My friend Tom Chapman wrote a post on the Nebraska Global blog a few months ago that included this:
The local chamber should be knowledgeable about what is really going on. This helps with press releases and media. It ensures that cool, new startups are discovered. … So, at a minimum chambers and other similar organizations should be able to name the five most interesting pre-revenue startups, the five most interesting seed startups, and the five startups that are “making it” huge.
I’ve borrowed that idea and suggested it several times since, especially when asked by chambers of commerce and other membership/civic groups that advocate on behalf of their community about how they can help startups.
It’s on me to have my own list of the most-interesting startups to share and promote, too, and I realized that I’ve never done that publicly. I sat down this week and put together my own current top five “most interesting” list.
Note—we have a lot more than five startups in Des Moines so I couldn’t include everyone. If you think someone else is one of the current “five most interesting startups” let me know in the comments but be sure to state why. The list is alphabetical, no other order is implied. For the purposes of this list, I consider companies like Dwolla and Workiva to have evolved beyond the startup phase.
Five most interesting startups in Greater Des Moines
AgriSync (Dallas Center)
AgriSync, a startup that provides remote support services to farmers in the field, is the perfect company to start off with on this list. They’ve hit the unique spot of being in our of our state’s most promising industries (ag tech) but also being consumer-relatable enough that someone who doesn’t know anything agriculture can quickly see the value they provide. They announced a $450,000 seed round in February and were one of four finalists for Farm Bureau’s national Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge in January.
FunnelWise (West Des Moines)
FunnelWise is “revenue funnel” analytics startup. I’m impressed by their team which includes people with experience at many startups in the Des Moines-area including founder Matt Ostanik who has already had one successful software exit. They announced a funding round in February, a $7MM Series A (which is significant for this market) just weeks after debuting new office space in West Des Moines. They’ve also created a second office in Chicago.
Men’s Style Lab (Des Moines)
Men's Style Lab has been on my radar since sometime in 2013 when founder Derian Baugh reached out to me somewhat blindly and we decided to grab coffee. I’ve watched the subscription clothing company consistently from afar (actually from “a floor”—they’ve been located one floor above Gravitate for nearly two years) and have been impressed to see the company evolve. Derian also periodically sends out unfiltered updates on the company’s performance which is brave in this market and I really appreciate his willingness to share them.
Rocket Referrals (Des Moines)
Rocket Referrals, a company that works on improving the process around getting referrals and retaining customers, was the last startup to join StartupCity Des Moines as part of its incubator program. After StartupCity closed in August 2014, they made a conscience choice to step back a bit from the startup scene to go completely heads down on building the company and developing their product. Because of that choice, they’ve faded from the public consciousness but they seem to be flourishing. They’re continually expanding the team and have been able to completely fund that growth internally.
UpCraft Club (Des Moines)
UpCraft Club, a digital sewing pattern marketplace, is probably in everyone’s top five right now. Founder Elizabeth Caven has won prize money at most every pitch competition in our state (Venture School, Invest in She, Dream Big Grow here, etc) and just recently took the top prize at the national InnovateHER Challenge in Washington, DC. UpCraft Club is also the first Iowa-based startup to participate in 500Startups (she’s in the current class in San Francisco).
What about the rest of the state?
Of course, our startup community is much broader than just Greater Des Moines, so here are five more companies in other parts of the state that I regular cite when asked about our “most interesting startups”:
- The Art of Education (Osage)
- HLT (Coralville)
- HowFactory (Cedar Falls)
- Pear Deck (Iowa City)
- TelePharm (Iowa City)
As I was putting the list together I realized that there needed to some sort of time frame for making the "most interesting" determining. I decided to think about companies that had really stood out to me over the last 12 months or so and were still viable companies today. This list isn’t intended to reflect the company that I find most interesting this week or even this month.
I do like that idea of doing something in the moment, though, so starting next week I’m planning to try out the idea of creating a monthly Power Rankings for the startup community in Iowa (statewide, not just Des Moines). If you’re not familiar with “Power Rankings”, I’m doing so in the style of the late, great Grantland.com who subjectively ranked things like characters on Mad Men and the MLB Home Run Derby broadcast. I like this form of commentary quite a bit and look forward to sharing my thoughts on movements in our community month-to-month. I promise that it will be subjective and that I’ll do my best to keep it fun.