Blueprints for an Entrepreneurial Future in America’s Heartland

At VentureBeat Blueprint 2018, leaders from regional tech hubs talked extensively about the sources of their success and plans for the future.

Estimated reading time: 7 minute(s)

The big question of 2018 is: how can America’s heartland — especially cities that have been overlooked in the recent obsession with Silicon Valley and New York — build an uplifting future, strong communities and good jobs. However, this year’s VentureBeat BLUEPRINT conference broke the idea that Silicon Valley is the benchmark of entrepreneurship.

One over-arching insight that emerged from the conference is that the next objective for all heartland cities is to double down on this progress, and establish the ideas and language necessary to carve out a space in the public consciousness.

The Blueprints for a New Future

Blueprint, means a plan — this is derived from blue print as in a design schematic or architectural map. In its original and narrow definition, the word refers to a reproduction of a technical drawing, created using a copying method that relies on chemicals that turn blue in the light.

Actual blueprints haven’t been in widespread use since the middle of the 20th century — but they still shape our language.

The same is true for Silicon Valley, most redolently in the proliferation of other Silicons: Silicon Prairie, Silicon Alley, Silicon Roundabout. Do any of these entrepreneurial areas have anything to do with silicon microprocessors? Do they even want to emulate the Valley?

Listening to attendees and contributors, we distilled some major ideas and tips on how heartland cities can can do so.

These ideas include the tips with which we began the story, which startups and entrepreneurial organizations can use right now.

  1. Bootstrap entrepreneurial ecosystems — capital infrastructure will follow when there is something to invest in
  2. Identify parts of your ecosystem that are lacking and invest in them
  3. Invest in arts and culture; embrace the historical character of the city
  4. Invest and engage in your community, especially via education and training

Once entrepreneurs and organisations take these steps, they create the space necessary to take a more values-led approach, using the following mantras:

  1. Say ‘yes,’ go where it’s easy to ‘say yes’
  2. Embrace serendipity
  3. Remember that it’s OK to be boring
  4. Play to your strengths

These ideas saturated the speakers and attendees’ blueprints for change. They are rust-belt-to-tech-hub operating principles.

Why Entrepreneurs are Getting Out of the Valley

More and more entrepreneurs are leaving Silicon Valley, feeling the pressures of high cost of living and low quality of life. Meanwhile, many feel stifled by homogenous thinking and a cut-throat culture that highlights competition over collaboration.

Even Silicon Valley heavyweights like Peter Theil are moving resources out of the Valley:

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and other organisations want to find ways to distribute success more effectively, something that seems unlikely to happen in in more traditional tech hubs:

At VB’s BLUEPRINT, the businesses, mission driven organizations, governments and public-private partnerships present showcased their success stories and set out how they intend to achieve a fairer, more prosperous, and more distributed future.

Here are some of the blueprints:

Reno Nevada

Nevada, and particularly Reno, told a dramatic success story. For example, SWITCH uses collaborations with local educational institutions to help local employees to learn the skills they need to get jobs at the company.

Meanwhile, no state tax, plenty of open space and an appetite on the part of the state government for growth and investment has created space for companies to take big bets. The most ambitious of these has to be Tesla’s Gigafactory, which, when complete, will be the largest building on Earth.

Meanwhile, Nevada has invested in arts, culture and, thus, the state’s quality of life, helping to make it more attractive for entrepreneurs and investors.

Nevada lost 175,000 jobs during the financial crisis — the state has since generated 200,000. Meanwhile, Reno achieved a complete turnaround.

All the states represented at the conference have designed blueprints that draw on their history. Nevada’s blueprint, at least in part, is to become a home for people’s most radical and ambitious ideas. This is true of Nevada, as it catalyses the same ‘out West’ freedom for which it was famous in the past.

Tennessee

Tennessee has nurtured multiple hubs, utilising existing skills to create the foundation for a more diverse economy. Ultimately, however, this is dependent on people taking action before the traditional business infrastructure (VC funds, co-working spaces, incubators etc.) is in place.

