Future of Tech StartUp – Sioux Falls

I had the opportunity last night to sit on a open panel discussion in Sioux Falls, SD focused on the future of tech startups. It was a great night, with lots of energy, and lots of ideas shared about how to take Sioux Falls to the next level.

For reference the panelist were:

  • Michael MacFadden: Chief Technology Officer of Solute, Inc.
  • Ryan Sougstad: Associate professor at Augustana University and co-founder of SystemMeasure Inc.
  • Korena Keys: Owner and CEO of KeyMedia Solutions
  • William Bushee: Author of Wired For Coding, Co-founder of Code Bootcamp of South Dakota
  • Austin Hanson: Director of Engineering at Myriad Mobile

The panel was moderated by Clint Brown, of “The Bakery” fame.

The entire experience was a bit surreal. Having only been in Sioux Falls for about six months, I was definitely the “outsider” in the room. It was interesting to hear some of the questions an opinion from the audience. The range of emotions included everything pride, frustration, excitement, curiosity, and fear.  I don’t think any of those are actually bad in anyway.  If anyone has ever started or run a business, we all feel all of those all the time.

I think my biggest take away from the night was that the conversation consistently turned back towards people, education, behavior, and community.  There was not a lot of focus on investment, infrastructure, business legislation etc.  Most people wanted to talk about building a sense of community, regional awareness, education, and the breaking down of mental barriers. I think there is a real desire for the community to start connecting the dots. There are a lot of great people, resources, and businesses in Sioux Falls, but the word isn’t quite getting out enough yet.

Main Takeaways

  1. Build a more supportive culture where responsible failure is tolerated and even celebrated.
  2. Aggressively communicate every startup success in the community to help attract top talent and investment capital to the Sioux Falls region.
  3. Develop a networked approach to community building, ensuring successful and hardworking people are more aware of what each other are doing.
  4. Focus on developing a “cool vibe” around start up participation in Sioux Falls.
  5. Build ties to other communities in the region.
  6. Invest in focused education to develop entrepreneurial spirit in tech students.

One other interesting observation was that a lot of the energy in the room was coming from several groups of students who showed up. A few groups of students stayed after to network and have follow up conversations with the panelists. It was pretty motivating interacting with a bunch of go-getter millennials.

I hope events like these become more common. The longer I am in Sioux Falls the more I am convinced that this is more going on here than most people realize.

Sioux Falls Public Pitch Event

I had the pleasure of serving as a judge at the “Launch Pad” event sponsored by CenturyLink and hosted by The Bakery in Sioux Falls, SD. The event featured five StartUps giving short 5-minute pitches followed by 10 minutes of questions from four judges and / or the audience. The evenings contenders were:

  • Vivo Center for Innovation: Developing technology keep older adults connected to the community and the things that allow them to thrive.
  • Learn Create Build AcademyBuilding the next generation of makers by providing physical and online technology camps for for K-12 students.
  • Podyum:  Developing a social media platform that allows players and coached to build their sports resume to improve the recruiting process from both perspectives.
  • Rodeo Analytics: Provides riders in rodeo and equine sports with an objective analysis of their competitive performance using video analytics software.
  • Juna Sleep Systems: Building high quality mattresses and beds, using the best quality materials and innovative manufacturing techniques, delivering a cost / quality that can’t be beat.

I have to say that all of the StartUps were brilliant. I would highly recommend checking out all of the companies. It was very difficult to pick the winner. But in the end Learn Create Build Academy came away on top for the evening. Congrats guys.

So What?

So that was the evening, but this post is not just a “book report” on the event itself.  I think it’s more important to go “meta” and to place the event within the context of a growing and evolving Sioux Falls StartUp scene. There are a couple things to note right off the bat.  First, the night was a collaboration between CenturyLink and The Bakery. This demonstrates successful collaboration between an established large corporation and an up-and-coming local small business. Typically, business of these sizes move at drastically different paces. The fact that they were able to come together and put on an event like this is great for the community. I am sure it took a lot of hard work (thanks for inviting me to judge by the way). I think the folks at CenturyLink would tell you that this was a great investment. They got a lot of good PR from the event.

Another major thing to note is the while five companies pitched, the event actually received several more applications. There was a lot of interest in this event from within the community. Another interesting fact is that Rodeo Analytics is actually homed out of Lincoln, NE. So Sioux Falls actually attracted interest from outside our metropolitan area. While not earth shattering, anything that attracts outside attention to a growing StartUp scene is a step in the right direction.

Something else that struck me was the fact that many of the people in the room had not met each other before. The event introduced founders to other founders, founders to investors, community builders to community members, etc. More and more of these kinds of events are happening which is going to really help create energy and connectivity within the community.

Really…So What?

So the most interesting thing to me was that this event was open to the public. It was said to me that this might have been the first time there was an organized event in all of South Dakota where StartUps were pitching for money in front of random strangers. I can’t speak to it being the first or not, but I can certainly say that if it is not the first, it is definitely a rare occurrence. We know that public pitches happen (1MC, etc.), but there was actually money on the line last week. It was a competition with a “winner” and “losers”.  You might be asking, why this is important? The answer is because everyone in the room started to get the sense that there is enormous value in the competition / exposure regardless of “winning”.  Five groups pitched; one came away with the $5,000 prize, but all five teams were winners.

All of the teams had great pitches and made names for themselves within the community. All of the teams got asked some pretty hard questions from judges which will help them hone their business. They made connections with each other and with potential customers, partners, investors etc. The public won as well. I bet there were several people in the audience who are now going to take advantage of the services provided by these companies that they learned about at the event.

In a lot of midwestern communities, it’s not OK to “lose”.  Failures are kept quiet. This is hard on a StartUp community where every single entrepreneur is going to have failure at some point in their life. At the event last week, all of the companies succeeded. Yes, one came away with the grand prize, but all of the companies were celebrated. It was a recognition that putting yourself out there and trying is what needs to be admired, not just the endgame of winning or losing at the end. The success was getting selected for an event like this, getting your pitch ready, and putting yourself out there. You don’t close every deal, you don’t win every event, every product launch will not go perfect.  The vibe on Thursday reinforced the idea that the more you try the more you win.  This kind of positive atmosphere will encourage others to try, because they know there is a community that will support their passion and effort regardless of the outcome.

This event was just one small step in the multi-year path that Sioux Falls is on. A small step, but a profound one. As events like these continue, I hope the community gets more engaged. Even if you weren’t connected to one of these companies, it was very inspiring to see people exuding passion. This is the spirit that made our country what it is today. If the community can rally around events like this, the StartUp growth in Sioux Falls will accelerate.

To the StartUp Crowd

It’s ok to put yourself out there.  It’s ok to get up in front of colleagues, investors, community leaders and put your passion out for others to see. If, on a particular day, you don’t close the deal, that’s ok. We still respect you, love your energy, and are here to support you. Your day will come. Seek out more events like this. You will come away with connections, ideas, support, and a refined pitch.  And who knows, maybe you will win one… you’ll come out on top no matter what.

In Closing

Sioux Falls has a growing StartUp Scene. If you weren’t sure before and you attended the event, then you would clearly see it now. We need to encourage more StartUps to participate in public events where something is on the line. It will help sharpen their game. We need to encourage the community to come out and participate;  and not the “StartUp Scene” regulars. We need to get regular folks to come out and see what is going on with these start ups. It’s fun, energetic, and inspirational. In closing:

  • If you are a StartUp: Find one of these events to do.
  • If you are a Large Business: Find on of these events to sponsor.
  • If you are a community member: Find one of these events to attend.

 

Very exciting stuff… let’s get together and Start Up Sioux Falls!