Last week was busy.
From about 8 AM on Monday morning through 3 PM on Friday, we packed Paul Singh’s schedule full of presentations, meetups and office hours. When I first talked with Paul, just over a month ago, about potentially squeezing in an Iowa week on his North American Tech Tour he said that he wanted to come here to really get to know what it is like to be part of our startup community. He wanted to meet the people, see the companies and experience the life of an Iowa entrepreneur.
After a week that featured amazing thunderstorms, a few multi-hour trips along I-80, temps that peaked in the high 90s (more than once), city block-on-city block full of construction making downtown Des Moines nearly un-walkable, I think he gets the idea (at least for this moment, come back next month and things might be entirely different).
We set Paul, Dana, their dog Jack, and their “Don’t Tweet This” airstream up in the parking lot of the Iowa Events Center on Sunday night. No one I knew had any idea where you could park a camper in downtown Des Moines initially but after a few calls the Des Moines Convention & Visitor's Bureau (Catch Des Moines!) pointed us towards the Iowa Events Center and its ample parking that includes electric hook ups (which made it much easier to cool the thing in last week’s heat and humidity).
The official Iowa Tech Tour kicked off bright and early on Monday morning at Gravitate when the Technology Association of Iowa turned our large standing desk unit into a Pop-Up Cereal Bar offering pretty much anything you can imagine to mix with milk in a bowl at 8 AM.
The rest of the day featured a lunch and learn presentation targeted at New & Aspiring Entrepreneurs, a walking tour of the Des Moines startup scene (with stops at Square One DSM, the Global Insurance Accelerator, Men’s Style Lab, Dwolla, Rocket Referrals and Gravitate) and a happy hour.
Takeaway: It’s probably a good idea to call an Uber when you're stuck walking from downtown Des Moines to the East Village and back again in a heat dome. Corn sweats are real, uncomfortable and probably not something to show off to visitors.
In between each, Paul sat down one-on-one with our community’s entrepreneurs during a series of office hours.
We capped off the night with a trip to Fong’s Pizza and ordered the requisite Crab Rangoon Pizza and “helmet shots” which resulted in this amazing photo. I made Paul promise to add it to his slide featuring "crazy things that have happened on the tour" as soon as the next stop.
Takeaway: Fong’s Pizza has never failed to disappoint with first time visitors to Des Moines. It's the perfect mix of fun and unexpected and will always keep people talking about their experience in our fine city.
We started the second day of the tour with a workshop on Angel Investing in Tech Companies. Members of Plains Angels, FIN Capital and the Iowa Venture Capital Association came together to hear Paul’s thoughts after investing in more than 1700 companies. I’m not personally angel investor (at least not yet, fingers crossed on this whole coworking/community thing working out!) but, as Paul’s host, I sat in on the presentation and learned a lot. The feedback from the actual investors in the room was positive, both for his experience and his outside perspective on the market.
Takeaway: If you’re going to start investing in tech companies, put half of your allocation into local companies and half into companies outside the area (through vehicles like AngelList syndicates). Learn from the deal flow you see with the national investors and hold the local companies to the same standards. It’s not philanthropy and it’s not altruism but that doesn’t mean the local startup community won’t benefit in the long run.
In planning for this week, Deanna Bennett had the really neat idea to get tickets to Principal Park and have Paul do office hours from a skybox during an Iowa Cubs game. Everything came together to make this happen (include a 12:08 game time on a Tuesday) right up until a massive storm unleashed itself on Des Moines mid-morning. The game was rained out but the Iowa Cubs were generous enough to let us use the skybox anyway and Paul and Dana got the chance to check out the Cub Club (for the record, they’re big fans of The Perfect Game Burger).
Takeaway: This might be common knowledge but it’s the first that I’ve seen it: during massive rain outs like this the Iowa Cubs employees (or maybe just the interns) turn the infield tarp into a massive slip ‘n slide. It looked awesome but very, very wet. Fans were not invited to play.
That evening we had Paul give a presentation to kick off the second annual Greater Des Moines Startup Community Town Hall at the Pappajohn Education Center downtown. His talk was scheduled for 20 minutes, but lasted nearly an hour, and still set the right perspective and tone for the discussion. As we saw with the Angel Investor Workshop that morning, having someone contribute outside experience and perspective to our local situation is really fruitful.
Takeaway: In Paul’s experience of visiting 20 cities so far on the tour, every ecosystem needs four things to grow tech-enabled, early stage companies: a coworking space (hey cool!), an event space, an angel investor group and code school.
Takeaway: We should have a program that brings entrepreneurs to visit and experience our community on a regular basis (at least monthly). We should allow them to observe, give feedback and encourage them to share their story while they're hear. We should be inspired their urgency, which is present in more developed ecosystems but often a missing component locally.
Takeaway: Don’t get stuck only looking to local resources to help you grow your company—there is no excuse not to check in on decks, pitch presentations, term sheets, etc. from places like Techstars, 500 Startups and Y Combinator. Most are online—use them.
After the Town Hall, we waded through the Pokemon Go players in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and regrouped at Americana for drinks and continued conversation.
Takeaway: When you plan on bringing 25+ people to a downtown restaurant on a Tuesday night, they would appreciate a heads up.
Wednesday morning was for 1 Million Cups—Des Moines. Paul was was the presenter of the week and we continued the company- vs. community-building discussion with a new audience at the Science Center of Iowa. Afterwards, we headed back to Gravitate for even more office hours (so many office hours at this point that he took on one appointment as walk-and-talk en route between the two locations).
For lunch we ran over to Startup Stories at the Greater Des Moines Partnership and gave Paul his first chance to attend a Des Moines community event where he wasn’t the speaker. Katie Patterson of Happy Medium talked about launching their first product, Happy Boards, and everything that goes into simultaneous running an agency and a product company.
