Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lesson #85: Tap Into Your Local Startup Ecosystem


Yesterday was Demo Day for the newest class of ten startups in the Excelerate Labs excelerator program.  It was really a great event at the House of Blues with several hundred entrepreneurs, investors and startup advisors in the audience.  And, the energy in the room was infectious, with everyone wanting to see these companies succeed, and willing to do whatever they could to help.  This included Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, making a guest appearance saying he was committed to helping the local startup ecosystem create more jobs in Chicago, including a warning to Silicon Valley and New York, to "watch out . . . Chicago is coming". 

But, despite all of this excitement in the room, one of the highlights to me was the introductory and inspirational speech by Joe Born, a serial entrepreneur and Excelerate Labs mentor in Chicago.  Joe is currently the CEO of Neuros Technology and has had many successful startups in his past. And, the summary of his speech was: he could have never acheived the success that he did without a robust supporting cast within the Chicago startup ecosystem.  Whenever he was knocked down, there was always someone there to help pick him up and brush off the dust, giving him the additional motivation to get back in the fight.  The point being, us entrepreneurs should never feel like we are trying to move mountains by ourselves.  There is always someone you can tap into that has been in your shoes before, who can provide their guidance to help you succeed and navigate any challenges you may be experiencing.

When we talk about a "local startup ecosystem", we are talking about tapping into all the people in your market that are directly involved in working with startups.  This includes other entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, lawyers, accountants, consultants and bankers.  And, it includes other local entrepreneurial organizations like incubators, accelerators, universities, industry associations, government entities, chambers of commerce, professional networks or big corporations making investments in innovation. 

And, for us in Chicago, this ecosystem has never been stronger than it is today.  I only wished I had an ecosystem like this to tap into when I was starting up iExplore back in 1999, when Chicago was the "flyover" city, compared to finding startups on the coasts in Silicon Valley or New York.  This includes all the tremendous efforts of entrepreneurial groups like the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center, Illinois Technology Association, TiE Midwest, Illinois Venture Capital Association and Built in Chicago.  And, the entrepreneurial clubs within business schools and engineering schools at Northwestern, U-Chicago, UIC, IIT, Depaul and Loyola.  And, all the venture investments by New World Ventures, Lightbank, i2a Fund, OCA Ventures, MK Capital, Apex, Merrick, Origin Ventures, Baird, Illinois Ventures and others  And, the angel investor networks at Hyde Park Angels, Cornerstone Angels, Heartland Angels and Wildcat Angels.  And, the startup lawyers, like Bart Loethen, Scott Glickson, Michael Gray, Bruce Zivian, Frank Ballantine and Craig Bradley.  And, startup advisors like Red Rocket, Color Jar, Strongsuit, Venture Lab, AEGIS and MidVentures.  Incubators and accelerators like Sandbox, Excelerate Labs, Tech Innovation Center, ScaleWell and Tech Nexus.  And, local events like Tech Week, Lean Startup Circle, BNC Tech Pitch, Big Idea Forum, Founders Institute, Chicago Innovation Awards and Funding Feeding Frenzy.  And, startups like Groupon, Grub Hub, Sitter City, Clever Safe, Braintree, Mu Sigma and others, whose halo effect on the local market have put Chicago on the map in a bigger way, attracting outside investment from the bigger venture funds on the coasts.

I applaud you all, for doing your part to helping make Chicago one of the best cities to start a new business and creating an amazing startup ecosystem in the process.  Us entrepreneurs couldn't do it without you. 

I encourage all of you to tap into your local startup ecosystem, and greatness will surely follow.

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