Chicago's Most Innovative Startup Culture
Submitted by Jake Trussell on April 22, 2011, 1:52 pm
Apple, Twitter and Facebook take the top 3 spots in this year’s Fast Company list of The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies. Nissan takes the 4th spot for introducing the first mass-market, all electric car. Spot number 5 on the list belongs to the mind-blowingly fast-growing Chicago company, Groupon. They come in ahead of companies like Netflix, Trader Joes, LinkedIn, Amazon and even Google, who took spot number 6.
So why is Groupon so prominently high the list? According to Fast Company it’s “for reinvigorating retail and turning down $6 billion [from Google].” In their interview with CEO, Andrew Mason they asked “How is the startup culture different in Chicago versus Silicon Valley?” and Mason answered thusly:
“The pro and the con is that there isn't a strong cultural strand where people have preconceived ideas around you. It's a pro because when we start a business, we think about it as more of a blank slate. People in Silicon Valley oftentimes fall into a trap of wanting to use technology to solve every problem, even when they're problems humans would be better suited for solving. We have more than 4,000 employees now and more than half of those are in sales. If we were in Silicon Valley, we might have tried to automate the process. Silicon Valley looks at salespeople with the same kind of skepticism that we look at self-service. We believe that to have truly ubiquitous coverage with local merchants, human beings are an important part of the equation.
The con is that we don't have the depth of technology talent in Chicago. In November, we expanded our offices to Silicon Valley just to get the sheer number of engineers we need.”
This last sentence brings up an interesting point. I’ve heard that refrain from other tech companies around Chicago too. Apparently good engineering talent is in demand everywhere, but because places like Silicon Valley are seen as a kind of Mecca for the tech industry, talent tends to flock there.
There’s no lack of great engineering schools, and therefore talent in the Midwest. The Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of the best in the world, as is the Computer Sciences department at University of Wisconsin, Madison. But Chicago needs to boost its identity as a tech hub; as a place-to-be for recent computer science graduates. The city is already well known as world-class business and cultural center, and a great place to live, but the fact that there’s a vibrant and thriving tech startup community with a ravenous appetite for engineers is not as clear.
I often hear people say things like “Groupon’s based in Chicago?” When I first moved here I had the same revelation about companies like FeedBurner, 37Signals, and CareerBuilder. I knew about them and used their products, but didn’t realize they were based in Chicago. Success stories like those and others including Orbitz, GrubHub and Threadless are slowly helping to change the perception organically.
Here at World Business Chicago we strive to help accelerate the process by connecting the dots that make up Chicago’s innovation ecosystem into cohesive stories that resonate with people. And we’re working in conjunction with initiatives like Built in Chicago to build a platform that can capture, house and spread those stories far and wide.
Other potentially helpful changes are afoot on Chicago’s entrepreneurial landscape too. Kevin Willer, one of the founders of Google Chicago, recently left his 10-year run as an executive at that most innovative company to run the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, an organization that identifies “the region’s most promising entrepreneurs – ones who have a passion to ‘change the world’ with their innovative products, services, and business models – and help them build high-growth, sustainable companies that serve as platforms for economic development and civic leadership for the Chicagoland area.” Meanwhile John Tolva, Director of Citizenship and Technology for IBM, has been appointed by Mayor-Elect, Rahm Emanuel to be Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer.
These and other moves make it clear that the Chicago community is taking the importance of innovation very seriously. Now we all need to step up our efforts to make Chicago’s innovative culture clear to the rest of the world.