Growing Midwest Startup Communities

Verge LafayetteChicago now has programs like 1871, Code Academy, and Entrepreneurs Unpluggd. Indianapolis has The Speak Easy, Indy Hackers, and Verge. But tech innovation and startup community doesn’t stick to the major cities in the upper Midwest.

Companies like Found Ops continue to launch and scale out of campus research parks. New structures and university initiatives provide opportunities for students to found new businesses. As these smaller hubs of entrepreneurial activity grow, new communities form, fresh meetups and events sprout up, and ecosystems unfold.

Here are just a few of the meetups that have launched in Indiana in the past couple of months:

What other startup communities do you see on the horizon? How can we connect the activity and entrepreneurial energy growing out of the Midwest?

5 Reasons You Should Go to The Combine

If you’ve already been, I don’t really need to tell you this. It’s obvious that The Combine tech conference is one of Bloomington’s biggest magnets to attract entrepreneurs and creatives. Here are five reasons why hundreds will flock to southern Indiana on September 27:

The Combine Conference

The Combine Conference: 5 Reasons You Should Go

1.) Get connected.

You’ll find other innovators from around the country in Bloomington on September 27, 28, and 29. It’s a great way to see old startup friends and make new ones. You just might meet a new customer or even your next business partner.

2.) Get inspired.

The speaker lineup is sick. With folks like Ben Huh from I can Haz Cheezburger, and Leah Jones from Olson PR, you know you’ll get some new inspiration to fuel your business.

3.) Learn something.

Not only are there knowledgeable presenters taking the stage but there are also workshops where you can roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Experienced professionals will lead sessions on three different tracks: Startup, Growth, and Build a Game.

4.) Grow your business.

On the second night of the conference, Verge Bloomington will open kick off a mega pitch competition with dozens of startups. Enter to pitch and get an opportunity to gain more exposure and win cool prizes (keep an eye out for more details in the next week). Then, showcase your startup with Tech Cocktail, a tradeshow-style mixer for companies who want to show off what they’ve got. Register here >>

5.) Experience Bloomington.

B-town is badass. I may be partial, since I lived there for three years. But it’s an incredible community with a ton of awesome bars, restaurants and venues. And late September is the perfect time of year to experience it all.

There’s really no excuse not to go. While most tech conference tickets start at $400 and up, this non-profit-run conference wants to make sure that any student or entrepreneur on a budget can experience what Bloomington has to offer. Snag your early bird ticket now for only $99>>

The Potential Behind Connection

Another email hits my inbox. This one is from my old business partner, who I haven’t seen or heard from in over six months.

David had been busy since finishing up his MBA and heading out to the San Francisco Bay area to build his startup. I hadn’t done a very good job at keeping tabs on him since I was working on one of the biggest projects of my career to date (more on that later). This email was an unprompted virtual introduction to a startup founder who, little did I know, I would soon connect with in a much more meaningful way.

Dana SeversonThe founder on the other end of the e-mail thread was Dana Severson, CEO at Wahooly, a growth platform for startups. Part Kickstarter, part Y Combinator, this Minneapolis-based company had huge potential to help a lot of the startups in the Midwest community where I do business. So, we get on a Skype call no more than two days from the initial introduction and get face to face via video chat.

“What the heck is going on in the background there?”

Dana could see that I was Skyping in from a less-than-normal office setting. Small houses the size of tool sheds filled the massive warehouse space behind me. I went on to explain Indianapolis-based DeveloperTown and their mission to build a startup accelerator and community under one roof. Dana was hooked, and I could respect that (I remember feeling the same way when DeveloperTown was explained to me years before, in its concept stage). But that wasn’t the only thing that we connected on.

Without even realizing before the call that this was the same Severson, I had admired his writing on Fast Company and Ad Age. And I discovered that we share a deep admiration for David Ogilvy, the  godfather of advertising. Interests and style aside, we shared an even deeper bond.

Dana and I both built and grew startups in the Midwest.

In less than an hour, we shared war stories, common frustrations, and shared camaraderie for non-coastal startups. It was clear that we had to find a way to collaborate, so we set up an action plan.

Now, Dana is travelling to Indianapolis from the Twin Cities, all the way up in Minnesota, to join us for our next Verge event. He’ll get to dive into our startup community. He’ll experience DeveloperTown first hand, get to work out of our startup co-working space, and meet with some of our startup founders. There’s also a good chance that Dana will collaborate with Verge in its upcoming release of one of the largest projects it has taken on.

Based on how quickly we  were able to connect and find common ground, it’s hard to say what kinds of positive impact this will have on the business with which we’re involved. But I do know one thing…

None of this positive momentum would have manifested if my friend and former business partner, David, hadn’t connected me with Dana.

It probably took him less than a minute to make the introduction and it has such huge potential to create value beyond the initial inertia. Do you have a similar relationship story?

