Do Midwest Startup Cultures Need More Urgency?
Towards the end of last year, I started a series of posts on Midwest Startups and Venture Capital. So far, I’ve written three posts in this series. Below are the titles and links to those posts.
While I’m going to continue writing posts on the Midwest region, this will be my last post in this specific series. I’ve shown why I am excited about this region. I dove into its history to see the progression. I showed data that backs up the thesis behind this region’s potential. I also wanted to draw some lessons on what we need to do better if we want to take the next step.
That’s what I want to focus on today. Now there are many things the region needs to do to reach the next level. We need more capital, more engineering talent, etc. These things are all improving progressively. We have more capital than ever before. Historically coastal investors are beginning to realize the potential of this region and place capital accordingly. Things have never been better for startups in cities like Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. If we keep executing, things will only improve further.
However, my most impactful takeaway from this study wasn’t that we need more capital or engineering talent. It was that (in some cases) Midwest startups need a culture change.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no trying to be controversial. However, I care too much about this region and its success not to share this. I’ve spent considerable time talking to founders, operators, and investors both in the Midwest and the rest of America. I’ve spoken to people that grew up in the Midwest region and never left. I’ve spoken to people that left and came back. I’ve spoken to people that got their start on the coast before moving to the Midwest.
The message I kept getting is that we need a greater sense of urgency. One multi-exit founder told me that “work-life balance is B.S. If you think we’re going to beat startups on the coast without working extremely hard and putting in a lot of hours, you’re just plain wrong.”
Another experienced C-Suite operator told me that some of the team members at his startup lacked a sense of urgency. “Emails just stop after 5 and on weekends. Key people stop grinding and it hurts us.”
Several coast-based venture capitalists told me that the lack of urgency is one of their biggest hesitations for investing in Midwest companies. “People in the Midwest think their ideas are special too often. What some don’t realize is that it’s the execution that matters. Ideas suck. Great execution is where the money is made. There are a dozen other startups on the coast trying to do the same thing or do something similar. Those coastal startups are often better capitalized. Without urgency and great execution, the idea doesn’t matter.”
Another founder from the coast shared the sentiments of the venture capitalists. “Some Harvard or Stanford kid could see our idea and decide to copy it. He’ll raise money from his professors or the VC’s down the street, work 24/7, and just beat you. It happens all the time. You have to out-grind and out-execute if you want to have a shot.”
All of the people I’ve talked to were positive about the potential of this region. None of them were attempting to diminish the potential here. All of the VCs I talked to have investments in the Midwest. The founders and operators all either currently operate here, have an office here, or are from here. These aren’t spiteful, negative people. They’re successful people that know what it takes to succeed in the startup game. They want the Midwest to succeed, but they’re being honest with themselves about certain issues in the region.
I’ve witnessed the truth of their words myself while engaging with communities around the Midwest. Some don’t understand the inherent urgency that’s associated with startups. If Procter & Gamble burns through $2 million without hitting milestones on a project it’s not a big deal. They’ve got a massive balance sheet to fall back on. If your startup misses its milestones, you’re probably not raising that next round.
Industries aren’t disrupted or created from scratch without an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice. They aren’t disrupted by an “it can wait till tomorrow” mindset. If you’re only willing to work from 8-5, I guarantee you that dozens of hungry upstarts on the coast are willing to work double that. Plus, they can usually raise money quicker and easier than Midwest startups.
Again, I’m not trying to be negative. I’m not advocating for hustle porn either. Sleep. See family and friends. Eat healthy. Exercise. Meditate. Pray. Practice self-love. Take care of your mental health. You can do all of these things and still attack with a sense of urgency.
It’s not just about hours put in. It’s about what you get from the hours you put in. Did you accomplish the objectives that move the needle? Did you do it fast enough? There is always a lot of noise. Cutting through the noise and tackling the urgent is key.
I’m not hating on the Midwest. I’m not calling Midwesterners lazy. We work hard, but some of us don’t always attack the mission we’re on with the same urgency our coastal competitors do. I’ve met some absolute rockstars here that can compete with the best founders and operators on the coast. However, for us to successfully compete, we need more urgent people. We need our cultures to be permeated with urgency.
So how do we do that?
I believe it starts at the foundation of a company’s culture. Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why is a great read on this topic. I recommend building your sense of urgency into your why. Every person that joins your startup needs to be educated on why your mission is urgent. If your startup is solving a huge problem in the world, shouldn’t that be urgent?
Because of innovations like the internet and cloud computing, it has never been easier to start a company. Great companies can be built anywhere now. However, this also means that it has never been more competitive. With this in mind, let’s have a sense of urgency in the work we do every day. Let’s focus on execution. Let’s do as much as we can to move the needle “today!” The mission you’re on is urgent. Make sure that’s ubiquitous in your culture.
TL:DR – The Midwest has a ton of potential. We’ve come a long way as a region. The sky is the limit. To hit that next level, our startups have to have a sense of urgency. The problem you’re solving is urgent. The milestones you have to hit are urgent. Out-competing your competitors is urgent. Let’s make sure we build our startups, our community, and our lives with a sense of urgency from the top down. Our goals are too important for anything else.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog and our respective social media accounts exclusively reflect my personal views. They do not in any way reflect the views of my employers. The posts in this blog are purely personal opinion. They are not meant to be taken as investment or legal advice.