A plan for Des Moines’ next “entrepreneurial center of gravity”

One of the key elements of a healthy startup community is the existence of an “entrepreneurial center of gravity” — something that pulls in people from all over the community who are building their own tech startups, working remotely for external tech startups, fulfilling service provider-type needs (creative, legal, etc) for tech startups, etc. into one specific place. A place that — at least within its walls — provides a dense enough group of people working in related and compatible fields to achieve some of the things that make places like Silicon Valley and Boulder so successful.

Capital Factory in Austin is such a place. Their founder, Joshua Baer, describes it like this:

“Everywhere you go, people are working on tech startups. They’re thinking about tech startups. There are investors and press and government officials and other people coming through to meet with the startups, and it’s a community center where there are meetups and events and classes and all kinds of other things going on to support that.”

StartupCity Des Moines has been the equivalent “entrepreneurial center of gravity” in Des Moines for the past few years (I’ve written about that here and here). Unfortunately, it’s planning for a hard stop at the end of September. That organization’s leaders have done a lot to encourage others in the community to build upon their work and establish some sort of successor initiative.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been working with a few folks in the community and I think we have a solid idea.

The next Entrepreneurial Center of Gravity

The Midland Building at the corner of Sixth and Mulberry (two blocks from StartupCity) is under new ownership, is offering favorable lease rates and is interested in having creative class-type people in the building. It already houses a coffee shop (the one that replaced this one), will soon house a restaurant and an office for tech firms like Banno and Torsion Mobile. It’s next door to the building that boasts Dwolla’s headquarters, its one block from the Walnut Street redevelopment project and three blocks from the “artistic center of gravity” for the city, the Des Moines Social Club.

I’m proposing to lease an entire floor - 6,600 square feet - in that building as a community center for the startup community. It will include the low cost coworking and day-to-day event programming (lunch and learns, meetups, workshops, etc) for the tech set that have helped make StartupCity a special place. It’ll be a place to hold events like Startup Weekend, Code Day, hackathons, etc. It’ll be a physical front door to the Des Moines startup community right in the city’s core where we’ll welcome visitors, new residents and anyone else who wants to be a part of things.

It’ll also be a place to mix new entrepreneurs with the established business community in Central Iowa. This is crucial and something we haven’t always done well here in the past. Brad Feld, noted venture capitalist and author of the book Startup Communities, calls this “engaging the full entrepreneurial stack”.

As a facility, it will be a place for established companies to host off-site meetings, a place to “get outside the building” for the customer development process and a place to get a new take on their own ideas. It will give those established companies a chance to get in early on the newest ideas being developed — those that will shape the next generation of Des Moines’ economy. It will be a place to connect with the talent they’d like to recruit and a place to support the talent that spins out of their walls in the future.

There has sometimes been a divide between the startup community and the established business community in Central Iowa. While I understand where that comes from, I know we’ll all be more productive if we can get past that and I think this will be a place to work together rather than against each other.

This idea is not to establish a new incubator, startup accelerator or mentoring program. There are several of these already contributing to the community. I’d hope that this idea can work collaboratively to help them be successful.

Getting started

I’m pretty excited about this idea and ready to get started working on it but only if the community wants to see it come to life. There are a few things that we need help with:

1. Coworking

If you’re interested in joining the coworking community - let us know in the comments below.

Coworking requires a critical mass of individuals and companies to work. It’s not something that is for everybody and we want to be sure and incorporate the lessons learned from the experience of StartupCity and others in the past like Impromptu Studio and Foundry Coworking. The Midland Building has both offices and open space and we plan to mix together a range of established tech companies, startups, freelancers and remote workers.

Let us know what amenities you’d A.) need to have in the space B.) like to have in the space.

2. Programming

If you manage a user group, host a regular meetup or looking to create a new event to take this community to the next level, I have the same question:, what would you need and like to have in the space?

3. Launch Funding

We will need to raise some launch capital to get the idea off the ground - buying furniture, equipment, etc. I think this is a great way to engage established businesses from the onset of the project. Much like sponsoring a conference — this is a way for those companies to help showcase their involvement and help support the creation of new and growing scalable technology businesses in Des Moines. If you personally or your company is interested in participating in some capacity, please email me.

Geoff Wood has been helping tell the story of the Iowa startup community since 2009. In addition to writing here daily, he hosts a weekly podcast, speaks at conferences and organizes several events in the community.

Photo Credit:startupcitydsm.com