After spending eight amazing years in the Bay Area, my wife and I decided to move back to Minnesota to be closer to family. It was the hardest decision of my life, but having been here for a little over a month, it was probably the best decision I’ve made.
Life in the Bay Area was full of all sorts of firsts for me both professionally and personally. I transitioned from a large corporate job at IBM to launching my own startup, to building out the startup ecosystem, and to join a high school friend in working for a rocketship fintech startup.
On the personal side, it was the place where my wife and I bought our first house, and where our two children were born. We also made some amazing friends out there who were our family, or in Urdu, our “Khandaan.”
I left Minnesota in 2010 after being frustrated by the lack of startup ecosystem or a tech scene. I would go to events to seek mentorship, yet nobody was interested in helping out. In contrast, I could cold email just about any startup founder or investor in the Bay Area and get a coffee meeting. I think this is because the Bay Area has a great “pay it forward” mentality.
However, every time I would come back to visit my parents, I would try to meet up with folks in the Minnesota startup ecosystem and found that things were slowly shifting in a positive direction. Fast-forward to now, and the tech scene is thriving, with events like Twin Cities Startup Week and accelerators like the Techstars Retail Accelerator and the Techstars Farm-to-Fork Accelerator. Even with the progress being made, I still needed to check off five boxes before pulling the trigger to move.
A few key people who believed in ‘paying it forward’
As I mentioned, in the Bay Area, I could cold email just about any startup founder or investor and get a meeting. In Minnesota, I was fortunate to meet with Mitch Coopet, who was one of the founders at Code 42 and is now running a startup called Rambl. Mitch was very generous with his time and was able to introduce me to even more folks in the Minnesota tech scene who were extremely helpful and welcoming. While this is really what makes the Bay Area special, it is a characteristic that I hope to continue building here in Minnesota.
Access to ‘smart’ capital
Minnesota is fortunate to have access to investors such as, Techstars, Drive Capital, and Rise of the Rest Fund. These are large funds with amazing networks. Introductions from these funds carries a lot of weight and on top of that, they are able to financially carry a startup through Seed to Series A to even Series B. Raising a seed round is tough, but if you raise a seed round from investors that can’t carry you forward to your next round, that can mean the death of your startup.
Some Silicon Valley-grade companies
There are some really hot tech companies in Minnesota that I would consider as Silicon Valley-grade, including Mitch Coopet’s Rambl and Atif Siddiqi’s (no relation to me) Branch.
Silicon Valley-grade companies are maniacally focused on building great products for their customers. They know that they need to be the best at a few key things that impact large market segments. To do this, they build a war chest of capital, both in the form of cash and also of mentors/advisors who can really open up doors. They invest in the latest technology and are very selective in who they hire, oftentimes recruiting from the coasts.
Companies solving big problems for underserved customers
In December 2017, I wrote a piece in VentureBeat about Minneapolis being the hub for retail tech, and I covered a small company called Branch. At the time, the focus was offering hourly workers at places like Taco Bell and Target a way to view their shift schedules on their phones and message their colleagues if they needed to change their shifts.
I didn’t realize how big of an issue communication is with hourly workers, but as I dug deeper, there are even bigger challenges managers face in managing and creating shift schedules.
In addition to this, the team at Branch is committed to building products for the hourly worker. Hourly workers represent nearly 60 percent of the total workforce in America (equivalent to 78 million people)
Assurance that I’ll still find startup work here in four years
I plan in four-year year increments. In the Bay Area, it is relatively easy finding a job in startups, but that unfortunately isn’t the case in the rest of the U.S. In addition to that, coming from the Bay Area to the Midwest is relatively easy, but the reverse is not. It took me a really long time to establish myself in the Bay Area. If things didn’t work out here in Minnesota, going back would going to be tough because the local talent pool in the Bay Area is so good, and the talent there rarely relocates to other parts of the country.
In short, I needed to feel sure that I will be able to find a role in a great startup locally in Minnesota after four years. Minnesota is rather unique in that it is a hub for retail, medical devices, and agriculture. All of these industries have so many opportunities to innovate by using technology; I don’t think I will have problems finding something interesting to work on in four years.
After evaluating all of these items, I decided to join Branch as as their first product manager.
So here I am, in Minnesota, helping build a promising enterprise SaaS product from the ground up. I again am fortunate to work with an amazing team, cranking out code, and delivering delightful experiences to a market that has largely been neglected. I’m excited not just for my future, but for the future of startups in Minnesota.
Ahmed Siddiqui is VP of product management at Branch, a SaaS platform designed for the hourly worker, based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Formerly, he was VP of product at fintech startup Marqeta.