The Rise of the Silicon Prairie

Thinc Iowa speakers

Presenters at Thinc Iowa 2011

Returning home to the midwest after spending a few years in the cultural bubble of San Francisco is a strange experience. As John Travolta’s character says in Pulp Fiction regarding Europe: “It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just… there it’s just a little different.” You’re confronted with of all the superficial differences in dress, decor and culture, and you start to remember that in Iowa it isn’t about wearing expensive clothes, or having a hip club to check out every night. It’s about sincerity, genuine friendliness, working hard, and desire to help other people. “And that,” I imagine the people presenting at Thinc Iowa would probably say, “is exactly the point.”

The Thinc Iowa conference, put on by Silicon Prairie News in Des Moines (the same org that spawned Big Omaha) billed itself as focusing on facilitating conversations between startups and big corporations, but to me the focus was mostly on entrepreneurship and strategies to nurture the burgeoning startup scene in the midwest dubbed “Silicon Prairie”. The Silicon Valley paradigm doesn’t really fit the Prairie, because access to VC resources, both financial and advisory, are limited. One main advantage in this situation is that it’s easier to meet with business leaders in the market you want to break into. The speakers had no shortage of other insights and suggestions for upstart startups to take advantage of this reality and build better companies.

Paige Craig of Betterworks, a former Marine/military contractor who pulled no punches when it came to laying out his strategy for successful entrepreneurship, emphasized the importance of passion and tackling problems you actually want to solve, as opposed to starting a company for glory. Another main point he made was to think big, but execute small in an iterative fashion. He cited his experience of getting his first contract with the military for $3000, which led to $30,000 and finally $30 million contracts. He also stressed something that should be common sense but that a lot of founders overlook – getting out there and interacting with your customers, finding out what they want and need, and letting that drive product development, before you start writing up your tech specs/business plan.

Ben Milne of Dwolla, arguably one of the hottest startups in the midwest at the moment, spoke about the danger of being overly concerned with feeling like you need to be in the VC/TechCrunch/Valley scene to get a successful startup off the ground. “Some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met are in this room,” he said. “They’re not in the Valley, they’re right here.” He also re-iterated the importance of interacting with your user base, saying “Don’t drink your own koolaid”.  He doesn’t want people backslapping him saying how great Dwolla is, he wants to hear what’s broke and what people want so he can fix it and make it better.

I thought the most interesting presentation was given by Jerri Chuo from Lovely Day, who evangelized a new business approach for established corporations. She sees the paradigm for smart corporations shifting from top-down, one-way development to enabling “social entrepreneurship” by letting creative consumers/startups discover novel uses and become part of the product development process. This creates a mutually beneficial arrangement where big corps benefit from the novel ideas that readily emerge from a collaborative development process, while startups benefit from the corporation’s vast reach and resources. While a majority of the presenters from startups were focused on the startup side, Jerri gave the big corps a window into what could be, if they allow themselves to be just agile enough.

Her presentation struck a chord with me because the approach she advocates is shared by us at TokBox. As many of you know, our main product used to be a a consumer destination video chat site, but there was no external API, no way for developers to add their creativity to our own.  The release of our API a year ago gave developers the tools to integrate face-to-face communication in novel and creative ways.  The breadth of apps and use-cases that have come out of the developer community have been astounding. People have used OpenTok to weave video chat into such diverse areas as gaming, education, medical and fandom.

We believe in the power of open development.  We believe in listening to our developers and end-users. It’s this approach in bottom-up product development and two-way communication that we think, like our friends on the Silicon Prairie, make for great startups.