Paying more attention to the reality of the workers and businesses in so-called “Flyover Country” isn’t a fad. Mark Zuckerberg may no longer be writing about his travels across the U.S., but the work still continues to bring more attention to startups outside of the coasts.
Creating strong startup ecosystems is how cities, towns, and rural areas across the country will build new economic identities. Because of that, the work of entrepreneurs, funders, community organizations, and local governments supporting startup scenes in the Heartland is too important to stop. We need to keep building on the momentum we currently have.
Here are some ways to do that.
Network with your colleagues in other cities and communities
There isn’t a finite amount of innovation in the economy. For example, the success of the St. Louis entrepreneurial ecosystem doesn’t come at the expense of the Albuquerque startup scene. There are things those two communities could learn from each other, despite their differences. It isn’t just cities, either: The rural startup fund in Colorado is the type of program that should be adopted across the Heartland, either by the federal government or by individual states.
Most cities and communities outside of the coasts face the same barriers. We all lack adequate venture capital and funding resources. We’re all learning how to build a culture of hi-tech entrepreneurship from the ground up. All of us involved in building a local startup scene would be far more effective if we could learn from the failures and successes of colleagues in other communities, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
If you want to see your own Heartland startup scene thrive, take the opportunity to see what other communities are doing. Reach out to colleagues in a different city. Attend a conference. Get out and meet people. If we want to keep the momentum going, we need to collaborate and learn from each other.
Build relationships with legislators and political officials
Entrepreneurs often hate politics. There is usually a pretty good reason for that: Today’s political environment is incredibly toxic. I was reminded of that when, in a speech last month, President Trump praised OPO Startups, an incubator my wife manages in St. Charles, Missouri. That mere mention led to an immediate backlash on social media.
That’s the world we live in. Still, even with the present level of toxicity, government is crucial to the success of Heartland startup scenes. We need the public sector’s support.
Fortunately, supporting startup scenes in Middle America is both good policy and good politics.
Policy-wise, entrepreneurship is the engine of local economic growth. Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on anything, but they seem to agree on that. From a political perspective, the Republican Party depends on the giant chunk of America that doesn’t border an ocean, and Democrats have to figure out real solutions to some of the economic challenges facing these communities.
If you believe in Heartland entrepreneurship, you are on the right side of the policy debate and you have a winning political hand. Make the most of that winning hand. Develop a relationship with your state legislators. Get to know your local government. Make sure your congressperson knows how important startups and entrepreneurs are to his or her district.
Those relationships matter. Though you might find politics distasteful (at best), the public sector is an important partner for most Heartland startup scenes.
Tell your story
Whoever tells the best story wins, and Heartland entrepreneurship is full of great stories — stories about dreamers facing big obstacles and long odds. Don’t let your Midwestern humility stop you from sharing all the amazing things you and your community are doing. Tell that story to anyone who will listen, capture your journey on social media, write a blog, or contribute to publications like this. Those individual stories may lead to your big break, and collectively, they will keep us all moving forward.
Hang in there
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Silicon Valley. In fact, ecosystem builder and serial entrepreneur Brad Feld suggests that budding startup communities need to come up with a 20-year plan.
So, in 2018, keep up the good work!
Dustin McKissen is an economic development executive in the greater St. Louis area, a LinkedIn Top Voice on Management and Culture, a CNBC contributor, and an Inc. columnist.