2017 was an amazing year in my journey through the entrepreneurial ecosystem. There were ups and downs, a lot of great travels, and hundreds of connections made throughout the state and the region. The past three years have created a great foundation for what I’m planning in 2018, and I want to share some of what I’m planning with all of you.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know I have a fair number of irons on the fire. I started saying no to a lot of fun and interesting projects and opportunities in 2017, which was incredibly difficult for me. Looking ahead to 2018, I realize that there won’t be time to add anything new this year as well, and my time must be spent building on what I’ve already started. My wife jokes that I’m not allowed to create any more startups, and I can understand where she’s coming from when she says that. 2018 will be the year of expansion and traction, building and selling. While I loved discovering new startup communities in 2017, I know my days of traveling in 2018 will be limited. There’s only so much time to do what needs to be done, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem in eastern Iowa needs me here, just as much as I need to be here building what I’ve started.
That being said, I will only be traveling to a couple of locations this year:
April 20 and 21, I will be in downtown Des Moines for the Young Entrepreneur Convention. With the change in venue this year, I’m looking forward to seeing what the convention organizers have done to revamp the schedule. Once they release more information about speakers and sessions, I’ll have a better idea of what to expect. For now, I’m planning to spend my time in the entrepreneurial track rather than the influencer track. There should be enough cross-pollenation during the usual networking opportunity on Friday evening that I can spare myself the hour-long sessions of “wisdom” from online influencers and the gaggles of tweens who show up to see those influencers.
September 22 through 29, I will be in Colorado for Denver Startup Week and a little bit of rest and relaxation. This is the trip I look forward to all year. I spend the first weekend with friends before settling into downtown Denver for several days of education and networking. Unlike past years where I’ve made the trip and not spent any time in the mountains, I’m planning to leave downtown Denver and spend the final evening somewhere scenic before returning on the train. Denver Startup Week tends to wrap up on Thursday with a few straggler sessions on Friday, which I missed in 2017 due to a tight travel schedule. The plan for 2018 is not to schedule so much and enjoy the time I’m out there more.
I’m looking forward to spending the rest of my time in eastern Iowa in 2018, attending several events (and helping run one really important event:)
May 17 and 18: EntreFEST in Cedar Rapids. I can’t miss the biggest entrepreneurial event in Iowa, especially since it happens in my own backyard. 2017’s iteration was great, and I’m really interested in seeing the transition to Cedar Rapids as NewBoCo truly makes EntreFEST their own. My biggest question is not what the sessions will be or who will be presenting, but how the logistics of the event are going to work. The NewBo neighborhood has a few places that would be great for hold small group sessions, as does downtown. However, there’s a bit of a wasteland in between downtown and NewBo that hasn’t yet been redeveloped since the flood in 2008, and parts of the area aren’t the most pedestrian-friendly. I can’t wait to hear how everything is going to be set up, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with people who I met this past year at the event in Iowa City.
July 13 through 15: Startup Weekend Iowa City. I know it’s early, but the dates for Startup Weekend Iowa City 2018 have been released and the event posted to Facebook. One of our issues last year is that we got the message out there too late, and that deficiency fell squarely on my shoulders. Am I going a bit too far the other direction this time? Perhaps. However, getting the date out there this early should prevent other events in the state from being scheduled over ours, as was the case with Startup Weekend Cedar Valley 2017. I checked every Iowa City event calendar that I could find, and there was nothing that weekend, so we should be safe. Now, the work on the organizing committee’s desk includes continued advertising and fundraising. (I’ve also started fundraising… you can never ask for money too early.)
Every other Wednesday morning starting January 3 at 8 am: Iowa City Open Coffee. Iowa City Open Coffee and 1 Million Cups are reuniting this coming Wednesday at MERGE in downtown Iowa City. We’re still looking to be the warm-up act for the main event, but is networking still the answer? Over the next few weeks, I plan to start reaching out to freelancers and entrepreneurs to lead the discussion during the hour. Although, if the last Open Coffee before Christmas was any indication, networking may still be the answer for 2018.
On top of the events, I have three businesses that I’m trying to move forward:
My first foray into the entrepreneurial ecosystem: Jay Cooper: Freelance Media Producer. 2016 was a huge year for Web design and development. 2017 turned out to be a video production with minimal Web development. Some of the media production has been for Startup Weekend Iowa City and Iowa City Open Coffee, but I’ve also taken on other creative projects and educational products for clients, with more on the calendar for 2018. My portfolio Web site is overdue for a remodel, as are some of my client sites. In addition, I plan to launch a monthly newsletter sometime before the spring highlighting some of the articles I read every week that pertain in some way to my business. Along with that, I’d like to start a freelancer podcast in the coming months, discussing the ups and downs of freelancing with local people making a go of it in the local ecosystem. Look for the podcast to launch in the summer!
