The Midwest startup scene is like the little engine that could, and it’s chugging slowly and steadily up that mountain towards minted money. Perhaps someday soon it’ll get its own moniker to rival New York’s Silicon Alley and SoCal’s Silicon Beach. Silicon Prairie anyone? Times they are a’changing, what with Utah’s entrepreneurial Mormons, Detroit’s downtown tech revitalization, and Chicago’s startup ecosystem.
With the creeping growth of the Midwest tech industry, startups that set up shop in these places have to face a perennial question: how to recruit young talent away from the limelight, and into the middle of the country? I talked to five different entrepreneurs from Milwaukee to Detroit, and they all said that recruiting is getting easier, competition for hiring is less stiff than in Silicon Valley, and the talent pool is larger than you’d think.
“Are there good people in the Midwest? The answer is a resounding yes,” says Mike Vichich, co-founder of two Michigan based startups, Glyph and Wisely. Vichich rattled off a quick list of famous SV names who studied in or came from the Midwest — Google’s Larry Page, Twitter’s Dick Costolo, Foundry Group’s Jason Mendelson, IA Ventures’ Roger Ehrenberg, and Tony Fadell, one of the “fathers of the iPod.”
Vichich pointed out that the US News and World Report’s most recent rankings named Midwest universities like Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and the University of Michigan among the top computer science programs in the world. They didn’t quite beat out MIT or Stanford, although Carnegie Mellon got close.
Point being, there’s an adequate flow of talented engineers coming from schools in the Midwest, but in the past there wasn’t enough opportunity to keep them there. Most looking to work in tech graduated and went west.
Now, companies in the Midwest believe that’s starting to change. “We have a big comeback happening here in the Detroit area around tech,” Greg Schwartz of UpTo says. “A lot of people are excited to have a chance to impact the outcome in the city and urban environments.”
Despite top tier universities, the amount of talent is not as vast as it is on the coast. Companies have to be proactive in recruiting, and startups involved in the tech revival are reaching out to nearby colleges to try to snag graduating talent before it’s too late. “Our strategy is to locate yourself in Ann Arbor, have a cool product that smart and passionate students want to work on, and have them intern there so you can hire them when they graduate,” Wisely’s Vichich says. “Then you’ll have an awesome group of core engineers.”
Matt Lautz of Milwaukee’s CorvisaCloud focuses on growing and training talent who have never worked full-time for a startup before. “People who just graduated college have mentors who work with them for the first six months of their process,” Lautz says. “We’re open to the understanding of helping to get people where they need to be.”
Things haven’t changed enough in the Midwest startup scene to attract coastal talent. “They usually won’t [come out] unless they have roots in Michigan,” says Bob Marsh of LevelEleven. But there’s plenty of homegrown techies who would prefer to stay where they grew up if there’s opportunity for them to excel.
In some ways, it makes it easier to find top talent because there’s less companies out there fighting over the applicants. Schwartz says, “If we were in Silicon Valley competing with every other company in the consumer tech space that would be a different challenge.”
The founders cited quality of life, lower cost of living, cultural comfort, ease of raising a family, and closeness of relatives as reasons why Midwesterners choose to forgo the Coasts if given an opportunity to work for a startup closer to home. “They all play a role, but in our case it’s about seeing the vibrant Detroit landscape coming back,” Schwartz says. “In the darker days of Detroit it wouldn’t have been as easy a sell.”
[Image courtesy of Cliff]