Last week on the Nine Network’s show StayTuned, several of my peers were on to discuss the progress the St. Louis startup scene has made over the last few months, as well as areas of improvement. From an outsider’s perspective, their answers were largely helpful to summarize the status of certain entrepreneurial initiatives. But as an insider, I was left surprisingly underwhelmed by the conversation. Outside of the construction of new bike paths to make St. Louis magically cool again, what did we need to do to really push the ecosystem forward? Well, I said, I should write a blog post about it. Happy to hear your thoughts in the comments!
1. Better relationships with the creative and design community.
This is a big one. In a lot of my casual conversations with creatives around St. Louis, a lot of them feel ostracized or turned away by the startup community, that they aren’t recognized or included in the fold. Well my friends, this is a huge mistake. Any successful startup hub has a good relationship with its creative sector. We need graphic designers to help us improve our posters, pitch decks, and sales sheets. We need product designers and UI/UX experts to make our products and mobile apps stand out from the crowd. We need web designers to ensure that our landing pages and info sites don’t look like shit (guess what, they do). I recently signed up for a up-and-coming Silicon Valley newsletter called Product Hunt that highlights cool tech products every day. All of these tools and companies have amazing and compelling online presences. Why is this important? Because they understand what they’re selling and to whom. If St. Louis’s startup websites aren’t doing a good job communicating their value proposition, then customers and investors alike won’t care to click through or reach out. But with any successful relationship, this doesn’t have to be one-sided, there are tons of benefits to the creative community like providing them with career or freelancing opportunities with startup companies.
2. Build alliances between co-working hubs.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Phoenix for the first time (spoiler, it’s hot), and was able to talk with a lot of co-working spots and incubators. One of the biggest takeaways was that although they were all competing for sponsorship dollars/members/press/etc, there existed a mutual sense of co-opeition (yes, it’s a word) amongst them. They even formed a loose alliance (they produced a single handout that listed all of the different co-working spaces with their respective websites and addresses) and began referring prospects to each other when there wasn’t a fit, ala “we don’t have space, but they do” or “we don’t have wet labs but they do”. Given that within the last year, we’ve seen several new co-working spaces come online like @4240, TechArtista and Claim, we need to do a better job of playing in the sandbox together so that our entrepreneurs can find the right workspace to fit their needs.
3. Create a simple weekly newsletter specifically tailored for those outside St. Louis
Alright, hold your horses people. I know we have great content producers like TechFlash and Tech.li, but these reach and serve a largely St. Louis-based audience. What I really, really like about the newsletters I get from Welch Avenue (Iowa startup scene) and Southern Alpha (southeast regional startups) is that they don’t inundate me with unwanted stories. They curate them and give me the top 3-4 startup stories that day or week. This is helpful for someone who is looking for an overview of the region. Our content is great, but the way in which it’s delivered could use some work.
4. Start empowering newer, younger, thought leaders.
There’s a new generation of startup founders and cheerleaders who’ve emerged over the last year and we need to do a better job of getting them plugged into the ecosystem and rallying around their ideas to improve our startup community. I’m talking about people like Marshal Haas (Need/Want), Tyler Mathews (Yougy), Steve Young (Synek), Dan Mirth and Sarah Carpenter (Artifox), Chris LeBeau (GatewayVMS), Ben Burke (Arch Grants) and Brendan Lind (LaunchCode), just to name a few. All of these young folks are smart and talented and could offer much more to the startup community if they are simply asked and included.
5. Better include entrepreneurs for larger economic development and startup initiatives
Along the same lines as point #4, I’ve been in the room when major initiatives for how to support the startup community are being discussed and there are NO (none, zero, zilch) entrepreneurs in the room, which is entirely backwards. You would be ill-advised to go into a community like Old North and start talking about how to improve their neighborhoods without getting input and feedback from their residents, so why wouldn’t you with the startup scene? Let’s get more founders at the table to shape the future of the region.
6. Start a micro-seed fund for converting ideas into prototypes
Feeding off an idea from my friend Tyler Sondag, I really think implementing a micro-seed fund like Start Garden in Grand Rapids, Michigan is really important for St. Louis. Why, you ask? First, it converts more ideas into prototypes and gets more ‘wantrepreneurs’ off the sidelines. With the right resources and connections, you can build an MVP for $5K to $10K (cue startup resource link — The Ultimate Guide to MVPs). The more prototypes and products we have in the ecosystem, the better deals our investor network has, etc. These ‘seedlings’ become prime pickins’ for Arch Grants, and accelerators like SixThirty and Capital Innovators. Better deal flow, y’all!
7. Create a startup house for short-term founder housing
Talking with the recently graduated SixThirty Spring 2014 Cohort (three of the companies in the class were from out of town) — housing came up as an issue for them living downtown. Many of the options they had weren’t necessarily turn-key (they still needed furniture, bedding, towels, etc) and they were pretty pricey, even for St. Louis standards. Furthermore, most of the property managers weren’t okay with short term (less than 6 months) leases. Every year, we have dozens of companies relocating to St. Louis through Arch Grants, Capital Innovators, SixThirty, etc (with more accelerators are on the horizon) and we don’t have a system for ensuring they have a great place to stay while they are here. Kansas City already has a row of startup houses called Startup Village in place for just this and other purposes. In an ideal world a group of philanthropic individuals or developers would donate a house or row of apartments (city OR county) that would serve as a temporary home for these nomadic founders. It would be great to get ZipCar or Enterprise on board to provide the startup teams with transportation options for work and play.
8. Launch a common resume site to apply to work at a St. Louis startup
I recently came across this site/service called Underdog.io out of New York that allows candidates to bulk apply for positions at NY-area startup companies. They charge a nominal fee for startups to access to their candidate pool. Talk about a great business idea! Monetization aside, this would be great for St. Louis to facilitate the time-consuming process of sorting through resumes to find quality candidates.
9. Add personal stories to the larger St. Louis startup narrative
I absolutely loved reading the Medium articles written by Juney Ham and Jon Wheatley about their personal experiences in moving their startups from the Bay Area to St. Louis. These articles got a tremendous amount of traction through social channels and didn’t cost us a cent in PR. SEO benefits aside, this kind of personal-based storytelling can serve as additional ammunition in the ongoing battle to retain and recruit talent to St. Louis. And luckily, there are sites like STL Curator who are already doing this. Let’s collectively amplify their message and get more startup-focused stories told, like this one about Steve Marciniak and Sam Sullivan at Trackbill.
10. Purchase / lease a bus for startup field trips.
Okay, this is bit of a stretch. But a guy can dream, right? So, being a T-REX member, I interact with a lot of great startup folks, but, admittedly so, I end up talking and socializing with the same group of people. We need new and creative ways of growing community between entrepreneurs beyond the occasional happy hour. There’s this great group that I heard out of the valley called Startup Hike — they plan and organize regular trips outside of the workspace into the more outdoorsy part of the region. I think this would be great way to encourage interaction outside of our startup hubs and introduce people new to St. Louis to our amazing network of parks and greenspace just a short drive (most are less than 2 hours) outside of the city.
So, what do you think? What would you change or add to the St. Louis startup community?