About a year and a half ago, I began to sense there were some unmet needs in our small business and startup community. While there are approximately 4,300 businesses with fewer than 20 employees operating in the Sioux Falls MSA, we had difficulty getting more than fifty entrepreneurs to attend our 1 Million Cups event each week. We had a few hundred people that were actively engaged with the events and other programming we were putting on, but many small business owners were simply unengaged. There were other challenges as well. There was no clear starting point for new business owners to navigate which of the 30+ organizations in the startup ecosystem they should seek help from and there wasn’t a strong sense of community among those just beginning to launch their businesses.
In the Fall of 2018, I outlined what a startup ecosystem organization that could address these challenges might look like. I argued that a startup ecosystem organization should be focused on creating community, providing encouragement and inspiration to entrepreneurs, and connecting them to the many organizations that want to assist, educate and resource them. Six months after I wrote that article, we held an event called entrepreneurship day to celebrate the 5th anniversary of 1 Million Cups. Andy Traub was our featured speaker and he encouraged us with the following message, “Sioux Falls is a great city. You have a great community. You have great entrepreneurs. You have great resources for entrepreneurs. Be proud of it. Celebrate what you have.”
I was inspired by Andy’s message and began to think that we had a lot of great things going for our small business community. I made a list of the different state agencies, non-profits, venture capital firms, and community groups that are part of our small business and startup ecosystem. There were more than 30 organizations on that list and I thought to myself, “there’s probably not a person in Sioux Falls that could identify all of these organizations and what they do to help entrepreneurs.” I set out to create a digital hub for people that want to start businesses to help them understand and connect to these organizations. The initial idea was to drive awareness of resources that are available for entrepreneurs and give business owners an opportunity to be inspired and encouraged by one another because entrepreneurship can be an incredibly lonely and isolating experience. This was the birth of Startup Sioux Falls.
Over the course of the Spring and Summer, our team built out the Startup Sioux Falls website, began interviewing startup ecosystem organizations, launched two podcasts and developed a content syndication relationship with the Argus Leader. We launched a sponsorship program through Patreon that allows Startup Sioux Falls to operate on a near-break even basis. We began to hold in-person events in the fall, with more than 130 people attending our September Startup Social and 55 people attending our Morning Marketing Party event. We also partnered with the Enterprise Institute to co-host and revamp its annual Innovation Expo event, which brought more than 200 regional startup founders and venture capitalists together for an afternoon event.
Startup Sioux Falls has been my effort to show our community how a Startup Ecosystem organization could benefit our community. It was modeled heavily after Fargo’s Emerging Prairie organization and some great things have happened so far. We are nearly finished with our ecosystem mapping project. We’ve held events, grown our Facebook group to more than 6,400 members, provided free coaching to dozens of entrepreneurs. Our community members have made friends, encouraged one another and there is a sense of momentum that hasn’t been present in our small business and startup community for the last several years.
The Future of Startup Sioux Falls
For the last six months, Startup Sioux Falls has been operating as a division of my company (MarketBeat) with a handful of freelancers and volunteers. It’s largely dependent on one person (me) to create forward momentum, but that’s not ultimately a sustainable approach. From the beginning of this endeavor, I’ve said that Startup Sioux Falls will ultimately need to merge with the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship or become a standalone non-profit organization with its own funding sources and advisory board.
Here’s an excerpt from a blog post I wrote in May:
Moving forward, my plan is to continue to run Startup Sioux Falls as a primarily digital resource and community for about the next year. I’m not planning on trying to become a true ecosystem organization like Emerging Prairie is. The unfortunate reality is that I’ve got a real business to run that has employees and bills to pay, so Startup Sioux Falls necessarily has to remain a side project as long as I’m the caretaker of it. Ultimately, I’d like Startup Sioux Falls to become the platform that launches a true ecosystem organization, but I can’t be the person to run an ecosystem organization like Emerging Prairie. That’s not my skill set and I’m not sure it’s my interest either. What I do hope will happen is that Zeal will continue to move in the direction of programming and events and community and sometime in the next few years I can gift Startup Sioux Falls over to Zeal once they have the resources and team to manage it. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to get there, but we’ve got a lot of housekeeping and resource gathering at Zeal to do before we can get there.
When I wrote that, I thought it would take a year or two for Zeal to onboard a new executive director and develop a team that could be the primary driving force behind the startup ecosystem. We hired Brienne Maner to serve as Zeal’s executive director back in May, and she has developed a compelling vision for the organization and begun to execute on it. Brienne has also built a solid team and has a committed board behind her. While there are some challenges ahead, Zeal’s staff deserves our full confidence to navigate the future of Sioux Falls’ startup ecosystem.
The Zeal and Startup Sioux Falls teams have worked closely together on several events and initiatives, and now it’s time to consummate that relationship. Fargo has shown us how a startup community organization (Emerging Prairie) and coworking space (The Prairie Den) can successfully function as one organization. It just makes sense for Sioux Falls’ startup community organization and business incubation facility to function as one organization. Therefore, we are announcing that Zeal and Startup Sioux Falls intend to merge and become a single, combined organization. With Startup Sioux Falls’ vibrant community and Zeal’s world-class facility, close ties to the Chamber and the Development Foundation and deep bench of entrepreneurial support agencies (SBA, SBDC, GOED, Enterprise Institute, SD Biotech, etc.), the combined organization will serve as a true ecosystem organization for Sioux Falls.
What does this mean for Startup Sioux Falls and Zeal moving forward?
- Both Startup Sioux Falls and the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship brands will continue to exist.
- There will be greater collaboration between the volunteer and freelance team that runs Startup Sioux Falls and the team that runs the Zeal Center.
- Both organizations will adopt consistent branding and marketing efforts.
- Startup Sioux Falls will be incorporated as a 501(c)3 that Zeal has oversight of, which will allow the combined organization to accept charitable gifts and apply for ecosystem grants.
- All of the existing projects, events, and programming of both organizations will continue forward without skipping a beat.
- The teams of both organizations will plan events together collaboratively moving forward.
- The merger will greatly simplify sponsorships for companies that want to invest money into the startup ecosystem.
- The merger creates a significantly larger lead funnel for the Zeal Center’s incubation facilities.
- I will continue to be involved with both the Zeal Center (as a board member and as a volunteer) and Startup Sioux Falls moving forward.
Of course, there are some opportunities and challenges for us all ahead to consider. How do you create an organization that can help a coffee shop owner, a biotech company, and a web design firm? What do you do when you have a $5 million facility at the edge of town that everyone wishes was downtown? How do you encourage people that are working at home alone if they don’t know any other entrepreneurs? What is the definitive first step for someone to take when they want to engage with the startup ecosystem? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I am committed to working collaboratively with the Zeal team to move our startup ecosystem forward to embrace these challenges and opportunities on an ongoing basis.
By the end of the year, Zeal and Startup Sioux Falls will become a single organization, with two distinct brands, focused on the single mission of helping startup founders and small business owners start and grow their businesses for the betterment of themselves, their families, and their communities.