Quick check-in: building a startup in the Midwest

I’m now ~6 years into building a venture-backed software startup in the midwest (Madison, WI, specifically).

As an exercise, I often ask myself: “If I had to start another company tomorrow, would I do it here or go somewhere else?”

A few years ago, my answer to that question was that I would probably try somewhere else, not necessarily because I felt Madison was bad for running a startup, but because I felt like there was probably something significant I was missing out on by not being in a larger, more established city. That’s where your head goes when you read coastal tech news and spend all day on Hacker News.

Today, my answer to that question is a resounding “hell yes I would do it here again in a heartbeat.”

Why the change? A few reasons in no particular order:

  1. Ionic has been successful building and commercializing open source technology from its headquarters in Madison. The fact that it’s working made me realize it can really work here.
  2. Ionic has attracted and retained a group of wonderfully talented and creative people who continue to build and market technology that actually shapes the market. Clearly there is no missing coastal secret sauce needed to do that.
  3. I now consider our talent pool to put us at an advantage relative to other cities, and we don’t compete nearly as much with Google/Facebook/Apple/Uber/etc. for a small pool of talent.
  4. Ionic was able to raise “enough” venture capital ($12M) despite being in Madison, from well regarded investors. Enough that it wasn’t a limitation for anything we wanted to do.
  5. Starting a company is hard, and everything takes longer than you think. I shudder thinking about how many promising startups died prematurely due to intense cost of living pressures in other cities.
  6. A tiny fraction of our customer base is actually based in Silicon Valley. I’m actually most excited about our European base.
  7. Reports from founders I respect that are in the valley complain about pretty serious challenges recruiting and retaining talent, and a culture that rewards attention and “eye balls” style businesses over the ones I’m increasingly leaning towards (B2B). Have had more than one tell me it’s an incredibly challenging place to build an early stage startup these days.
  8. A lot of people that told me we’d have to move to scale up were just wrong. And not just about us, but about some of our competitors that have seen great success being located in non-hub cities. I don’t like following the lead of people who are obviously biased or closed-minded. Valley contrarians seem like anything but these days (so I’ve stopped following them on Twitter)
  9. I am pessimistic about major cities solving cost of living and housing shortages. NIMBY is proving to be a major wall to progress and the tone around relocating to/leaving Silicon Valley has changed dramatically recently.
  10. The magic I felt when I landed at SFO died a long time ago
  11. I had a kid and bought a house (with another lil’ one on the way). My values changed overnight and I realized Madison is an incredible city for people in this life stage.
  12. I pinch myself sometimes when I realize I didn’t have to trade low-friction living for traffic, noise, and congestion in order to work with people I love, on a product that has shaped the mobile space and is growing fast in the enterprise. It truly feels like an evolution on “career” and it feels like we’re changing the game.
  13. Every time I visit SF I’m so, so glad I don’t live there (but absolutely lovely place to visit). Getting imprisoned and not allowed to leave by the Sausalito ferry workers due to a strike didn’t help.
  14. I’ve watched companies I know run the valley playbook and tragically crash and burn. I don’t want to make the same mistakes. Completely unnecessary pressures to put on a young, promising business (like spending $50k-100k+/mo in rent at Series B).
  15. I like living here and don’t care to move. In fact, I’m eyeing some farm land to buy in the next few years.

When I think about my career in tech, I get excited about doing things differently and proving people wrong. It’s really fascinating watching people who refuse to accept there are different ways of building successful tech companies in 2018. Too many of those people are in a role model position and perpetuate false narratives about the reality of building something elsewhere. I’d like to be the change I want to see in this industry.

The funny thing is that while this started as an underdog motivational device, it has now morphed into what I consider to be an advantage. I now feel like we’re early on something that most people are missing out on. That’s where I want to spend my time on this earth and that is what Madison is to me.

So, yes, I would start another company here in a heartbeat and I have no concerns that we’d be able to compete with the best of the best anywhere in the world, doing it our way.

Written by

Co-founder @ionicframework. I build stuff for computers, humans, and robots.

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