How to Strengthen and Grow Your Startup Ecosystem: An Honest Assessment

Last night, I moderated a panel discussion on “How to Strengthen and Grow St. Louis’ Startup Ecosystem.” On the panel, we had a line-up of diverse perspectives including: Zach Winkler (Founder & CEO of SafeTrek), Leslie Miley (West Coast President of VFA, Dir. of Engineering at Slack, former Eng Manager at Google, Twitter & Apple), Yvette Rodriguez (VFA fellow and Associate at Cultivation Capital), Keisha Mabry (Dir. of Innovation at College Bound), Anthony Richardson (General Partner at Agility Collective).

The intention of this panel discussion was to conduct an honest assessment of the St. Louis ecosystem. We hoped to achieve a feedback loop by:

1) Challenging the beliefs we have (so we’re not stuck in our own bubble).

2) Validating the good things we have going on.

3) Sharing ideas and best practices on how we can grow to become the next evolution of our ecosystem — St. Louis 2.0.

Generally speaking, the main components that make up a startup ecosystem are:

  • Entrepreneurs & Ideas
  • Capital & Funding
  • Talent
  • Mentorship
  • Access to Customers
  • Accelerators
  • Incubators
  • Civic & Community Support Organizations

We examined each of these areas to learn where we have the most relative strength and where we have the furthest to go.

Here’s a recap of some of the questions & topics to which the panelists challenged, validated and shared insights:

On Talent:

  • We’re seeing more and more non-profits focus on technical training — i.e, coding, 3D printing. How do we balance the effort of home growing the talent here versus bringing the talent in from elsewhere to get different perspectives?
  • Is the talent pool in St. Louis adequate to grow and scale businesses here? Do we have sufficient talent that is startup ready that can bring the skills & mindset startups need?
  • How do cities evolve to get more and more people with a startup mindset?
  • Everyone agrees that diversity of thought is good. We know that a large segment of the talent pool consists of foreign-born individuals who require visa sponsorship. How do we raise awareness and educate startup founders on best practices and ways to navigate the visa process?

On Distributed Teams:

  • When it comes to building teams, many entrepreneurs cringe at the idea of outsourcing, however, many positions require specialized skill sets that sometimes can’t be found locally. It’s important to understand the difference between outsourcing and a distributed team. Why is it important for founders to consider building distributed teams versus having all employees in-house.

On Entrepreneurs & Ideas:

  • What similarities, whether it’s challenges or opportunities, help ramp up a startup? What are those common threads? And how should an entrepreneur think about where they locate?

On Civic & Community Support Organizations:

  • How do non-profits and social enterprises fit into the STL ecosystem? What role should they play and what relative strengths do they bring?

On Capital:

  • Raising capital vs. bootstrapping early on: Do investors give credit to entrepreneurs for being able to grow on little cash? Companies that spend a higher amount early on are usually rewarded with higher growth metrics but don’t necessarily get bonus points for being cash conservative in the early days. What are we seeing in the St. Louis market and in other cities?
  • There is access in St. Louis to early stage capital. We have VC firms, Angels, Accelerators, Grant Funders. Is that adequate?

On Diversity & the Gender Gap:

  • It’s a well-documented fact that female founders receive less venture capital funding than male founders. This disparity is due to the differences in the number of deals and the average deal size. Recent research shows that the gender gap is actually getting worse, not only in terms of VC funding, but women in management level roles in the tech industry. What are the reasons for this?

On Accelerators:

  • Accelerators bring together 4–5 of the ecosystems stakeholders: mentors, investors, corporates & talent. They’re doing it in a coherent, sophisticated way by aligning stakeholders & resources. That should be a massive advantage that St. Louis has. Should they be thought of or looked at differently?

On Mentorship:

  • When it comes to mentorship and growing the next crop of entrepreneurs, is it more helpful to have people who are subject matter experts with local connections or people who have gone through the life cycle of building and exiting a company — someone who’s been in their shoes but doesn’t know the local culture? Which is better? What are the traits of an effective mentor?

On Growth of Ecosystem:

  • A general thought around St. Louis is that 1–2 big successful exits will have a multiplier effect on every facet of the ecosystem — more investors will come in, more ideas will spring up, more talent will be drawn here. Is that an appropriate or healthy way to look at the ecosystem?

The insights shared during this discussion were invaluable, especially to active contributors in the St. Louis startup community. If the learnings from this discussion are any indication, St. Louis will evolve into a more vibrant, tech-centered, startup city — so long as we continue to play up our strengths, shore up our deficiencies, and maintain a strong feedback loop.

Want to share your feedback? Leave comments/questions below or contact me directly via https://www.linkedin.com/in/colleenliebig/.