My first foray into Startup Weekend success: BondingBox. We’ve had a great two years leading up to this point in the development of the activities and the BondingBox brand, but the push for new customers is goal number one for 2018. In the first weeks of 2018, I hope to reach out to many of the connections I made while traveling in 2017, to see what would drive them to try BondingBox or recommend it to a friend. As much work as it would be, I would love to be packing hundreds of boxes for new clients in the next couple of months. This next year is going to be critical in determining whether or not BondingBox will continue as a side project, or if our team would consider going full time.
My first foray into app development: Cider Finder. 2018 is going to be a monumental year for the Cider Finder project. We’ve begun to connect with freelance app developers and a virtual accelerator to bring our vision for this app to reality. I’ve been working on the databases, and a new landing page will be coming in the next few days at ciderfinder.co. I’ve also started to write out the roadmap for the next 12 months to share at the first meeting with the rest of the team in 2018. We need to have this thing out there and be gaining traction in the next six months. We need to know if we’re just spinning our wheels, or if we have something novel to offer cideries and cider aficionados.
And now, for some thoughts for 2018. I’ve begun to notice some trends here in eastern Iowa after having been in the entrepreneurial trenches now for roughly 3 years. I’ve also had some serious conversations with entrepreneurs and freelancers in the area, and some serious questions and concerns have been raised.
First concern: we’ve reached some sort of “peak startup” or possibly a startup plateau. Personally, I have so many projects on my desk right now that I have no more bandwidth to spare to start something else. This is after almost three years of connecting, traveling, and launching. However, anecdotal evidence is not strong enough evidence to prove a trend – the evidence is the drop off in attendance at events such as local Startup Weekends. The last “large” Startup Weekend I have attended was the event in Cedar Rapids in March of 2016. Since then, local Startup Weekends have averaged 20-30 attendees, along with us having to cancel Startup Weekend Iowa City 2017 due to low interest.
I believe that other long-time entrepreneurs and freelancers in eastern Iowa are just as saturated with work as I am. It’s going to take a large jump in attendance by the regular suspects at local events to convince me the bandwidth exists to continue growing the ecosystem at the rate at which it’s grown in the last three years. I believe that jump in attendance is only going to be fueled by convincing more people – not just the usual business-minded folks, but other adjacent groups that have things to contribute but may not feel comfortable contributing – to begin attending events AND by preventing the exit of people who have already developed something.
It comes down to a basic marketing funnel. We aren’t adding enough people at the top, and we have a leak somewhere near the bottom. I think that we’ve been focusing on the top of the funnel because it’s much easier than convincing the bottom to stick around – our pond is too small for those fish. However, just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean we should find out from startups who have relocated to larger ecosystems why they left, so that we can develop something to keep them around longer. Keeping established businesses around locally is something that the economic development folks need to work on this year. I’ll do my best to keep adding people to the top of the funnel through Startup Weekend Iowa City and Open Coffee.
Second concern: we don’t sync up our calendars well in the ecosystem. This is something that needs to be resolved this year. Most of the big events are already on the calendar, but the smaller stuff tends to be overlooked. We also don’t interface well with adjacent ecosystems. Unless you specifically know someone elsewhere, you may have no idea what’s happening even 90 minutes away. I know that I said “no new projects” this year, but I’d love to consult with someone(s) who would make a Midwestern Entrepreneurial Calendar a reality. Also, if this calendar came to fruition, putting together a list of lodging for out-of-towners might drive up attendance at events throughout the Midwest, deepening the pool of people for Startup Weekends and other conferences.
If that calendar already exists, please point me to it. I’ll blast it out to everyone I know.
Third concern: tech talent is way too hard to find. Is this the cause behind the first concern above? Possibly. I know this is a problem with Cider Finder. The team and I have every skill except direct app development, which is way we are searching far and wide for a competent app developer. Many app developers I’ve talked to over the last year are so buried in work that they can’t take anything else on for the foreseeable future.
We don’t need more Web developers; we need app developers. Learning this skill should be a natural transition from Web development, but I personally haven’t had the time to do so – another bottleneck in the process. Are other Web developers considering switching over to mobile app development? Or, are we going to make the tools that can convert Web sites to mobile apps better? Let’s hope there are some major developments on this front in the next 12 months.
I don’t want to start 2018 on a glum note, but we have a lot of work to do this coming year. A lot of great things happened to me in 2017, but that may not have been the case for everyone. As we ring in the new year, use it as an opportunity to shed any negativity from the past year and take a deep breath. I hope many of you have had a chance to reflect on the past year and what you can do to start out 2018 on the right foot. The bitter arctic air mass we’ve been experiencing here in eastern Iowa over the past few days has afforded me the opportunity to cocoon myself and do some reading, thinking, and list-making for the coming year, and I feel like 2018 is going to be a great year!
To you and your family, a very happy new year! Let’s make 2018 a year to remember.