What Else Sioux Falls Needs to Grow its Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

A few weeks ago Matt Paulson authored a great piece entitled “Four Things Sioux Falls Needs to Become an Entrepreneurial City“. In Matt’s post, he identified four main things that the Sioux Falls community needs to foster entrepreneurial growth:

  1. More Collisions – between potential partners, founders, employees, etc.
  2. Better Story Telling – of our entrepreneurial success stories.
  3. Better Education – focused on the many paths to entrepreneurship.
  4. More Capital – from local and national investors to fuel growth.

The post has been rattling around my brain for the last two weeks and I thought I would pile on by giving my perspective. The community most definitely needs the four things Matt mentions in his post, but it needs a few additional things.

Community Identity

It might be controversial to say, but the Sioux Falls Entrepreneurial Community lacks a strong identity. We have individual successes, individual efforts, individual organizations all running in different directions. It seems that we have many small cliques, rather than a broad and cohesive community. We are worried about “duplication of services” and “turf”. Getting people to come out of their caves is often very difficult. Why is this important? It is very hard for individual people or small businesses to influence policy, economies, education etc. A community that coalesces around similar values, objectives, and needs carries much more weight. A large enough community represents a critical mass of consumers, voters, donors, etc. that is capable of influencing change.

In his post, Matt identifies that we need better story telling. I agree. But beyond just lauding individual successes, we need to start exporting the success of the entire community. There needs to be a visible “scene” here in Sioux Falls. When a startup says they are from Silicon Valley; Boulder, CO; Austin, TX; there is a little bit a weight that comes with that, since those areas have great reputations for pumping out success stories. The community’s reputation is what drives investors to continually scope out those scenes.

Developing and exporting a strong community identity will help drive local change and increase our national visibility. We need to figure out what it means to be part of the Sioux Falls Scene. Who are we? What are our values? Why is this a great place to start and grown a business? What is uniquely Sioux Falls? We then need to have a community focused attitude where building and promoting the community is as important to us as building and promoting our individual businesses. We want more capital, more co-working options, more top talent. Development of strong and visible community is the only way that is going to happen in a meaningful way.

Entrepreneurial Culture

A commonly voiced opinion is that Sioux Falls needs to do better in developing, attracting, and retaining people with startup / entrepreneurial interests. This includes founders as well as people willing to work for a startup / small business. For this to happen, we need to work on the culture. For a small town, Sioux Falls has a fairly “big business” feel to it. Healthcare, Financial, Agricultural, and Education are four monster industries that have significant influence Sioux Falls business community DNA. Entrepreneurs are often looked at as a strange subculture of people who just don’t want to go and get a “real job”.

Startups are risky, but they are not crazy. For the most part, people who put their all into starting businesses are not lazy, lost, foolish, or flaky. Yet when they fail, they are often labeled as such. Over 50% of all businesses don’t make it to 5 years, and nearly two out of three of businesses make it to 10 years. Failures are not something to brag about, but they are a part of the game. We need to accept folks who give it their all and don’t quite make it. We need to respect their effort, and do everything we can to lift them back up on their feet. A community that accepts failure and provides a safety need for those who tried, will find that many more people will be willing to try.

Too often we push highly talented people with entrepreneurial interests into traditional jobs via social pressures. These people are often miserable, so this is not only bad for the individual, it is also bad for the community since that person could have gone on to do something truly great.  Our leaders, teachers, parents, and financial institutes all need to embrace entrepreneurs as a key part of the future of Sioux Falls. They need to provide cautious but optimistic support. Sioux Falls needs to “legitimize” the startup. We need to propel entrepreneurs forward, applaud their successes and pick them up and dust them off when they fail.

Mentorship

Starting a successful business is not easy, and despite whatever “fad-process-of-the-day” might say there is no cookie cutter path to success. There is plenty of research out there that demonstrates that entrepreneurs with strong mentors are significantly more likely to create successful businesses. Mentors can provide:

  • Valuable insight drawn from their own successes and failures;
  • Much needed reassurance when times are tough;
  • A larger network, beyond your own personal contacts;
  • Unbiased analysis of critical business issues;
  • An emotional outlet to talk about your fears;
  • And much more…

A successful mentor-mentee relationship is mutually beneficial. Spending time with young, energetic, hardworking people is very motivating and inspiring. When the mentor gets to play the role of the “more experienced” entrepreneur in the relationship, it is a confidence builder; it is a reminder that they have had some success and that what they have learned is valuable. When giving advice, mentors often realize that they themselves need to follow the very same advice. Serial mentors will tell you that they have gotten just as much out of the relationships, if not more, than the mentee. It’s also just good karma to put out in the world.

I have noticed a lack of mentorship in the Sioux Falls community. Many startups do not have mentors, or advisory boards. Many entrepreneurs who have started to have success simply disappear from the community and do not actively find less experienced entrepreneurs to mentor. Entrepreneurship is life long journey with a spectrum of experience. No matter how experienced you are, you can always use a mentor. Likewise, no matter how new you are at the game they is someone you can mentor. Even if you are only 6 months in to your first business venture, there is a college kid somewhere who is wondering how to start. Successful entrepreneurs and business people need to view mentorship as a moral / ethical obligation to the community.

So, if you are just starting out, seek out a mentor. If you have had some success, make yourself available to the community and find at least one person to mentor.

Grass Roots Community Participation

Many people have voiced the challenges that they have encountered in trying to start businesses. They often share thoughts on how the community should and must evolve to better support them. However, having ideas is not enough. We need people to take action.  As much as the city, the Chamber, the universities, and the non-profits in the area care about these issues; community identity, culture, and mentorship can really only be driven by the entrepreneurs themselves. All of these organizations can provide amazing support, but WE the entrepreneurs need to be driving the bus. It’s OUR community, OUR culture, OUR insights, OUR successes that will transform the community, and we can’t sit around and hope that others will create it for us.

Many people don’t take action because they aren’t sure what to do, or how to make an impact. If this is you, I encourage you to reach out to others in the community that are taking action and offer to help, they may have ideas for you. Others may feel like they are too busy focusing on their business to effectively contribute to the community. This is a challenge for sure since entrepreneurs are notoriously stretched thin. Unfortunately, if everyone one is too busy to build the community, the community will never grow and it will never get easier. We must take the long view and invest time and energy now for a payoff in 5-10 years. I encourage everyone to find 2 hours a month to contribute. What can you do?

  • Come to a happy hour and share your experience.
  • Write a blog post about your experiences.
  • Offer to be a guest lecturer for a high school or university.
  • Find someone to mentor.
  • Talk about the community to people from other parts of the country.
  • Respond to questions on our Facebook Group.
  • Bring new faces to events.
  • Many other unique ways…

Summary

While this post focused on a few more things we need to do as an entrepreneurial community to grow, Sioux Falls has a lot going for it. Great quality of life, low cost of living, a warm and welcoming community, a strong local economy, etc. However, if we focus on what we need to improve, Sioux Falls can significantly accelerate the growth of the entrepreneurial community over the next 3-5 years.


Also published on Medium.

Posted in Sioux Falls, Startups.