If you think about it, I bet you have more than a few. Imagine if we didn’t leave this to chance. Think about the momentum we can build if we connect with intention and make it a priority.


4 Startup Lessons Learned from The Innovation Showcase

You can learn a lot about business as the emcee of a startup event. As I waited onstage for the next elevator pitch, I wondered if the upcoming presenter would have taken the time to craft their one-minute message or—better yet—rehearse.

One part startup tradeshow, one part pitch competition, and one part investor presentations; this year’s Innovation Showcase put entrepreneurs through the paces as 63 companies sought to raise funding for their companies.

Each startup brought their own flare to their presentation, but the startups that stood out are the ones who made meaningful connections. And they did it with four simple steps:

Step 1: Know what you want.

How can you know if an event was a success if you don’t know what success looks like? Defining what you want out of a tradeshow, conference, or business competition will not only help you track your progress, but it will also galvanize you and your team with a focal point to guide decisions.

The Innovation Showcase had over 750 investors, entrepreneurs, engineers, and other business folks. With the kind of diversity that a large conference brings, it’s possible that you could have great conversations all day, but not have any measurable outcomes from the event. So, set your goals early. Then, you can go to work on designing a roadmap that will get you to the end zone.

Step 2: Plan out your pitch.

Innovation Showcase StageYou have seconds. Not minutes—seconds—to grab the interest of your audience. That means you first have to understand who your audience is. As each company founder took the stage in the Speak Easy at the Innovation Showcase, you could tell within the first three seconds how well each pitch was going fall on the ears of the investors.

By getting a clear picture of who you want to talk to, based on your goals (see Step 1), you’ll be able to better identify when you’re dealing with a real opportunity. Then, you can go about crafting a message that will have the highest likelihood to achieve the result for which you’re striving.

Step 3: Draw your audience in with your booth.

Leave the poster boards and permanent marker at home. That approach was charming at your middle school science fair, but this is your business. On a startup tradeshow floor, there are hundreds of things other than your booth that are vying for your audience’s attention.

This year’s Showcase companies brought motorcycles, interactive touch screens, and carefully designed displays. The ones that consistently drew a crowd were the ones you could tell spent time constructing their booth experience. Don’t leave anything up to chance

Step 4: Exude energy (yes, even when you’re exhausted).

Sounds simple, but executes hard. I know tradeshows and conferences can be physically and mentally draining. But when the lights go on and the doors open, it’s game time.

Near the end of the Showcase, I took the stage with a handful of the country’s most active investors. It was one of the most insightful panels I’ve witnessed (I’ll save all of that advice for a later post). But what really shocked me was that when the panel concluded, there were a couple of companies that had already started to pack up their booths.

Innovation Showcase InvestorsREALLY!? You’re going to invest all of this time and then just pack it up to head home early?

To each his or her own, but I’d suggest sticking around at an event like the Innovation Showcase as long as the organizers will let you hold down the floor. The investors I talked with on the panel still had plenty of energy and interest to speak with startups—even after our in-depth discussion on stage. You never know how you’ll get your next cash-generating opportunity. So, give yourself the best shot at winning and play until the game is actually over.

I was impressed with this year’s Showcase lineup. It was fun to collaborate with the Venture Club of Indiana again and I’m so thankful that our sponsors supported the growing startup community we have here, in the Midwest.

Innovation Showcase Sponsors

I learned a ton from our investor and entrepreneurial presenters. Each event has something new to teach you. So what are some of your biggest lessons learned from doing tradeshows and conferences?

Share in the comments below. . .

The Innovation Showcase: A Startup Tradeshow on Steroids

Last year, close to 1,000 people traveled from around the country to pack the walls of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. They came to talk with over fifty Midwest entrepreneurs and around one hundred business investors at The Innovation Showcase, an annual conference that combines a startup tradeshow with a 50-startup pitch competition.

This year, the Showcase will burst beyond the walls of DeveloperTown and also fill Indy’s hot new co-working space, the Speak Easy. Attendees can expect the energy and experience to reach a new high:

Why This Startup Tradeshow Works

“We’re coming away with twelve highly-qualified investors who get what we do and have a genuine enthusiasm to explore a deeper relationship.” said Angel Morales, founder of Smarter Remarketer. As one of the fifty showcasing entrepreneurs at last year’s event, Morales had over five hours with interested investors, potential partners, and top startup talent.

Startup TradeshowVenture firms and angels from around the Midwest converged upon the recently-opened DeveloperTown to take in the entrepreneurial energy from the trade show atmosphere and find some of the most fundable deals.

“There are real deals going down here,”said Brad Wisler, co-founder at SproutBox. Even firms like DC-based Fortify VC and Michigan’s Detroit Venture Partners caught flights out to Indy to get in on the action and connect with the the Midwest’s most promising funding opportunities.

