Tag Archives: StartupCity

Innovation is the future

13 Jan

Yesterday I attended an event hosted by The Tomorrow Plan. I had never heard of the group but was invited by some YPC-types so I figured it would be good networking (and a chance to check out the recently renovated World Food Prize headquarters). The topic was ”what it means to live in a regional city” with speakerBill Fulton, former mayor of Ventura, Calif. who now works with Smart Growth America.

The hour-long presentation turned out to be very interesting and served as an affirmation of what my employer, StartupCity (as well as the entire tech community in Des Moines) is doing.

“The jobs that will drive your community into the future are not routine, ordinary jobs,” Fulton said. “The way you are going to compete is by encouraging people to bring creativity and innovation to everything they do everyday. The people who drive the new economy are not people who want to spend their weekends driving a lawnmower.” Hallelujah!

Fulton’s speech was focused on how changing demographics will affect city planning. Suburban sprawl is likely to become a thing of the past, he said, as Baby Boomers retire and seek walkable communities and as Millennials continue to favor urban dwelling over cookie-cutter lifestyles. Quality of place and sense of community will continue to be important to the next generation of workers. If a city is to survive and thrive in the next century, it must address those desires, not just in housing options but also in the types of jobs available.

Fulton’s discussion had me beaming with pride for the Des Moines tech community (StartupIowa, the businesses that make up Silicon Sixth AvenueSilicon Prairie NewsTechnology Association of Iowa, and so many more). We are creating exactly what Fulton has prescribed for the future growth—a sense of place.

While everyone I meet in the local startup scene is fiercely competitive (that’s one key element of the entrepreneurial spirit, after all), they are also incredibly encouraging of each other. Everyone is quick to offer advice, connect people, share resources, and promote each other. They are protective of this community that is being built—unwilling to let anyone plant a treacherous seed that could fracture the solidarity.

I strongly believe that the continued effort to create a solid tech startup scene in Des Moines will serve to make the city stronger and the kind of city that Fulton believes will grow in the future.

Unfortunately, the audience at the event yesterday was heavily weighted toward the public sector. To succeed in its mission, The Tomorrow Plan must involve the private sector as well. Clearly, we know how to make things happen!

To learn more about The Tomorrow Plan, attend its first public meeting on Jan. 31 from 6-7:30 pm at the Eastside Senior Center. Conveniently, the event starts immediately after the city’s first Startup Fair.

There IS such a thing as a stupid question—and that’s a good thing

16 Nov

Whoever said “there are no stupid questions, just stupid people” was stupid. There are many, many stupid questions…and you better be asking them if you want your business to succeed.

I’ve learned a lot about the value of stupid questions in the last month in my role as City Manager at StartupCity Des Moines because I’m usually the one asking them. As a non-techie working in an über techie world, I almost always feel stupid. I don’t understand much of what I hear around me. Back-end utility? Gooey (um, I mean GUI?)? SEM? It’s all Greek to me. I know I’m ignorant and, as such, I’m not afraid to ask the questions that others who are supposed to know this stuff may not have the guts to ask.

Last week, I asked one of our startups why a button on his mobile app was green. Stupid question but it helped identify a problem that other ordinary, non-techie users might have. Yesterday, an applicant stopped by the offices to pitch his startup. I didn’t understand the technology behind the idea but I asked some stupid questions about why his target market (women) would want to use the site, and he left needing to rethink his approach.

Stupid questions can uncover some really important information. The people using your product or service don’t share your encyclopedic knowledge about it, nor do they have the same IQ as you. But their experiences are as valuable—actually, they are more valuable—than yours. If they don’t understand and love what you have to offer, then you have nothing to sell.

To uncover the stupid questions—and then make needed changes to address them—you need to look outside of yourself. Get in front of as many people as possible, even those you don’t consider a target market. Sometimes the stupidest (and best) questions come from the unlikeliest sources. Let everyone play with your product, if you have one, or describe what you are doing and how. Then give them permission to ask you anything.

Listening without judgment is key here. Remember, these are probably going to sound like stupid questions to you but there is something to be learned if only you curb your instinct to explain, justify, rationalize, and roll your eyes. Take notes on everything you hear, even if it seems totally silly to you, and watch for trends. If more than one person asks the same stupid question, it’s probably not so stupid after all.

By now you are probably thinking, “she’s just describing a focus group.” That’s true, it just happens to be a more organic, valuable, and cheaper DIY version. Long before you can afford to hire a big marketing firm to organize a formal roundtable of targeted users, you can empower yourself to improve your product using useful data from real-world users.

So the next time you find yourself saying, “that’s a stupid question,” stop and explore whether it might actually be an opportunity to improve.

Just getting started

21 Oct

So I’m blogging. That’s new. I’ve always wanted to but was never quite sure of my niche. Well, one week into my new job at StartUpCity Des Moines I’ve realized I do have something to say. I’m a fish out of water in this tech world and I’m excited to share my journey into geekdom with you.

I have two liberal arts degrees, failed College Algebra (twice) and the only code I know is the one that gets me into my apartment building. Despite that, I’ve always been an early (well, early-ish) adopter of technology. I’ve been an Apple loyalist since playing Frogger on an Apple IIe in 1986 and I’m writing this on my iPad with my iPhone and MacBook sitting next to me.

The timing of this blog is simple. I’m at Thinc Iowa today and feeling inspired to get my geek on. So I’m going to give it a shot. I hope you’ll join me for the (sure to be bumpy) ride.