In 2012, Google Fiber’s arrival in Kansas City lit a fire under the backside of many community leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs.
To say that the city has matured would be an understatement. Many leaders say that if you lived in Kansas City in the early 2000s and were to return now, you may not even recognize the place.
For Startland News and Think Big’s ninth Innovation Exchange event, we took the time to reflect on Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem — looking at its past, present and future.
Here is what six Kansas City leaders have to say about the ecosystem’s growth.
Maria Meyers, executive director of KCSourceLink
Maria Meyers said that not only does the entrepreneurial ecosystem have more resources than it did in the early 2000s, but it is much more collaborative.
She looked back to 2003 when she founded the entrepreneurial resource organization KCSourceLink.
“Things were really different back then, most people didn’t really talk to each other,” Meyers said. “At the time there were two terms, entrepreneurs and independent business owners. Independent business owners didn’t want to be classified as entrepreneurs because those people were crazy. Entrepreneurs didn’t want to be independent business owners, because those people were boring.”
Before 2012, Maria said there were only about 150 known resources for entrepreneurs. Today, that number is at about 240.
She said that there has been a massive influx of people supporting entrepreneurship thanks to many in the Kansas City community.
“The way the community collaborates and is excited about entrepreneurship is important, but some other interesting things have happened in Kansas City within the last five years too,” Meyers said. “We won the world series, we have Sporting KC and the best performing arts center in the world. We’re not just building entrepreneurship, we’re building an environment. Kansas City is a great place to live.”
Toby Rush, CEO of EyeVerify
Toby Rush said that when he first became an entrepreneur, he didn’t have a technology community to turn to.
Rush — the founder of EyeVerify, which sold to Alibaba in 2016 — said he’s thankful to have observed the growth of a stronger, more tight-knit tech community in the metro.
“One of the biggest benefits that I’ve had over the past 15 years of doing entrepreneurship in Kansas City is being able to connect with fellow entrepreneurs, whether that be to celebrate or commiserate or to share ideas,” Rush said. “It’s great to have mentors, but you need to have some people who are in it with you. The ease of serendipitous collisions and finding people is much better today.”
Rush also added that the Kansas City entrepreneurial community is more educated in general, and has a much more intelligent investor community.
Darcy Howe, managing director of the KCRise Fund
Darcy Howe said that she, too, has seen the entrepreneurial knowledge of Kansas Citians grow.
When she launched the local sidecar fund, KCRise, less than a year ago, Howe said her mission was to help more of the community understand venture private equity.
She’s done just that.
“The biggest challenge I noted at the start was whether or not we were going to find deal flow that is venture ready, that an institutional investor would actually invest in,” Howe said. “I thought maybe we’d have two by the end of the year, but we had five by the end of 2016. Now we’ve had 10 in less than nine months. More importantly, our average round was $4 million — that’s a big round for Kansas City.”
Howe said that five years ago, $4 million rounds were not likely. She expects the access to capital in Kansas City to increase in the coming years.
Joni Cobb, CEO of Pipeline
Joni Cobb said that Kansas Citians are enamored with entrepreneurship in a way that they’ve never been before.
“We’ve seen tons of incubators, accelerators, funds and all the things you need for an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Cobb said. “We’ve also seen several leaders stepping up.”
Cobb added that nowadays, Kansas City is more likely to have entrepreneurs compete at a national and global scale.
“It’s one thing for a city to have a lot of flash and dazzle to attract people, but it’s another to look under the hood and find something elegant underneath,” Cobb said. “We have entrepreneurs that have been supported by lots of organizations that are now impressive on a global scale. This has been happening since 2014, but it’s grown heavily in the last five years. These are big changes.”
Joe Reardon, CEO of Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce
Joe Reardon said that Kansas City’s entrepreneurial community has seen a few significant milestones in the last decade. Overall, he said there is a growing sense of maturity.
“I do think that we are becoming known enough in the entrepreneurship space that we are starting to attract talent,” Reardon said. “Serial entrepreneurship is happening in Kansas City. We now need to have the assets that tell our story so we can attract the talent and fuel the engine so that it continues to grow. I think that that is a milestone for us as well as a huge opportunity.”
Herb Sih, managing partner at Think Big Partners
Herb Sih said that the coworking boom in Kansas City has helped spur entrepreneurship in the region.
“I think there are more people realizing a couple things in the digital age,” Sih said. “The more that we are digitally connected, we are actually more isolated. You can’t build relationships in LinkedIn the same way you can over a cup of coffee.”
Sih added that the community building and trust that coworking affords can enhance the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Startups need connections to grow, he added.
“More people are realizing that they need a place to go, and that’s not limited to entrepreneurs,” Sih said. “It’s amazing how a shared space can foster human connection and accelerate the speed of trust.”
Check out photos from the event below, and the podcast below that.