This year’s showcase will deliver even more of what investors and attendees want (plus some added surprises) as Verge and the Venture Club team up again to plan and host. Keep an eye out for more news and registration to go live at the end of May. You can sign up for updates and early-bird tickets as well as apply to showcase your company.

Is there a company you’d like to see at this year’s Innovation Showcase? Drop us a note in the comments. As always, we’re looking for the best of the best!


4 Reasons Indiana Entrepreneurs Rock

They’re everywhere. Driven entrepreneurs infuse Indiana business with new life.

Here’s why Indiana entrepreneurs rock:

1.) Indiana entrepreneurs have created a vibrant community.

Organizations like DeveloperTown and SproutBox help grow early and idea stage companies into thriving startups. They’ve even begun to open the floodgates to the general public by generating enormous local press and helping startups get national exposure to help grow their businesses. With the opening of the Speakeasy in Indianapolis and a number of other startup co-working spaces around the state, entrepreneurs now have a place they can collaborate and share.

2.) Hoosier entrepreneurs build rock-solid relationships.

Indiana EntrepreneursGroups like Verge, TechPoint, and The Venture Club architect environments where talented founders and investors can connect and learn together. Indiana entrepreneurs help each other out. And that goodwill goes a long way to build more valuable, higher potential businesses.

3.) Indiana founders are attracting more funding.

Exits like MyJibe and Daily Lunch Deal have whet the appetite of investors to get in earlier on deals to share in the upside potential of successful startups. IPOs like Angie’s List and ExactTarget bring national attention to the Midwest as a land of high returns. As founders continue to execute and build high-growth companies, the capital pool for entrepreneurial endeavors will continue to climb.

4.) Entrepreneurs in Indiana are dynamic and diverse.

We all come from different backgrounds–with unique experiences and expertise. Indiana entrepreneurs excel at connecting the dots between industries, redefining business models, and disrupting the status quo. They’re not bashful and they have the business chops to back it up.

The startup founders in Indiana are unique and ready for anything. They’ve built an impressive momentum that is bringing the state to a new level of business. That’s why, Verge is helping launch Startup Indiana as part of the Startup America network:

We really hope you can make the trip to join us. You deserve to connect in-person with the state-wide startup community and Startup America. But, there are less than 200 spots left for this launch event.

So, get ’em while they’re hot (and available)!

Founder Story: The 5 Startup Principles of Successful Entrepreneurs

I grabbed sushi with David just days before he took the stage in front of two hundred hungry software entrepreneurs. What was intended to be a quick meet and greet turned into a 3-hour information lunch.

That’s because over the past fifteen years, David DeRam founded and grew six successful software companies including Progeny, which helps securely store genetic data. This dude is smart and if you’re not careful, he’ll drop knowledge on you like a ton of bricks.

In our fireside chat on stage, David was able to distill his entrepreneurial knowledge into 6 high-impact principles of successful entrepreneurs. I’ve summarized some of them below, but I recommend you watch the video to get the full color and context:

The 5 Startup Principles of Successful Entrepreneurs

Place your bets wisely.

We’re all sitting at the table with a stack of chips. How we invest those resources steers our trajectory. And successful entrepreneurs know exactly what they’re investing in and why. Ask yourself:

What are your most valuable resources?

Are you hoarding your chips or are you leveraging them to win more hands and build something incredible?

Know when to make your move.

David’s first company started as a sketch on the back of a napkin at a diner. That business idea could have easily stopped there. But, David and his partners were able to find embrace mindset to move towards entrepreneurship.

Continued personal growth is a big factor for successful entrepreneurs. “If you’re not getting stretched, it’s time to make a move,” David says.

We all find our drive in different places. What motivations can you use to get yourself making big moves each day?

Don’t flinch.

Successful-EntrepreneursYou’ve got to believe in what you do. DeRam loves the free e-book, The Flinch, and encourages new entrepreneurs to stand their ground when faces with that fight-or-flight feeling that holds so many would-be founders back.

“Flinch forward, like a boxer,” says DeRam. You can’t always prevent your instinct to draw back or wince, but if you can train yourself to consistently push past what you perceive as pain, this habit will build a positive momentum with a life of its own.

Become the builder.

Own your vision and go to work on creating it. David uses the hand he’s dealt and the chips available to construct a work environment that inspires him and his team. Successful entrepreneurs maintain a crisp picture of what success looks like and each decision is made with that picture in mind.

Are you building your own reality? Or are you waiting for it to come to you?

It’s time to put on those work gloves!

Shift your time paradigm.

As project managers get more experience, estimates tend to get longer and longer as they encounter a wider range of possible problems. Any responsible project manager has to account for these potential setbacks in an estimate, but that doesn’t mean that every project has to be stretched to the max.

