Why Iowa

After many years of the question “Why Iowa?” being the opening haha of countless meetings when it is regularly confused with Idaho, this question largely fell out of my life until very recently. These days, I hear it most from startup founders. It’s not a customer, partner, or investors.

During COVID I started being more proactive about talking with friends and a lot more proactive about taking calls with early stage companies which is what brought this question back into my life on a daily basis. I found it surprising that startups are what brought the question back into my life. This time, it isn’t with laughs but genuine curiosity. Founders are trying to figure out if Iowa is a safe place to build a technology company. It’s a simple question but my answer is always verbose.

Should I move my company to Iowa?

Iowa is a safe place to build a technology company. So are many other places. It’s not a zero sum game and simply because Iowa is a place you can build a technology company doesn’t mean there are no other places it can be done.

The internet is everywhere. Companies all over the world have proven it’s what you produce, how you connect people, and not where you are.

This has come up in 100% of the private talks I’ve done in the last few months. I even got a text at 10:30PM last night from someone in Boston looking to relocate to Iowa with questions and I’ve never talked to this person in my life. I thought writing what I keep repeating would be helpful to send people to.

My hunch is that this question is coming up repeatedly because the startups are trying to reduce the risks they can control. Location is one of the few things you can control during company formation, herego, founders try to optimize for it. Where to put the company, or where are you going to put the company after you graduate from X, are questions it’s common for a startup to think about. Being around startups all of the time probably does create some bias around the important of this question though.

When everyone around you seems to be working on the same problems and asking the same questions, most of the shared problems likely seem to be more important than they would otherwise be. It’s human nature — when something is repeated it seems more important. Shared problems like funding, customers, and where to put your company seem like life and death considerations but for startups they are so far behind a good product and caring for happy customers that location is normally deserving of a place far lower on the list than it’s given.

This can be somewhat perverse when going through an accelerator because one of the primary measures of success coming out of it is capital raised, not revenue earned or clients served. Your clients are now remote just like investors or partners might be remote. The previous assumption of needing to be close to anyone is gone and the new measure is not how close you are to people but how good you are at what you do.

Focusing on how good you are seems to be the right change in focus

Location becomes a deep question of incentives for whomever may be influencing the geographic consideration which I won’t go into but these incentives seriously influence founder attention over subjects that are, quite frankly, not going to really help them build the best product or have the most delighted customers. If the primary goal of the people you’re spending the most time with is optimized for fundraising and not building the best product, it’s worth a step back to consider what and whom is influencing where you build your company.

The question for me that I ask the founder normally is where is the best place to build the best product and earn clients you can best serve? I don’t know what the answer for that is for everyone but admittedly for me it has absolutely nothing to do with cost of living or quality of free education. Certainly these are things always touted about the midwest but I don’t think they are the primary motivator for anyone I know.

I personally feel that the answer is actually the community and infrastructure in Iowa that makes it possible to build a company with supporting communities around it. With, not and. Opportunities and their benefits belong to the greater national we as opposed to the local us.

When I’m working, I’m doing business everywhere. The things that greatly impact my personal life and routines like commute, internet connections, food, entertainment, accessibility of different options for my children, opportunities for my partner and I, and and and are available here.

Iowa is part of a broader support community and it works both ways. I’m mentoring companies in Ireland the same way I work with companies in Iowa. Clients based in Asia get the same treatment as those based in San Francisco and I talk regularly to people on both coasts going through the same problems. Working together to connect our network across cities is far easier now. Everyone makes the most of what everyone has to offer. I offer this opinion as something opposed to playing it like a zero sum game where Iowa has to win on its own, it’s more like an infinite game where Iowa gets in the game and helps other communities grow as a result. Iowa got in the game so to speak.

Using this approach we can rethink things so we don’t frame problems as an us vs. them in a community context. They become considered in the context of how can we work together to build something better? When something better is related to a better product or company, it’s the minority of the time moving to or away from Iowa is the answer.

Sometimes it is.

If Iowa is the roadblock for your company, you shouldn’t live in Iowa.
If Iowa isn’t the roadblock and you decide to, who cares?

Can you participate in a broader network while still in Iowa?

Yes. Clearly I can so I think others can too. This risk for me and many others feels removed. Whether or not you want to live in Iowa is another question altogether.

I personally think it’s rare that geography is the primary problem in a company if the ecosystems it operates in are healthy and the product is world class. In the hiring and raising capital process there is an interesting company&product problem. Many issues in financings are a result of cofounder disputes in the early days and leadership/VC/LP/Etc disputes in the later days. The lack of alignment regardless of stage isn’t necessarily a geography thing but sometimes geography and different geographic subcultures does make things more difficult. For early stage founders, even if you’re in the same geographic subculture you’ll probably end up bending to whatever the influence is even if you resolve the problem regardless of where you live.

So, why Iowa?

Iowa, like many places to grow a business can be a great place to grow a business. It’s that simple.

