Chicago’s Startup Community

By March 30, 2011

As I have met and interviewed all kind of people in Chicago’s startup community and meet other people that have lived (for any period of time) in the San Francisco Bay Area, one topic that inevitably comes up is culture.

“Do you think Chicago is getting a culture like San Francisco?” I am often asked followed up closely by, “Chicago needs a place for startups to gather.”

I could write pages upon pages of my love for the startup culture in the Bay Area. Everywhere you go, you are tripping over other entrepreneurs. It’s an exciting place to be.

That doesn’t mean Chicago doesn’t have a culture of its own or that we even need to compare the two. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley. Moving on.

Chicago is at once so much more than San Francisco ever could be and at the same time suffering from an inferiority complex that is, I have finally decided, completely unnecessary. Chicago is Booming with a capital B. The problem is that many entrepreneurs don’t know a whole lot of other entrepreneurs.

Mostly this is because entrepreneurs are working. They have their heads down and their noses to the grindstone working on perfecting their vision. That is what is necessary to make it. Every once in a while though, they like to step outside, smell some fresh air and talk shop with other people that get what they are going through.

Lord knows there are endless amounts of networking opportunities provided by different groups in the city (including my own quarterly startup launch events for Flyover Geeks). Still, from day to day, it isn’t always that easy to just shoot the breeze and see what other people are up to.

One person helping change that is Seth Kravitz of Technori. He has started a weekly meetup at the (now closed) bar Frankie Z’s downtown. Next week it will be held at a new location due to the bar closing, but the event is simple. Every Friday at 5:30 everyone in the community is invited to come out and have a beer, talk shop and engage with other members of humanity outside our immediate circle. The event has had some success and is exactly the type of thing the Chicago community needs.

My startup necessitates that I engage with entrepreneurs so I can develop content but other entrepreneurs that don’t see many people each day like having the chance to interact and bounce ideas off each other. Unfortunately, I seem to almost always have business that precludes me from making the weekly event but I am sure I’ll be there before too long.

Going beyond the weekly mixer, Chicago can definitely use a co-working space that is cheap, has broadband and access to cheap food. We do have the ITA, which does a great job of providing space for events and supporting the community, but imagine a space where there are a good 50 to 100 entrepreneurs all working away in one space. The free flow of ideas would be contagious and would strengthen the community overall.

I know I am not alone in wanting such a space. Some of our Venture Capitalists and business owners make extra space in their offices available to startups which is fantastic but still the community is looking for a communal space.

Ideally any space that existed would be big- lots of space for desks and would be downtown or at least very close to it. Having a few established startups there wouldn’t hurt and anyone interested in mentoring and helping out their fellow startups would be welcomed as well.

I have a few ideas on how such a space can work but I’m interested in hearing from the community as well. I’ll be exploring this idea a bit further in the coming weeks and months as we move towards summer.

What do you say, Chicago? Does the city need a space like the one I’m describing or is everyone doing okay on their own? What are your suggestions?