Next on the schedule was a meeting with Debi Durham of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. It was the first opportunity of the week for Paul to share what he's learned by traveling around the continent and visiting 20+ communities with someone who works explicitly on economic development strategy.
Takeaway: The challenges we have in Iowa to build early stage, tech-enabled companies are not unique to our state. Our policy makers are doing a lot of the right things. These efforts are important because more new business starts will lead to more successes over the long run.
After another round of office hours, we held our first ever Full Time Founders meetup at Men’s Style Lab’s new guide shop in the East Village. I’ve had the idea for a long time that most of our community-building infrastructure in Iowa is focused on the stage of “just getting started”. Those events are great and really valuable—right up until you actually start. I read a post (hey there, Emerging Prairie!) about Paul’s visit to Fargo a few weeks ago where he mentioned something similar and suggested they start an event just for founders who have earned at least one dollar of revenue from someone they don’t know.
We ran with that idea here and organized an event with the constraints that anyone who attends must either 1) be working on their startup full time or 2) if the startup is a a side-project it must be already generating revenue.
It was awesome—in fact, it was my highlight of the week. About 15 minutes before we started, we were thinking no structure, just drinks and a chance to directly meet with other entrepreneurs, the people in our community that are in the very same position you’re in.
Derian Baugh of Men’s Style Lab, however, had another idea. He suggested that we utilize Paul’s experience (by this point "utilizing Paul's experience" had become the unofficial theme of the week) and dig in on the actual issues we all have as founders but don’t get the chance to talk about publicly since our employees and customers can't relate. John Jackovin of Brewd mentioned that while he was at Techstars, they’d done something like this by regularly sharing what “the biggest rock in their path” is currently with the rest of the cohort. That structure and format sounded like a plan, so we went with it.
We had 22 people in the room and they quickly got real and deep, sharing a wide range of things that are troubling them—both personally and professionally. It felt really good—both to be able to share my own issues as an entrepreneur and to hear from my peers. Comparisons to therapy came up more than once.
Takeaway: Do this again. Do this regularly. Paul told me the next day that the quality of founders in the room really impressed him—we have some really amazing people building companies in the Des Moines-area and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
Takeaway: When you have my cynical personality and tweet something like this…
…people know that something really good happened (and they're going to ask you about it for days).
My Thursday wake up call came quick on the heels of the Full Time Founders meetup but I was awake and caffeinated enough to pick up Paul by 6 AM and get on the road to Cedar Rapids.
We spent the bulk of Thursday in the Geonetric Building meeting with people and companies within the NewBoCo sphere of influence (breaks for lunch at the NewBo City Market and dinner at Pig and Porter were the exceptions).
First up in Cedar Rapids was Pancakes with Paul a casual breakfast meetup in Geonetric’s Catalyst Cafe. Eric Engelmann cooked pancakes and sausage and everyone had a few minutes to chat with Paul and with each other.
Takeaway: Eric Engelmann cooks a mean pancake.
Next was a series of office hours with Eastern Iowa startups and then a lunch discussion with a cross section of the Iowa Startup Accelerator-affiliated companies (teams from past cohorts and the new one to be announced next week).
The afternoon included more office hours and then an interview with Peter Awad of the Slow Hustle podcast. Peter took his family on a long-term work-from-the-road trip for most of the last year so there were lots of good stories shared between the two. Look for that to be published soon but in the meantime you can check out my haphazard Periscope of the thing.
Takeaway: Prepare for more than 45 seconds before attempting to Periscope for the first time.
After the podcast, we regrouped with members of the NewBoCo staff and board and discussed the broader goals of the organization and the community. This conversation was great for me since it paralleled many of the things Paul and I had discussed with regards to Gravitate on the drive over that morning. Only this time I had the chance to take notes since I was seated in a conference room as opposed to behind the wheel.
We ended the Cedar Rapids day of the Iowa Tech Tour with dinner and a meeting of angel investors based in Eastern Iowa. Eric also took a few quick minutes to introduce Paul to RAYGUN and buy him a few shirts. He promised to wear one onstage at his next demo day so keep look out for that.
After such a packed schedule earlier in the week, we kept things pretty light on Friday. The main event was a lunch keynote presentation at Startup Ames. The presentation covered a lot of the same themes he’d shared earlier in the week at the Town Hall and 1 Million Cups and was well received by a mostly new and different audience.
The event was held at the new ISU Economic Development Core Facility that is anchoring the expansion of the Iowa State Research Park. The building has only been open a few weeks and is home to programs like the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship and the ISU Startup Factory.
Lunch included tempura mac and cheese sticks from a food truck and gave Paul his chance to make good on his goal of “swearing on stage at a college” in every state on the tour. It was followed up by (you guessed it) even more office hours.
Impact (or by the numbers)
In just one week in Iowa, Paul did the following:
- 17 office hours appointments with companies
- 15 venue experiences
- 5 presentations given
- 5 nights camped at the Iowa Events Center
- 4 community meetings
- 4 hours in Geoff’s Honda on I-80/I-380
- 2 meetings with angel investors
- 1 podcast interview
- 1 rained out baseball game
When you combine the estimated attendance at each of the above, Paul's visit directly impacted around 445 members of the Iowa startup community.
Sponsors and volunteer organizers
Last week is one of those things that just would not be possible without the support of a whole bunch of people and organizations who responded to my call on short notice to make this happen.
- Next Level Ventures and the Iowa Venture Capital Association
- Davis Brown Law Firm
- BrownWinick—Attorneys at Law
- Square One DSM
Des Moines organizers
- Deanna Bennett
- John Jackovin
Cedar Rapids organizers
- Eric Engelmann
- Jessalyn Holdcraft
- Alison Doyle
- Sam Schill
- Diana Wright