Rise of the Rest—Clay & Milk Case Study

Last week I was invited to give a five minute talk at Steve Case's Rise of the Rest Summit in Washington, DC, about Clay & Milk, a venture I'm involved in to help tell the story on the Iowa startup and innovation community. The Rise of the Rest Summit brought together entrepreneurs, investors and ecosystem builders from the nearly 30 cities who haver participated in Case's bus tours over the past few years. The following is the narrative of that talk.

Hi everyone, I’m Geoff Wood and I’ve been doing startup community building work in Des Moines since 2009.

Most of that work is through a company I started called Gravitate that is many things, all of which are probably familiar to you in our own city. It's equal parts coworking community, collaboration space, information hub and connection point. I launched that business in September 2014 and we hosted the Rise of the Rest tour stop exactly one month later. It was a busy time.

Today though, I’m here to talk about a side project that we launched late last year called “Clay & Milk”, what Anna refers to as a “hyper local media outlet” that's helping to tell the story of the Iowa ecosystem.

For those that don’t know: Des Moines is the hottest thing from London to Tokyo. As you can see, it's on this t-shirt so it must be true.

I included this image today for two reasons:

One, so you have geographic perspective in case you’re not familiar with where the location of Iowa. We’re right there in the middle, pretty much right in between London and Tokyo.

Two, the t-shirt comes from a local small business called RAYGUN that is a great Iowa entrepreneurial story. I don’t have time to tell it today but the Rise of the Rest bus stopped there on the Des Moines visit and I know that talking with the company's founder Mike Draper was a highlight for Steve and the crew so I thought I'd bring that back as fun reminder.

So, Back to Clay and Milk:

In 2013 we had four publications that regularly covered the ecosystem in Iowa: two major dailies, one business journal and a regional tech blog. In 2016, after a Gannett layoff, we were down to zero. We knew that was a problem and that the only way to have long term success with a publication that covered our community was to create something from within ourselves.

Today, that is Clay and Milk, a local news site where we focus coverage on the companyies, community, culture, people and policy that make up our ecosystem. 

The idea came from Ben Milne who is the founder of a fintech company called Dwolla which has really been the flagship company for nascent tech in our ecosystem for a long time. He asked me grab coffee one day last fall to lament the fact that there was no longer any media outlet in our community that both understood and cared about covering startups and tech companies.

We talked about the first time anyone covered what he was building, when I had a put a flipcam in his face and asked him to tell me about payments back in 2009. And how they’d used that blog post to get the Des Moines Register interested in their business and then how they’d used The Register's coverage to get the attention of outlets like New York Times and TechCrunch and how there wasn’t anyone left in the community to give our next generation of startups a place to start this cycle.

So, we agreed to create it.

We then made a similar same pitch to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the state agency that cares about growing new and more startup businesses, and they agreed to be our first sponsor thus giving us enough earned capital to get off the ground.

There are three reasons why this matters in Iowa and in your community:

  1. As I saw coverage decrease in Iowa starting in 2013, I also saw excitement about our community decrease. I’m sure that other economic factors were also involved but without someone regularly telling the story of the ecosystem, the broader community seemed to forget that it existed or that it was important.
  2. Would-be founders in places like Des Moines need examples. They need to know that it is possible to build something here and they need to be able to learn from each other. One important way to do that is a with a regular, consistent medium—in this case Clay & Milk—in place to facilitate it. 
  3. Pulling on that previous story I shared about Dwolla's early days, we expect Clay & Milk to to be the first publication to cover a lot of stories about very new companies in Iowa. Our hope is that they will then be able to use our coverage to help leverage interest from general community papers, larger industry press, and the types of media entities we saw on stage earlier today. If you’ll remember both Anna from Inc. & Gillian from The Atlantic said mentioned that they mine local press for story ideas when covering a new community or working on a national trend piece.

Lessons learned:

It would be easy for a publication like Clay & Milk to become a platform to promote PR for local startups. We have people in our community who push us to do that and others who probably just assume that is the case. That's the wrong idea, though. Yes, Clay & Milk is an advocacy play—we're very transparent about the individuals involved and our motivations to grow the innovation ecosystem in Iowa—but everything we publish needs to have journalistic value, too. Coverage needs to be done ethically and written well. Creating just another terrible startup news site wouldn't be worth it to us, our sponsors or the ecosystem.

Past history shows that there is a competitive element amongst publications and that can really serve the ecosystem well. The first publication to regularly cover startups news in Iowa wasn't the Des Moines Register, it was actually that regional tech blog starting in 2009.

As the blog started producing regular, quality coverage of the startup community The Register took notice that they were missing out on something and assigned a reporter to a new Tech and Innovation beat several months later. I believe that move kicked off the coverage in the other locations. Conversely. that regional blog was also the first one to stop covering the ecosystem and I think the lack of competition made it easier for others to stop their coverage, too. 

People have asked me what it means for Clay & Milk if we inspire competition again and I always tell them that is actually the outcome that I hope for most.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the business models for media companies are really tough right now. So far, all of our revenue comes through sponsorships from entities that understand the big picture of why something like Clay & Milk needs to exist to help the ecosystem, like Iowa Economic Development Authority. We’re only a few months into this so we're still waiting to see how this plays out for our company in the long term.

The last thing I want to leave you with is the idea that all of you do good, hard work everyday as founders, investors and ecosystem builders. People need to know about that—what's involved, where it goes. Too many people assume that entrepreneurial ecosystems just grow on their own without care or curation and we know that isn't the case.

But, it’s not actually about you.

While sometimes it feels good to read about your own work, the real reason that someone needs to be telling the story of your community is to help show the way for those who will come next and build upon, or be inspired bym what you've started. That is the role of a “hyperlocal media outlet for startup news."