Is Chicago's tech community in search of an identity?

January 27, 2014

Last night I read through Adrian Holovaty's recap of a talk he recently gave about Chicago's startup community.  He made a compelling argument that Chicago should embrace and own the identity of the "bootstrapper" city.  After reading it I jumped over to Twitter and saw that the talk was generating some positive feedback from people who agreed with Adrian's core premise that we should stop trying to compete on the basis of how much money we have raised vs other regions and instead focus on being a city that is known for a bootstrapping ethos.   As Adrian defined it, boostrappers are "small companies with a couple of people, likely developers, who take no outside investment money. They build products because they love the work, the craftsmanship, the pride in building and creating. 

I agree with Adrian's core premise that we need not define ourselves in comparison to any other city. Period. I also agree with Adrian's premise that small teams building great products is something fantastic to be known for.  I admire and respect developers and designers that can create, make and build.  I grew up around musicians and inventors and have always loved the creative energy and independent thinking that drives these vibrant communities.  As Adrian demonstrated in his post, Chicago has a growing community of makers who have the vision, the moxie and the grit to make something from nothing. And we celebrate them.    

But I would also say that Chicago is too big and too diverse to be just one thing. Yes we have bootstrappers, and I hope we attract many more and become known as the greatest place on earth to bootstrap a company.  But we also have startups raising seed money.  And we have growth stage companies raising giant rounds of capital.   And we have companies getting acquired for nearly a billion dollars and we have four year old companies going public with multi billion valuations.  In other words, we have it all.  Who cares if we have more of it than other cities?  The important thing is that if you want to start and scale a company in Chicago, there are hundreds if not thousands of examples that serve as proof points that you can do it your way.  Boostrapper, seed funded, venture funded, private equity backed or publicly traded. 

There are 561 startups founded in the last two years in the Built in Chicago company database.  Of these 519 have reported raising less than $100k.  For companies founded in the last two years, 21 of them have raised more than $1 million.   

So yes, Chicago is a city of bootrstrappers. And Chicago is a city of funded start ups that have raised a billion dollars in the last year. And we love every last one of them.  Because what we are is a city to that prides itself on building, making and creating.  Some of us do it in small teams, some of us do it with venture capital, but we all do it because we love creating great products, improving the lives of people and building successful and sustainable businesses.  

Case in point.... less than two years ago the Chicago Tribune wrote a story about WyzAnt as an example of how two entrepreneurs bootstrapped their company. Fast forward to today and WyzAnt just announced they raised $21 million.   Or talk to Shawn Riegsecker the founder of Centro and he will tell you why he slept in his car rather than accept venture money.  But he too later raised $21 million to fund the growth of his company.  Or how the founders of Norvax bootstrapped their company but later raised $50 million

So for everyone out there who is thinking about starting something, Chicago is your kind of town.  We bootstrap, we raise funds, we build talented teams, we build great products and we we build successful companies. We are known for many things.  Great architecture, amazing restaurants, a large and diverse business community, civicly engaged business leaders, home of our President, world class universities, great craft beer, pizza, passionate sports fans, imrpov comedy and just about every other aspect of a vibrant urban culture. 

So the real question is, what will you make Chicago known for?