Startups and early-stage growth businesses need three critical things to succeed: capital, customers and coders.
In Chicago, capital isn’t really a question. Chicago’s investors have plenty of investment dollars for new and growing businesses. Customers aren’t that hard to come by either. The city has more large corporate customers in different sectors than any other major U.S. city without being dominated by any single industry. Boston doesn’t want the health care guys to catch a cold any time soon. New York and L.A. both better pray that mainstream media still matters to millennials. Here in Chicago, things are doing just fine across the board. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to reside here either. It’s a great place to make a living and a life and to start your business and your family as well.
But we can do much better in the coder department. We graduate tons of engineers and computer scientists each year from our colleges and universities and too many of them still head to the coasts. Those patterns are starting to change and 1871 and the city both have specific attraction and recruitment strategies in place, but it won’t happen tomorrow. So I’ve been thinking about what else we can do to help coax the talent that our growing businesses need back to Chicago from the coasts.
I have a modest proposal. We can work together to make the whole here larger than the sum of its parts. We can make it work by taking advantage of a unique attribute of the Chicago tech community — our constant and unselfish willingness to reach out and help our peers. No city has the kind of public/private and philanthropic partnerships that are everyday affairs in Chicago, partnerships that support a culture of collaboration and cooperation unmatched elsewhere. Sure, we’re fierce competitors in many ways, especially when it comes to scarce talent. But we still don’t steal people from each other like they do every day in the Valley. We’re actually caring competitors who spend more time sharing, supporting and giving back to the newer folks just starting out than you’ll see in most other cities. This attitude has been a defining Chicago trait and tradition since forever and it keeps getting stronger as places like 1871 continue to grow and expand. This is one of the reasons that hundreds of volunteer mentors at 1871 spend their time every month helping our member companies.
So how can we help each other be more successful in attracting talent to Chicago? I think there’s a pretty simple answer that — if we do it the right way — will help to expand and bolster the entire city’s tech economy over the long term as well as helping each of our businesses attract better and stronger people.
It starts with a couple of simple facts. Attracting super talented technical people from the coasts, and convincing them to return to the city or suburbs, isn’t ultimately about money. Frankly, a lot of them grew up here, were educated here and would love to return to raise families here. These are exactly the kind of experienced candidates — who’ve lived through the rocket ship rides and seen these hockey stick movies before — that our early-stage-growth companies need to help them expand quickly and avoid the typical pitfalls while they do. Been there, done that, makes a big difference these days when you’re moving a mile a minute in multiple directions. And many of these “players” who’ve been to the Valley or the Big Apple and made plenty of big bucks have also figured out that it’s not the cash, but the community and the challenges that really matter. They’ll readily admit that the bloom is long off the rose in their current positions, but they’re still reluctant to make the move home. Not because of dollars or option grants, but because of optionality — or the lack thereof.
They are simply afraid of what might go wrong if they make the tough call and pick up their families and move across the country and things don’t work out. No one wants to make a career mistake like that, but we know it can happen. And the fact is that the consequences are far more severe when there’s a limited local pool of fallback options. Basically, the breakage costs are higher when there’s no established safety net or a host of other equally viable and attractive job choices waiting in the wings.
Optionality is not a concern in the Valley, where there is a constant demand for talented people and a multitude of companies competing for them. But it is definitely still “perceived” to be a problem in Chicago even though this is no longer the case. There’s no question that in the last few years we’ve had our share of big-name and big-company recruits from elsewhere who spent some time here and then headed back West. But now we have dozens of companies that ought to provide the glue we need to grab and hold these folks even if they hit a bump in the road the first time around. Just the “G’s” alone would tell you that: GrubHub, Gogo, Groupon, GoHealth, GiveForward, Georama, Google and Guaranteed Rate, to name a few. But we have to do a much better job of getting the word out — along with the facts and figures — and here’s what I think we need to do together to get better.
So here’s my simple suggestion. When you’re recruiting a techie from out of town, make it your business to tell him or her about some of the other opportunities and cool companies in our town that might also be important to check out. In fact, suggest that he or she see a few of the other great tech businesses while they’re here — put a few less carbs and a few more companies in each visit — and help make those meetings happen. You know who to call. And maybe we should even start thinking about sharing the costs of bringing some of these candidates into the city. Sure, I get that you might lose one or two prospects over time to a neighbor, but, in addition to broadening the pool of talent for all of us, you will reassure and comfort every single one of these people on the only real issue that matters. Convincing them that there are solid alternative employment options and choices here is the smart thing to do for your own benefit and for the overall tech economy here as well. It’s a pretty small thing in the scheme of things, but every little thing that you can do to add to the reasons to return makes the outcome that much more likely. It’s never gonna be a sure thing, it’s just the right thing to do.
It’s like the physics of candles. When I ignite your candle with mine, it doesn’t diminish my light, it makes things twice as bright. It works the same way with ideas. We can make a lot of things better if we do it together. Or as the Beatles would say: In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.