Made by Few, Everywhere Else, Thinc Iowa, Wire Me Awake, The Combine, Big Omaha, Powder Keg, Big Kansas City, Compute Midwest, I/OWA. These are just a few of the regional startup conferences that I’ve helped produce or followed with interest in the Midwest USA over the past four years. Each conference is unique, but they’re all organized with a similar goal in mind: to strengthen the local startup community in which they are held.
One of the trickiest and most time-consuming aspects of producing these conferences is assembling the speaker slate. All of the conferences that I’ve worked on have emphasized recruiting speakers from outside the host community, but inevitably a question like “if this is Big Omaha why aren’t there any Omaha founders speaking?” comes up. It’s a logical question and there are several answers.
Here’s my take on why it’s important to invite speakers from other cities to speak at local startup conferences.
1. Connecting your community to the rest of the world
Startup communities outside of places like Silicon Valley, London, Boulder, Tel Aviv, and Boston need connectivity with each other and with those established startup hubs. We love our own communities but they’re typically missing some level of the talent, capital or resources startup companies need as they scale. Or maybe what we’re missing is experience. We have the opportunity to learn from other communities as we grow our own. After all, if everything was present here at home – we’d already be on the list of established startup hubs.
In October 2011, I helped stage my first conference here in Des Moines. I had the opportunity to pick up Paige Craig, one of our speakers, from the airport. Paige is an entrepreneur and investor based in Santa Monica and this was his first time in Iowa. He immediately asked me if I could show him the local startup scene. The first place I took him was to Dwolla’s office where he had the chance to meet the team and learn what they were doing. Three months later Paige participated in Dwolla’s $5 million series B capital raise.
2. New perspectives and different lessons learned
The second benefit of inviting external speakers is access to their knowledge and experience. In your local community you have the ability to learn from your fellow startup founders daily. Whether its bumping into them at the coffee shop, seeing them speak at luncheons and workshops or joining them at startup-specific events like Startup Drinks or 1 Million Cups – they’re accessible. Conferences with non-local speakers provide a great opportunity for your audience to learn something new and meet people they don’t have access to every day.
Along this same line, it’s also a chance for your audience to get a different set of eyes on what they’re building. Chances are many of your local attendees have already pitched what they’re working on to anyone in your community who would listen. External speakers (and external attendees) provide a new voice with a different perspective for feedback.
3. Showing off your community
I’m part of the startup community in Iowa, a state with a brand around agriculture, “flyover country” and the Iowa Caucus. While those things are all true they’re not the whole story and they don’t necessarily reflect our startup community. Every time I invite a speaker from outside the state to speak here I go out of my way to showcase the startup community to them and show them what makes my community unique. It’s a great way to turn those speakers into ambassadors for your startup community. As they return to their communities they’re spreading your message about the great event that you have in your community and the people they interacted with while they were there.
Case in point: last year Boulder venture capitalist and author of the book “Startup Communities”, Brad Feld, spoke at an event that I hosted in Des Moines. A month later the New York Times’ DealBook asked him about robust startup communities other than Boulder. He answered, “in the Midwest there is Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City and Grand Rapids…” By inviting Brad to speak in Des Moines and get to know our startup community, it’s become forefront in his mind and he’s sharing it with others.
Geoff Wood is the COO of Startup Genome and a community builder in Des Moines, IA, USA. He’s currently helping to produce the inaugural I/OWA conference and in the past lead the operations for Silicon Prairie News where he helped produce seven conferences including Thinc Iowa, Big Omaha and Big Kansas City.
Photo credit: Thinc Iowa / Anna Jones / Phillip Harder