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As an urban edifice, the Merchandise Mart has long sat in the shadows of the sleeker Willis Tower and Hancock building. The Mart does, however, boast an amazing view of the Chicago River, and is truly awe-inspiring when illuminated against the Second City backdrop.
More importantly, for the last two summers the Merchandise Mart has played host to TechWeek, an amazing event for startups hailing not just from Chicago but far flung airport codes such as SFO, LGA, LHR, and more. I had the pleasure of attending TechWeek last week, and wanted to collect my thoughts herein.
Speeches and Keynotes
Having been a bit out of pocket on Friday, I unfortunately missed Rahm Emanuel's keynote address. Securing a public figure of Emanuel's stature (and Governor Pat Quinn last year) is a testament to the high visibility of TechWeek, and underscores the dramatic evolution from also-ran Second City to "startup city, if we do everything right," as Hizzoner noted. Fortunately, I did have the privilege of hearing a few other very notable speakers, including...
Emerson Spartz, CEO, Spartz Media
Emerson Spartz' tale of building up an sprawling digital media empire starting with Mugglenet at the ripe age of 12 was truly intriguing. As a logophile who logs quite a few hours reading biographies of famous business leaders, Spartz' tale of self-directed learning really resonated with me. His talk was energetic, humorous, and uniquely insightful - almost reminiscent of a latter-day Steve Jobs. I would highly recommend Spartz as a keynote speaker for any organization looking to leverage Twitter, YouTube, and other tools for maximizing their brand exposure. On a personal note, my 8-year old daughter asked me to see if I can talk to Emerson about getting JK Rowling to come speak to her and her friends for their next book club meeting.
Jason Fried, CEO, 37Signals
Jason Fried's book Rework is a an easily-digested must-read for any entrepreneur who feels that a balanced schedule is at cross purposes with a successful startup. He touched on many of the themes in this book in his fireside chat, while also talking about his firm's spin on the traditional 20% rule practiced by innovation titans such as Google and 3M. 37Signals is a source of inspiration to Chicagoland entrpreneurs, even more so because Fried defied many tenets of conventional wisdom on funding, headcount, and product focus.
In Your Face...and Your Stomach
Of course, I worked up quite an appetite sitting through all these speeches, product pitches, and exchanging business cards and ideas. Good thing TechWeek had me covered foodwise. Nothing against FoodStuffs, the food vendor at TechWeek, but their shrinkwrapped, luxury-priced cuisine brought back unpleasant memories of wolfgang puck café eatables that I used to nosh on during my b-school days. Fortunately, on Saturday there was a "Food Truck Face Off," which allowed networking and panel discussion-fatigued attendees such as myself to feast on some low-priced, interesting culinary creations by the finest mobile mini-restaurants in Chicago.
My personal fave was Duck N Roll, which offered put an open-faced spin on the concept popularized by Wow Bao, turning the dumplings into spicy, open-faced (albeit far more doughy) tacos. Also, being a Chicagoan who loves "Da Bears" and "Polish Sassage," I enjoyed the offerings of Rich Levy and the Haute Sausage truck. The food truck craze has long been in full swing in Chicago, evolving beyond just cupcakes; after my positive experience at TechWeek, count me in as a believer.
Parties. As a husband and father of two, I don't tear it up quite like I used to. My idea of a riveting evening is a movie over a glass or two of vino, or having a few friends over to feast over my wife's latest culinary creation. However, hanging with the sharpest tech entrepreneurs and visionaries in the field infused me with an energy that kept me going till the wee hours of the morning. Many thanks to Cheeky Chicago, GoHealth, Trunk Club, Tech Cocktail, and The Onion (no, that's not a joke) for some solid recreation and inspiring Bombay gin-infused convo at noteworthy downtown hot spots such as Untitled, Hotel Sax, and of course The Mart.
One More Thing...
I feel a personal affinity for the entrepreneurial scene in Chicago, having studied alongside standouts such as Jeb Ory (5Degrees) and Seyi Fabode (power2switch) at Chicago Booth, which has evolved into a veritable startup factory. I can't say enough good things about Arabella Santiago and the TechWeek folks for the amazing event they put together. There was really something for everyone - techies got their coding fix with the MySQL and Ruby on Rails workshops, sales newbies got some tips on refining their pitch from the panel discussion led by Technori CEO Seth Kravitz, and lazy / overtaxed (or some combination thereof) folks were able to offload some menial tasks thanks to the TaskRabbit folks.
I will say that the personal highlight for me was my encounter with Ron May, the Chicago tech scene's answer to Andy Rooney. Upon expressing my appreciation for his newsletter (which consistently sets new Guinness Book World Records for longest subject line ever), May retorted, "yeah, great, who are you? You the book guy (most likely he mistook me for Demibooks CEO Rafiq Ahmed)? No? Hey, go get me a drink."
That experience alone was worth the price of admission.