Five key points from the Silicon Prairie Stories panel at TechWeek
The "Stories from the Silicon Prairie Panel" at TechWeek featured (from left): Thad Langford, Jeff Slobotski, Greg Kratofil, Naithan Jones and Ben Milne.
I participated Monday in a Chicago TechWeek panel titled "Stories from the Silicon Prairie: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Outside of the Valley." I was joined by Naithan Jones of AgLocal, Thad Langford of Open Air Equity Partners, Ben Milne of Dwolla and Greg Kratofil of Polsinelli Shughart, who served as our panel's moderator. This was the first time that most of us had presented on the same panel, and I was interested in hearing stories from each of the businesses represented.
I've been a big fan of what each of these gentlemen have created and are continuing to build each day in the Silicon Prairie. The panel served as a fresh reminder for me of some of the sacrifices, ideas and energy that each of the panelists have that make them strong regional leaders.
Here are five points that will stick with me from the panel:
When Kratofil asked what our area's strengths are, Milne passionately answered that it's the fact that people here care. They care about where they work, what they're working on, their employees and the type of life they're trying to create.
Belief in the founder
When asked what some of the insights he's learned from dealing with investors and raising capital, Langford said that you need to be sure to align yourself with investors that not only care about succeeding but also believe in you as the founder, as well as the future potential of the business. Don't necessarily partner with an investor who's solely focused only on the profit.
Jones shared more about the story of how and when he chose to make the leap to work on AgLocal full-time. It all started when his family members started writing him checks to build out the idea. Shortly thereafter, he made the decision to leave his position at the Kauffman Foundation. Not only did Jones leave his full-time job, but his wife supported him in the journey by selling everything they owned and moving back to Florida so that her husband could pursue his dream of building AgLocal. There's no doubt that Jones left everything behind to pursue his dream — a story that many on the panel expressed is not uncommon here in the Silicon Prairie.
When Kratofil asked the panel to address the drawbacks to being located in the Prairie, the answers were varied. Milne shared some thoughtful reflections on the fact that our startup scene is still relatively young in the overall timeline and we're still getting our feet under us. Our region hasn't seen the full ups and downs of the life cycle of older, more established ecosystems.
"I need you"
I really liked what Milne had to share in response to a question from the audience about how we can keep talent within the region, in lieu of pursuing opportunities outside the area. Milne said he likened it to being in a relationship. When you're in a relationship with a significant other and they walk out the door, you say things like, "I need you" and "My life is better because of you." He said we don't do a good enough job as cities and a region right now telling those same things to our students and emerging generation of entrepreneurs.
As we continue shaping what the future of our entrepreneurial ecosystem looks like, I'm excited to say that, with these guys leading the way, we're in good hands.
Credits: Photo courtesy of Greg Kratofil