These things really stick out to me about my own choice to live in Iowa

  1. I grew up here so I’m acclimated to, and enjoy, a 4 season climate. It frustrates me sometimes but it also is enjoyable more often than not and the diversity can be a good thing. Being in the middle of the country also allows me to get anywhere I want to go pretty quickly. Climate edge cases will always exist and I’ve finally traveled enough to know when I like travel and when I don’t need to be somewhere else.
  2. I built and sold a company here before Dwolla and before I had anywhere near enough maturity to ask myself a question like this. I’ve had a wavering belief that comes and goes with the ups and downs, that I’ll admit. Over time I realized that the challenges I was frustrated with weren’t a result of the geography. They were problems that are hard to solve anywhere. In the early days I found mentors, investors, partners, and customers here though and that removed a lot of risks for me. Many of the early stage startup risks were not risks in Iowa, they were solved for the company here.
  3. There is a small but deeply humble and supportive network here, just like in NY, SF, and Boulder. The community took cues from emerging ecosystems and didn’t try to reinvent the wheel and then connected to the other ecosystem, rather than compete with them. This means that the network isn’t Iowa focused, it’s just Iowa connected and it’s largely coming from founders and executives who aren’t making money on the startups they are helping. It’s focused on the growth of the community for the sake of the betterment of the community itself. Healthy community growth is not a zero sum game as I mentioned before. Some day I hope to do a talk on that subject.
  4. My own style of living has a lot to do with it. As I’ve written about in that past, I’m an introvert (which is especially true during high intensity bouts of creativity and exhaustion) and Iowa is extremely comfortable for a personality like mine. When I need space I can get space. I’m writing this section after walking my kids to school with my partner on a gorgeous morning through the woods while getting to view some incredible art and my day is just getting started. I’ll spend a few hours this morning talking to a dozen startups from all over the world and hop on my bike for a ride on what will feel like private paths around some water and again, through the woods. I got my work done, talked to a dozen companies, worked on an art project and it’s not even time to start dinner yet. It’s been a great day and my own living comfort didn’t have to bend to it.
  5. I’m not afraid to travel so being here doesn’t really cost me a lot of real opportunities that require travel. Even when I lived in San Francisco, my friends and coworkers couldn’t rely on me to be there so we still had to plan a night or time to get together. Phone calls and texts have always been real-time. None of us seem to understand time zones and we trust one another to respond when we can. It works.
  6. The ability to support my own work needs. I don’t need to go anywhere to get a good internet connection. Everyone I go I’m on 500mb wireless and 1gb wired. The infrastructure to support me, my family, or 1000 team members is all readily available. There’s so much fiber here that deciding whose line to use is the biggest question.
  7. Art, food, and all that. Des Moines culinary scene is tremendous. I like good food and that would be the same if I lived in any city. Finding a good meal here isn’t a problem. Neither is finding entertainment, art, or anything else once you get connected to the community. During COVID it’s a little different as it is everywhere but the subcultures are all emerging and they’re all present.
  8. People moving to Des Moines and Iowa in general are creating unbelievable opportunities for others. The community is in a state of what feels like perpetual positive improvement. Things just keep getting better, easier, and faster. Some really important people in my life relocated here. Two people come top of mind, one from New York and another from Atlanta. Jami, who is the Creative Director at the Des Moines Ballet, is surrounded by constant recruits to Des Moines and this type of diversity in thought is resulting in wonderful creations. New inputs from new perspectives just keep showing up. As I reflect on relocations I can point to them from San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago. Everyone seems to be truly thriving at the moment despite the frustrations of COVID and the world in general. That general optimism and progress is somewhat intoxicating to be around.
  9. Lastly and maybe most importantly, the community. I think the community gets their ego stroked in the same way other healthy ecosystems do. Most people genuinely want to see others succeed. People get a good feeling from helping others and they want to do it. This includes me. This type of help without expectation of return of a favor is growing a really healthy community here. It also creates some reciprocity that would be hard to predict that extends far beyond the ecosystem. People help people who help them. Not everyone does it but most of the up and coming influential leaders and the existing ones sure do. They are always present trying to help things grow, be better, and support one another. They keep showing up for one another.

Iowa doesn’t have everything which is a reason our family takes vacations and why after COVID is over, our travel will be more frequent for work and fun just like always. This was the same for me when I lived in San Francisco. We love to visit the ocean, stay in the woods, find a massive pool, hit the zoo, or go to beautiful locations that aren’t in Iowa. Just because so much is out in the world doesn’t mean I need to be upset it’s not in Iowa or lament the travel to get there. The travel to get there is half the fun and the separation allows me be present in really special moments when we aren’t enjoying them anywhere else. I love traveling with my family.

One of the most difficult things when I lived in San Francisco was the mechanical hum of the city that never ceased. The way the bay bridge radiated a tin colored white noise that I just assumed I’d always acclimate to but never did. As opposed to where I’m sitting now, where the resting noise floor is 32db according to a Niosh app. Again, my style of living.

I grew up on a 100 acre farm and silence is a very freeing state for me.

I like it here. I like it there.

I like being in Iowa, but I surely don’t care where you are. If you’ve got great ideas and want to create change then you’re someone I’d be excited to help. If you’re in SF, NY, Boulder, Dublin, Des Moines or anywhere else we’re going to be texting and talking on a screen anyway. This is one of the main reasons I’ve been encouraging people to spend less time thinking about how where to physically put their company and more time thinking about where they want to spend 100 hours a week working and how to build the best product to earn clients who deeply love it.

What matters is where you can do great work. Iowa is a place you can do great work without being a part of an us vs. them culture that closes you off from the world. In some ways, moving back to Iowa has actually opened me up to the world more than I was before.

Iowa is part of a broader we and that’s why it might work for you. I think Roboflow is a recent and excellent example of this working.

I finished writing this blog while texting back and forth on a Saturday morning with a founder in Colorado raising from funds in Palo Alto. This like most of my recent experiences highlights (for me) that opportunity is more distributed geographically than it ever has been and that’s a gift.

Progress > Politics.