So, what will it take for Louisville to be a tech start-up hub? Or are we a start-up hub, but we don’t even realize it?
When Louisville Digital Association put on its “How to Find and Develop Louisville’s VC Sweetspot,” the central theme was, “Where is Louisville in 2012?”
That was the final question from panel emcee Bobby Ferreri, Enterprise Corp. executive director, at Wednesday night’s “How to Find and Develop Louisville’s VC Sweetspot.”
For those of you who – like us – go for dessert first, we’re going to flip this post and give you how top Louisville techies rate this town as a tech hotspot, as well as its potential.
“VC Sweetspot” panel members were:
- Ferreri, executive director of Louisville EnterpriseCorp., part of Greater Louisville Inc.
- Adam Fish, Chief Advocate at Forge Louisville
- Rob May, co-founder of Backupify
- Dave Durand, co-founder of Keepio
- Sean O’Leary, senior director of Venture Finance, Kentucky Science & Technology Corp.
Here’s how they rated Louisville for entrepreneurial-venture capital connecitvity and vibrance in the tech sector on a scale of 1 to 10, and then we’ll give you some of their thoughts about where Louisville stands and their reasoning.
- Adam Fish: 5 “We’re kind of right there, waiting to happen.”
- Rob May: “A good solid 5” “We raised our first round of funding in Louisville.”
- Dave Durand “A 4 now, a 7 in two years” “We’re making the right strides.”
- Sean O’Leary: 3 ”We have investors here, entrepreneurs over there and we have a problem linking the two.”
With that out of the way, the meeting at Interactive Media Lab, 112 N. First St., was a wide-ranging discussion, with appreciable crowd feedback.
This is our distillation of two hours of conversation:
Ferreri: How hard is it to get funding?
Sean O’Leary: There is money available, but the companies that have a difficult time often don’t have the right talent on board, O’Leary said. “If you’re a software company and you have no programmers … that’s a problem. If you don’t have a programmer on your team, you’re in a lot of trouble.”
Adam Fish: If a company has a great concept, “there’ll be money for you.” But Fish added that he doesn’t think it’s a great idea for would-be entrepreneurs to take the money ”without an understanding of what a start-up entails.”
O’Leary: “Well, what’s the purpose of your company? To raise money? I hope not.” To warrant investment, entrepreneurs need to have a vision of their product, how it works and what customers they’re targeting, he said.
Ferreri: Who can you trust?
Durand: “That’s what we’re trying to build – a start-up community where you can talk about your idea with other people. And you know what? When you’re out there talking about your idea, you might find that technical guy.”
O’Leary: ”Talking with people is a way to ‘get them poking’ on your idea. To help strenghten your idea, to improve what your’re going for/ And this is a small enough lace that if someone dicks you over, everyone will find out about. Can we say, ‘dick you over?”
Rob May: It’s nice to be able to talk at different stages to people who’ve been where you are now. To vent. To talk out problems. To pass candidates around.
Bobby Ferreri: “What does success look like?”
Rob May: Louisville should be Boulder. Louisville should be Austin. You don’t need to displace (Silicon Valley) as a start-up hub. You’re not going to displace the Valley.
Fish: A lot of people are doing cool stuff in Louisville, but no one is talking about it.” In Boulder, Brad Feld is all over the place on twitter, tech smart. “He put himself out there. He put Boulder on the map.” Louisville tech entrepreneurs need to use social media to spread the word about the town, Fish said. “ I don’t think we do a good job of using online tools to let people know what we do in Louisville.”
Durand: “I came from San Diego, and I had bunch of guys I worked with back there saying, ‘Louisville? What’s that like?’ And I said, “This place is amazing. Music. Arts. And you’ve got bourbon. I was a gin drinker, but now I’m serious about bourbon.” Durand added that with music and technology, Louisville is not unlike Austin, but is still struggling to broadcast the fact nationally in order to clarify its reputation. “Louisville is still on the way to embracing the culture it inherently has.” The city has embryonic entrepreneur networks, money, interns from colleges. “I think we’re well on our way.”
May: “What’s our niche? In Boston, it’s back end, hardcore tech. In The Valley, it’s consumer. But what’s our niche? A lot of people would move here if we had a niche.” Business ecosystems are difficult to nurture, May added. If there’s too much capital sloshing around, a lot of bad ideas get funded, and the scene goes nowhere, he said. But if there’s no money, good ideas go unfunded.
On the brain drain
Fish said he hears from talented U of L students they can’t wait to go to Boston. But O’Leary countered that telling people “you have to stay here is counterproductive. It’s not exactly the right message.” It’s good they leave, then realize life in Louisville was less complicated and come back, Fish said.
On what Louisville needs:
All participants agreed there needs to be some sort of local entrepreneurial start-=up club.
Durand pointed to business accelerators in other cities such as The Brandery in Cincinnati, which Louisville doesn’t have. Ideas that get accepted get a flat amount – $20,000 – with the accelerator getting 6 percent of equity. The entrepreneurs are freed then to “build out the product as fast as you can,” he said over a 12-week term. “You learn the start-up reality: how can you get the product out quickly and get traction?”
O’Leary agreed Louisville needs groups that bring together investors and entrepreneurs because “they don’t do the same things. They live different lifetsyles. The don’t get together other than at events.”