulfilling that promise. Projects and companies fulfilling their promise is an ever more common theme these days.
Launching and iteration are important and everything doesn’t go as we expect. We couldn’t do Dwolla’s annual Monetery event this year so, with a bit of a conference itch, I launched a conference series called V-Sum with some friends that’s focused on connecting people around some hard fintech problems. It would have been a really expensive effort before COVID and the remote nature somehow made it easier. Funny enough, Wade & Moov were one of the first tech briefings. A small team in Des Moines and Kansas City has brought people from all over the world together and the genesis is very midwest.
There is so much capital and talent flowing through these calls and our communities that while 2020 hasn’t been ideal in a lot of ways, the tech ecosystems I’m closest to continued to flourish this year.
A few days ago I was talking to a friend and said honestly, “It’s finally working. Look!”
The progress is easy to see and that’s exciting. I can’t even begin to find the appropriate words to explain how much work that has taken from people like Geoff, Jay Byers, Mike Colwell, Tej Dhawan, Christian Renaud, and so many more who have been here since day one like Mark Conway in Cedar Falls or Doug Reichardt and Suku Radia in Des Moines. They’ve quietly been creating opportunities and opening doors for people every step of the way and never wanting anything from us but to pay it forward.
What I saw forming 10 years ago (and feel fortunate to have been a part of) is now something that stands on its own two feet. The ecosystem is here and it works. COVID may have tested that but it appears all it did was motivate entrepreneurs in our community to go in deeper and with more conviction than ever before.
The community as a whole deserves a big congratulations for your progress this year and for the web of opportunities that now exist. 2020 was the year the progress became clear and we’re just scratching the surface of the opportunity.
If our ecosystem had a year this good during one of the most challenging times of all of our lives, imagine how much fun 2021 is going to be.
Ben Milne is the Founder, Executive Chairman, and former CEO at Dwolla. A co-founder of Clay & Milk and a few other things. These days, he co-founds, invests, and advises in fits and starts.