In the last couple of weeks, our startup community has welcomed a fresh set of eyes that has provided a very helpful outside perspective on the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that our startup ecosystem has. Zeal has brought on Kate Flemming, who was most recently the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Millikin University, on as its new community manager. When Kate and I sat down to discuss Sioux Falls’ startup community, one of her first questions was about what I saw as the opportunities to grow and improve the startup ecosystem. I don’t know that I had a great answer that day, but it really got me thinking about what the opportunities our community has and why we haven’t already pursued them.
One of the primary challenges we have with our startup ecosystem is that there just aren’t many volunteer leaders that are driving the startup ecosystem forward. Outside of the Zeal staff, the Startup Sioux Falls team and John Meyer of Lemonly, there’s not a long list of creators and doers that are working to grow the startup ecosystem. While volunteers that are willing to help in some capacity are relatively abundant, we could use more leaders that create community, events, programming and training opportunities for small business owners, startup founders, and entrepreneurs. There are many opportunities that a new leader in our startup community could spearhead. Some of these opportunities have been successfully implemented in other startup communities, but we need new leaders to pursue them because our existing community leaders are largely maxed out in their volunteer capacities.
Here are seven ways a new volunteer leader could help grow our startup ecosystem:
- Take the Lead on Startup Weekend – Startup Weekend is a three-day event where teams form, develop a business model and launch a startup over the course of a weekend. It’s an intense event that gets people interested in startups, often for the first time. John Meyer brought Startup Weekend to Sioux Falls in 2013 and has held subsequent Startup Weekends in 2014, 2015 and 2017. John has a growing business and a growing family, and the Startup Weekend event will need some new leadership if future Startup Weekend events are to happen again in the future.
- Incorporate the Tech Community into the Startup Ecosystem – In some communities, the technology scene and startup scenes are interchangeable. That’s not the case in Sioux Falls. While we have many technology companies (Carsforsale, Central Square, Docutap, EDCO, Farmer’s Business Network, Fiserv, Omnitech, Raven Industries, Software Unlimited, etc.), employees of these companies have been largely absent from startup events in our community. While there is a software developers’ group in our community, they are also largely disengaged from the startup community. I think now is the right time to start asking, “why?” Since tech is an integral part of launching new startup companies, we really need to engage technology professionals in our community to launch new businesses, work for startups and participate in the startup ecosystem.
- Launch an Open Coffee Club – One of the reasons the Boulder, CO startup community has flourished so much is its Open Coffee Club, which is a bi-weekly gathering point for Boulder’s tech community. “News is discussed, business partnerships are born, jobs are announced, and those seeking jobs make their presence known,” according to Your Boulder. 1 Million Cups sort of fills this role in Sioux Falls, but the focus is more on each week’s speaker and other community events than it is on jobs, partnerships, and discussion. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to expand or improve-upon 1 Million Cups or perhaps it’s time to experiment with a new event entirely.
- Hold Events on Evening and Weekends – I will probably never be the person that launches a periodic evening startup event because I spend most evenings with my wife and children. There is an opportunity for someone to launch events that cater to people that have currently full-time jobs that are looking to start their own business or have a side-hustle that they are looking to go full-time with. This could be an evening founder’s drinks event, a Saturday morning coffee meetup or informational workshops that are held in the evenings.
- Launch a Startup Accelerator Program – Sioux Falls currently has a fintech accelerator called Falls Fintech, but we don’t currently have a general startup accelerator program. Zeal previously had run a summer accelerator program, but it wasn’t offered in 2019 due to staff transitions. We probably have the talent, capital and startups to launch an intensive accelerator program in Sioux Falls. Zeal’s team hopes to rethink and relaunch its accelerator program, but it will probably look different than it did before. Zeal could probably use a few key volunteers that can raise money, bring in mentors and speakers and spend significant time with participating startups.
- Offer Pre-Seed Capital – Falls Angel Fund and its sister funds in Brookings, Watertown, Aberdeen, and Rapid City have made a lot of progress in providing seed-stage capital to startups, but there aren’t many investors willing to take bets on companies that haven’t achieved market fit and need their first $25,000 in capital to get started. It’s easy to understand why too. Most investors want to see some form of traction, sales or progress from an entrepreneur before they are willing to write a check because many people have ideas for businesses but very few take action and turn those ideas into reality. We do need to figure out some way to provide this capital, but it will probably need to happen as an economic development initiative and not just as a pure investment due to the high-risk nature of this type of investing.
- Hold More Entrepreneur Training Workshops –There are some basic topics that every business owner needs to learn one way or another, such as how to validate a business idea, how to use Quickbooks, setting up a legal entity, identifying your customer avatar, developing marketing and sales channels, creating a financial proforma, etc. If you have entrepreneurial expertise to share, consider hosting a workshop, seminar or webinar. If you’re not sure where to start, connect with the Zeal Center or other entrepreneurs in the Startup Sioux Falls Facebook group.
Our startup community has a lot of good things going for it right now. We have an incredibly strong sense of community. We have a world-class accelerator facility, and we have venture capital resources that North Dakota would love to have. There are opportunities to get even better. With a few more startup community leaders, we could pursue these opportunities and have a truly world-class startup ecosystem in our community.