Is this Silicon Valley? No, it's Iowa

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a year and a half since I had my first brush with the startup community in Des Moines. I was a journalism student in my last year of undergrad who was wholly unsure of what I wanted to do when I graduated.

I had just started freelancing for this startup-y tech blog—Silicon Prairie News—and found myself covering the final pitches of Startup Weekend Des Moines. I had no idea how to spell “start-up” (sorry, Geoff*) much less what a Startup Weekend was. But looking back to those first few events (Dwolla’s Old MacDonald Hackathon being another), I can say with a fair amount of certainty they’re what sold me on this community of ours.  

Fast forward to 2014—I can now spell “entrepreneurial” without second guessing myself and have spent enough time in the community to feel comfortable. Last week I had glass of wine with a friend who recently moved back to Des Moines after working at a smattering of tech companies in San Francisco. We talked about our jobs, mutual friends and, of course, this amazing little city we call home.

And she said something that really struck me. Something that hit on all the things I’ve been thinking about more and more lately when it comes to how we can help Iowa’s ecosystem grow and thrive.

“I wish Des Moines would stop trying to be like everywhere else, because it won’t be. It’ll always be Des Moines.”

Just take a moment to let that sink in.

Granted, she wasn’t specifically talking about the entrepreneurial community, but I don’t think it really matters in the end. Of all the places I’ve written about, Des Moines—and Iowa really—have been the most unique in terms of community.

Now, I think we do a fairly good job taking pride in our Iowa roots, but what’s to say we couldn’t do better? We don’t need to be the Silicon Valley, nor should we want to be. Sure, it would be nice to solve a few of the problems we’re always talking about—namely density and finding funding—the way the coasts have.

But why not take things one step further? I’ve come to think that what really makes Iowa’s startup community better than the Silicon Valley is the qualities of our community, not necessarily where it’s located:

“Iowa nice” is real. And it’s one of our biggest assets.

Sure, we may get flack for being “Midwestern nice,” but I’m fairly certain Scott Siepker has proven time and time again that it shouldn’t (and won’t) hold us back. In fact, one of the best outcomes of “Iowa nice” is easily that where the rest of the world has Six Degrees of Separation, we generally have two. If you can’t get directly connected to the person you want to meet, chances are you know someone who knows someone who can help (still with me?). Iowa is a small, but exceedingly welcoming community. That being said, it’s important to know how to connect most effectively—regular events like StartupDrinks, TechBrew or 1 Million Cups are great options for new faces.

We’re about more than just a city

While we’ve still got some work to do when it comes to working together, one of my favorite things about the startup community in Iowa is that there are so many of them. From towns as far east as Decorah and far west as Sioux City to the surge of energy I’ve seen over the last year in the community that surrounds Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, there’s no question that Iowa is claiming a place for itself on the entrepreneurial map. In that regard, Iowa truly is like no other place in the Midwest. Sure, we might not be as big as Chicago or even St. Louis, but moving forward I think the support a statewide network of entrepreneurs can provide will be invaluable.

We know how to listen but also how to do

Since I became part of the Iowa startup community, one of my most rewarding moments is still when a founder turned to me and said, “In the beginning, you were the first person to ever listen to us and it made all the difference.” It’s always a possibility that no one reads the things you write. But maybe, just maybe, one person does. Maybe they buy that product, or tell a friend, or tell 20 friends. And in that case, it makes all the difference.

I’ve come to realize that the startup community in Iowa is largely the same way—along with being “Iowa nice” and well-connected, Iowa entrepreneurs are willing to listen, almost unconditionally. Regardless of how far along their company is or how swamped they are prepping for a new product launch, I’ve come to know that this community is immensely generous with its time.

Likewise, no matter the situation, I’ve found we’re a community that’s not only willing to listen but also passionately motivated to act. When the Des Moines community saw a void last year after Big Des Moines was canceled, they stepped up to create the I/OWA conference. I have no doubt a solution to what comes after StartupCity Des Moines will happen in much the same way.

And I can only hope that in some alternate reality—where “Field of Dreams” is actually about a small technology company trying to become the next Google and despite opposition from poorly CGI-ed ghost VCs—that maybe they’ll ask, “Is this Silicon Valley?”

And someone—hopefully Kevin Costner—will tell them: “No, this is Iowa.”


Megan Bannister is the Iowa editor for Silicon Prairie News. Working remotely from Des Moines, she helps tell the stories of startups and entrepreneurs across Iowa. Before she worked with startups, Megan studied journalism at Drake University. 

*Editor's note: the word is always "startup", folks. Not start-up, StartUp, start up, start UP, St. Artup (thanks Brad) or anything else you com up with.

Photo Credit: screen cap from Field of Dreams, an awesome movie from 1989 that Geoff saw in the theater.