In the summer of 2011, I cofounded a seed-funded internet company that operated within the death-care space. You could think of us as Yelp for Funeral Homes. Yes, really.
Given that we were first-time founders in a place like Cleveland, Ohio, my cofounder and I were always looking for opportunities to learn from other founders who were much further along. One of our investors introduced us to a well-known internet veteran who’d had a couple of successful exits in his past. He lived in a major tech hub and was running a company that would eventually go on to be sold for several hundred millions of dollars. Our investor set up a friendly phone call between this founder, my cofounder, and myself. We jumped on that call with moleskins open, pens at our fingertips, ready for whatever golden nuggets of knowledge this super-founder would be gracious enough to impart.
The conversation started with some friendly banter and led to us sharing a bit more about ourselves and our vision for the company we were building. And then, it happened.
“Fellas, let me give you a piece of advice that I think will really help you.”
This was it! We were ready. We lowered our ears to the speakerphone and awaited the wisdom that was about to rain down upon us.
“Y’all need to move out of Cleveland. You’ll never make it if you stay there.”
I’m not quite sure how the rest of the conversation went. I was a little numb after hearing him so confidently reject the place I called home for myself and my family. My cofounder and I weren’t two fresh-out-of-college kids with no ties to anyplace. We were both married. Our wives were both pregnant. We both had houses, mortgages, and extended families located nearby. And we actually liked being in Cleveland. But now we had to leave if we wanted to be successful?
The answer, of course, is no. Of course not.
Unfortunately, though, this seems to be the prevailing school of thought for not just Cleveland but many Midwest cities. Sure, you can start a business here, the thinking goes. But if you really want to make it big, you can’t do it here.
But what is “big”?
While the Midwest is no Silicon Valley, it’s actually had its share of big exits. Just in the past few years, there have been several nine-figure acquisitions in Cleveland alone (OverDrive, Explorys, and TOA Technologies). More recently, CoverMyMeds was acquired for over $1 billion. Of course, in other parts of the Midwest, like Indianapolis and Chicago, billion-dollar exits are nothing new. it’s exactly the reason initiatives like Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest and venture capital firms like Drive Capital target our “flyover region,” as many outsiders flippantly refer to it.
That internet death-care company we started … well, it didn’t make it. In hindsight though, our failure had nothing to do with location. Our early funeral home customers and the grieving families that used our website didn’t care whether our office was located in the Mission District in San Francisco or Playhouse Square in Cleveland. Realizing this, I had no hesitation in making Cleveland the home of the next company I cofounded just a couple of years later. A much different company, Product Collective is a community for technology-oriented product managers and is the organizer of Industry: The Product Conference. In 2015, we launched our very first iteration of Industry with aspirations of being the biggest and best product management conference in the world.
Yet we met with the same kind of skepticism we’d felt on that phone call several years back.
“You won’t get product managers from the coasts to fly to Cleveland for this.”
“Obviously, you’re planning the conference in San Francisco… right?”’
“I could see this becoming a nice ‘Midwest thing’ at some point.”
Yet these comments weren’t coming from some founder located over a thousand miles away. They were coming from our own friends and allies, located right in our hometown.
This time, though, I didn’t feel dejected or question whether our location would bring us down. All I had to do was look at Content Marketing World, a conference that got its start in Cleveland, Ohio in 2011. CMW’s founder, Joe Pulizzi, envisioned CMW as a place for professionals to get a leg up on content marketing each year.
Content Marketing World started with just a few hundred attendees in 2011 and has quickly grown to become one of the leading conferences in the world for content marketing professionals. More than 3,500 content marketers from dozens of countries and nearly every U.S. state flew to Cleveland for CMW’s most recent summit.
So when I started building Product Collective, I didn’t worry about the naysayers. Industry may not be the biggest in the world yet, but we’ve already proven doubters wrong by attracting nearly 1,000 people from 37 states and 10 countries this past year. We’ve also been able to do so without taking a dime from outside investors, and we’ve been profitable for two years.
And my personal experiences and observations of the companies that have blossomed around me have made me fully realize that just because you’re located in the Midwest doesn’t mean that you can’t:
- Raise the capital you need.
- Build something truly special.
- Have global aspirations.
You might be wondering … what does all this actually mean for me, as somebody who’s building a business here in the Midwest?
My advice is simple:
- You can be proud to call the Midwest home without limiting your aspirations of becoming something much bigger.
- Trust history, not predictions. When people tell you that you can’t do something (raise capital, build a great business, enjoy a successful exit) in the Midwest… know that they’re wrong. They’ve already been proven wrong.
- Support each other. Just like you’re trying to build something that’s world-class, others around you are as well. No matter what your startup community is like, be vocal and spread the word that people can do special things… and become known as the person who helps others advance.
Remember, it’s okay to think big. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Mike Belsito is the cofounder of Product Collective and co-organizer of INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, an annual gathering of technology-oriented product people. Mike is also the co-host of two product-oriented podcasts — Rocketship.FM and Build Launch Scale — and is an adjunct professor of Design and Innovation at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.