A few months after moving to the suburbs of St. Louis, I read a profile of one of the region’s most successful entrepreneurs in the St. Louis Business Journal. I wanted to get to know him, so I sent an email introducing myself — assuming I would never hear back from someone so accomplished (and busy). I was wrong. I received a reply the next day.
A year later this serial entrepreneur would become my consulting firm’s first client, and he later hired my wife to be the director of OPO Startups, the coworking facility he built.
Not being a native, I thought the Midwestern “niceness” and sense of community was more of a marketing ploy than reality. Again, I was wrong. A sense of community is a fundamental part of the Heartland, including the region’s startup scenes.
A sense of community isn’t the only thing Heartland startup scenes have to offer. One word that’s frequently associated with Heartland entrepreneurial ecosystems is “access,” and that word is used for a reason. Successful entrepreneurs with roots in Heartland cities are often very willing to mentor inexperienced founders. But access isn’t just about mentorship.
Founders in Heartland startup scenes also have easier access to the fundamental building block of every startup: talent.
St. Louis is a great example. There are over 7,500 graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis. Many of those students attend the university’s outstanding science, math, and engineering programs. Combined, there are nearly 8,000 more graduate students at the nearby campuses of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the private St. Louis University. That is more than 15,000 graduate students, all working within miles of each other and, in some instances, mere blocks from the city’s Cortex Innovation Community.
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St. Louis just happens to be the ecosystem I belong to, but there is an abundance of highly skilled talent in startup scenes across the country. Pittsburgh’s top-ranked Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science has played a crucial role in the development of that city’s booming tech sector. Talented engineers and scientists can also be found in much smaller cities. For example, thanks to the presence of the University of New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratories, and several military installations, the Albuquerque area has one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the country.
In other words, there are a lot of talented, highly skilled people in cities outside of the coasts. If you are looking for cofounders or early employees, you can find them in small and mid-sized cities — and you’ll face a lot less competition than you will in Silicon Valley, with its estimated population of about 3 million people. A decent-sized percentage of those people work in or around the tech sector.
But just because there is less competition does not mean the level of talent is inferior. Both Jack Dorsey (cofounder of Twitter) and Jim McKelvey (founder of Square) were once young engineering students at Missouri universities. The founders of Adobe, Sun Microsystems, and Xerox were all graduates of Carnegie Mellon. And Jeff Bezos was born in Albuquerque to a University of New Mexico employee.
It’s often said that while talent is evenly dispersed, opportunity is not. There is a lot of truth to that statement. If you’re a founder looking for a place to launch your startup, that saying also means there are talented engineers, programmers, computer scientists, and other important members of your future team looking for an opportunity in cities and communities across the Heartland.
Launching your startup in cities like St. Louis and Pittsburgh immediately makes you a bigger fish in a smaller pond. It gives you access to mentors, customers, and partners who want you to thrive. As an entrepreneur, I had clients who chose to work with me specifically because they wanted to see a local startup succeed. You also have access to talented cofounders and employees who aren’t waiting to work for the next billion-dollar unicorn. Instead, they’re excited to help you build your city’s first billion-dollar unicorn.
In 2018, consider founding your startup in a community in the Heartland of America. You’ll be glad you did.
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.