“What is the fastest way we could get that done?” DeRam asks his team. This simple question has become the part of the culture at David’s companies. It shifts the paradigm of the team to focus on possibilities instead of limitations.

My talk with David reminds me that some of the most powerful business principles often come in plain packaging. But the plainly wrapped gifts, which DeRam delivered in our fireside chat, deserve a place on the mantle.

Which ones will make the greatest impact on the core of your business?

Founder Story: How MyJibe Got Acquired Less Than a Year After Launching [Video]

“A lot of luck,” co-founder Mike Langellier will tell you. But there’s a lot more that went into the startup success of MyJibe—a personal finance management app that launched last January and was acquired just nine months later.

So, how do you launch and grow a software startup outside of Silicon Valley and without external investors?  I recently had a chance to sit down with cofounders Mike Langellier and Brandon Dewitt to get their reflections on the experience. It was only fitting that we unraveled the story of this bootstrapped upstart amidst the commotion of a founder-favorite Midwest coffee shop:

Software Acquisition: The MyJibe Story

In this founder story:
Software Acquisition MyJibe

  • Learn why your co-founder determines the success or failure of your startup
  • Get insight on speed and timing (and how accelerator programs like SproutBox can help accelerate the build process)
  • Find out how to turn partnership potential into acquisition offers

What qualities do you look for in a co-founder? How has that impacted your startup process?

Leap Lets you Challenge Your Friends and Lock Down Your Bragging Rights [Pitch Video]

Now we’re importing startup pitches form other Midwest startup hubs. At our last Indianapolis startup event, one founder drove from Cincinnati to share his story about Leap — an iPhone app that after only one month in the iTunes store already has 20,000 active users.

Here’s the pitch:

Leap lets you challenge your friends, record points through photos, and share with others. WARNING: If you’re the competitive type, you may get addicted to this app.

All bragging rights aside, there are tons of engaging features like photo sharing (but with richer context) and deep Facebook integration that makes it simple to share and extra “sticky” to keep you coming back to the app again and again.


Leap already has a passionate user base with:

  • 20,000 active users
  • 31,000 photos taken
  • 16,000 challenges created
  • and 12,000 twitter backlinks!

The team is on the hunt for more engineers to build out the product and grow their community. The co-founding team is already a balanced mix of Designer (Nick Cramer), Developer (Ryan Tinker), and Community Builder (James Dickerson). They’re raising a seed round with the help of the Brandery—the Cincinnati based accelerator program that gave birth to Leap—to fuel further growth.

Have you tried it out yet? What do you think of the pitch?

Intrapreneurship Examples: How to Launch a New Product in Under 2 Days

Time and focus are at a premium when you’re pushing to build and launch a new software product in less than two working days. But, I was lucky enough to grab a few moments with the ringleader of an ambitious entrepreneurial circus.

Eric Tobias founded the Midwest-based software company iGo Digital, a product recommendation platform that powers online personalization for clients like Best Buy, Staples, and Amazon. He’s an innovator with a track record of launching and growing other successful web-enabled businesses like Technuity and His creativity is contagious and, clearly, company-wide innovation fuels the organizations he leads.

Much like the intrapreneurial execution of Factory Week, a week-long hiatus from “business as usual,” Tobias and the iGo team took time out of their schedules to move offsite (to a startup coworking space called the Speak Easy), to build something new and peripheral to their core business. Here’s what he and his team learned with their #iGoInnovate days to build Scribblr, a more effective way to turn your company email signatures into marketing tools:

Intrapreneurship Example, Main Takeaways:

Capitalize on opportunity.

The iGo Digital team found their product inspiration for Scribblr in the opportunity identified by their sales team. Reps were including links to recent blog material and whitepapers in their email signatures and prospects were clicking on those links more frequently than other content.


Or is it an opportunity? You’ll never know unless you try. And that’s where dedicating time to exploring new opportunities can be so powerful.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

It’s no secret that you work different parts of your brain when you remove yourself from familiar environments and plunge into new roles. Tobias’s team learned a lot and refreshed their company-wide camaraderie.

Imagine the empathy you build for your fellow teammate when you’ve actually worked a few days alongside them—or better yet, doing some of their work. You also do some serious flexing of your communication muscles when you have the finite project capacity that two-day off-sites (like iGo Digital’s) deliver.

Get everyone on the same page.

It’s easier to get in a rhythm when everyone’s playing from the same sheet of music. The Scribblr launch team found that things fell into place after they organized their sub-teams and defined their goals.

Don’t save this last tip for intrapreneurial exercises or product launches (though these certainly help to encourage the syncopation). Things always go a little more smoothly when there’s even a rough plan in place.

Have you ever launched a product that wasn’t core to your business? What kinds of opportunities are still on the table?