Chattanooga, in particular, has transformed itself from a comparative desert of entrepreneurship into a high-tech base and investment center. Launch Tennessee CEO Charlie Brock’s excellent presentation put across what a night and day transformation this was:

If you ask someone about Nashville, Tennessee, chances are they’ll mention music / entertainment. Eventbrite chose to invest in Nashville largely for this reason:

As such, Tennessee’s blueprint uses this skill and reputation as the foundation for a bigger and more entrepreneurial future.

Ohio

Some states have have focused on solving particular problems that previously held back their startup ecosystems. In particular, Rev 1 Ventures helped Columbus Ohio to ensure that companies don’t hit the buffers when they grow to the point where there are no new capital sources for them.

As a result, some people who left the state for Silicon Valley for this reason are pleasantly surprised at the news.

With focused decision-making and concerted action like this, cities that weren’t renowned for entrepreneurship can become best-in-class.

Utah

Of course, Entrepreneurs moving to the heartland from the coasts would be unwise to shun Coastal partnerships and capital altogether. Many of the states represented at Blueprint took care to surprise the audience with the levels of connectivity on offer.

For example, transportation from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Utah is so convenient that Thomas Wadsworth — Dir. of Corporate Growth and Business Development at Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development — proudly described the state as ‘just another California suburb.’

Clearly, a significant part of Utah’s blueprint is to draw, fully, upon the State’s geographic gifts.

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh was Blueprint’s dark horse. Eric Daimler, CEO of Spinglass, explained how Pittsburg is only fourth place in the entire U.S. in terms of venture rounds per million residents. Pittsburg’s 40.8 rounds puts it behind only Silicon Valley, Boston and Austen.

https://twitter.com/ahhensel/status/971092293397565440 — correct to 40.8 per MILLION

Meanwhile, both Uber and Oculus chose the city as development base for their products.

Deimler described how, during the city’s heavy industrial past, people would change shirts twice per day to deal with the filthy smog that stained clothes. The city has since reinvented itself as clean and green.

This rapid growth has made the city extremely accessible to tech workers who are interested to buy property and make the city their home.

Pittsburg has completely redefined itself as a city, achieving top living standards and making generally a great place to live.

These victories bolster the city’s ability to attract a smart, discerning workforce. This fact is a vital part of its blueprint for the future, which includes a bid for Amazon HQ2.

San Antonio

Danny Garcia, CEO of Geekdom and representing San Antonio at Blueprint, emphasized that not all meaningful progress for heartland cities needs to come from groundbreaking, change-the-world inventions. Garcia sees a prosperous future for his city in building the stuff that sits in the background, does its job, and makes the world work:

Garcia also emphasized that startup ecosystem is not a chemistry set where administrators can cook up a unicorn. Instead, communities need to do three things well:

To return to a theme from earlier, capital can’t exist without investments, meaning that entrepreneurs and city evangelists have to sell people on the idea before the money and financial support flows in.

Vision like this has helped San Antonio put all the businesses below on the map.

This, alongside being comfortable with being the plumbing of the internet, should prove to be two pillars of San Antonio’s future success.

Madison, Wisconin

Sometimes a heartland city’s entrepreneurial story relies on more than a grain of irony. Tiffany Apczynski, Zendesk’s VP of Public Policy and Social Impact explains how the company needed an IT support person in the Central Time Zone. They set up an employee in Madison WI and, an amazingly short time later, the company’s Madison outpost had grown to a team of nine.

Meanwhile, a sense place will be central to Zendeskdesk’s operations moving forward:

And this means not just embracing America’s heartland, but also contributing to under-developed parts of extremely prosperous coastal cities.

Zendesk has derived success from taking a chance on novel bets, while capitalizing on serendipity. These things and more will comprise Zendesk — and Madison’s — blueprint for the future.

Gary, Indiana

Karen Wilson — Mayor of Gary, Indiana — was asked to explain her top priority as Mayor. She described that it was: helping to nurture her constituents’ sense of hope.

To return to yet another common theme, the Mayor emphasized that if a city wants to promote its entrepreneurship, it needs also to nurture a long-lasting and sustainable base of art and culture.

As for the advantages of building a startup ecosystem in a small city, Wilson explained that a small city’s lower red-tape burden makes it much easier to take action and to change things.

As the Mayor identified, people are tired of politicians not delivering on their promises. Gary, Indiana’s blueprint, therefore, is empowered by the city’s ability to say yes.