Please note that the thoughts expressed in this article are my own personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of any group, organization or company that I am involved with.
The next few months will be one of the busiest seasons for the entrepreneurial community in Sioux Falls in the last several years. A group of us are organizing a major celebration event called Hey Sioux Falls. We have an incredible fall calendar for 1 Million Cups that will feature speakers like Nate Olson (founder of 1 Million Cups), Dana Dykhouse (First Premier Bank), Jodi Schwan (SiouxFalls.Business) and Eric McDonald (Docutap). There are multiple business and marketing conferences happening in Sioux Falls, including Innovation Expo, Sioux Falls Business Expo, CultureCon and Concept One. Finally, the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship will be graduating another class from its accelerator program next week and is hosting several events of its own this fall.
Sioux Falls Lacks an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Organization
While Sioux Falls has the most startup events and programming that we’ve ever had this fall, we still lack any formal sort of community organization for the entrepreneurial community in Sioux Falls. Fargo has Emerging Prairie that serves as the hub for their entrepreneurial ecosystem and Omaha has Silicon Prairie News and other organizations that serve as their hub. The startup ecosystem in Sioux Falls is largely facilitated by a loose network of friends and business acquaintances. We’re volunteering our scarce free time to inspire other people to start businesses because someone helped us get started and we believe that entrepreneurship can change lives for the better.
The closest thing we have to an entrepreneurial community organization is Zeal, but very few people in our community would consider it a central hub for entrepreneurship given its current operational model of leasing affordable office space to new businesses. It’s entirely possible that Zeal could become the central hub for entrepreneurship in Sioux Falls, but it would probably have to relocate to downtown Sioux Falls and make a significant shift toward providing educational and inspirational programming for entrepreneurs and creating community for business owners in Sioux Falls.
I believe we lose something when our efforts are disjointed as they are today. We can’t say that we have one startup community in Sioux Falls, because we don’t have a single community identity or a single community voice that is pounding the drumbeats of entrepreneurship. Our individual efforts result in fragmented community, overlapping events and gaps that an ecosystem organization could fill. It really is time for startup community leaders to put their heads together and build an organization that serves the entire Sioux Falls entrepreneurial ecosystem.
What would an ecosystem organization look like in Sioux Falls?
I recently took on a new role as part of an interim executive team (IET) at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship along with two other board members. We will be providing day-to-day leadership to the organization while Zeal seeks out a new executive director. This has led me to start asking myself, “What would Zeal look like if we were building it from the ground up today?” and “What would an Emerging Prairie-type organization look like if it were based in Sioux Falls?”
While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I personally think there are some key elements that any organization that wants to serve as the hub for entrepreneurship in Sioux Falls will need to embrace:
- Community – For a startup ecosystem organization to succeed, the primary focus must be on strengthening the community of entrepreneurs that exists in Sioux Falls. It should create opportunities for entrepreneurs to meet one another so that they can share ideas, know that they’re not in it alone, and find potential business partners. This can happen online through social media groups like Entrepreneurs of Sioux Falls and at in-person events such as 1 Million Cups. I think Sioux Falls would be well served to create additional connection and collision points for entrepreneurs, such as open coffees, speed networking events and evening happy hours.
- Inspiration – I’ve said before that we need to do a better job of telling the stories of entrepreneurs that have put in the time, money and effort that have built successful businesses in Sioux Falls. Publicly sharing the success stories of entrepreneurs is critically important to inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs to take the leap from idea to action. Hearing from an entrepreneur that has weathered the successes and failures of entrepreneurship causes people to think thoughts like “What kind of business could I start?” and “If she was able to successfully start a business, maybe I could too.” An ecosystem organization could facilitate story telling in a variety of ways such as a podcast or a partnership with a local media outlet.
- Education – When you start a business, nobody ever sits you down and tells you about the legal entity, tax, insurance and accounting requirements that you need to follow in your business. Nobody teaches you how to develop a product, how to do marketing or how to gauge profitability. There will always be a need to educate entrepreneurs about important business topics outside of a traditional classroom setting. This can look a lot of different ways, but any organization that wants to be the ecosystem should take the lead on providing ongoing education to business owners.
- Resource and Mentor Connections – A lot of new entrepreneurs have plenty of passion and hustle, but they just aren’t sure where to get started. There should be a starting place for would-be entrepreneurs to go that ask the question “I have an idea for a business, what do I do next?” An ecosystem organization would effectively be serving as a clearinghouse that pointed new entrepreneurs to NGOs such as SBDC/SBA/SCORE/EI/GOED as appropriate and connect them with mentors that can help point them in them direction. An ecosystem organization could have a small team of volunteers or a paid staff person that meets with new entrepreneurs and gives them an action plan of what to do next and who to meet with next.
I also think there’s a “not to do” list for an ecosystem organization based off what we have learned from previous efforts:
- Venture Capital – Casually investing in startup companies is a fantastic way to lose a lot of money. Venture capital investing requires significant focus and discipline to be done properly and I don’t think an ecosystem organization could effectively facilitate angel investing as one of the many things it does. An ecosystem organization would better serve investors and entrepreneurs by connecting startups to existing angel groups and venture capital firms.
- Office/Coworking Space – If you ask the staff of Zeal or the founders of the Bakery what took/takes up most of their time and money, they would tell you it’s managing their buildings. I don’t think an ecosystem organization needs to run a large coworking space or have shared office space available. Commercial office space is readily available in Sioux Falls at relatively affordable prices. Coffeeshops such as Queen City Bakery and Josiah’s effectively serve as coworking spaces already. There are also many readily available event-venues for educational and networking events. A physical space to serve as a hub isn’t worth the effort in my opinion, because maintaining a building consumes scarce staff and financial resources that could otherwise go toward programming, community and education. There might be space for a true co-working space to operate, but I don’t think anyone would build Zeal in its current layout and location if we were starting from scratch today.
- Coaching – I don’t think an ecosystem organization should try to do a structured coaching program, because there are many alphabet soup organizations that already do basic coaching for business owners and it’s very difficult to force a relationship between a mentor and a mentee. These types of relationships mostly happen organically, and I think that’s okay.
I don’t think anyone that thinks about entrepreneurship a lot knows for sure what a perfect ecosystem organization looks like given Sioux Falls’ unique DNA, but I do think that we have learned some things from prior efforts and have some areas that an ecosystem organization should focus on. Sioux Falls is ready for a hub organization to serve its entrepreneurial ecosystem. Now, we just have to go build it.