The Chicago Model – Starting Up Successfully

Chicago is abuzz with new ventures and start-ups.  A quick scan of local media (and some national media, too) on any given day shows the increasing pull of the developing Silicon Prairie.  A varsity line-up of start-ups like Groupon and grubHub are forging ahead, and major league players like the freshly rebranded Motorola Mobility and digital-only Encyclopædia Britannica are reinventing themselves right here on the Third Coast, as well.

Chicago has a well-funded VC ecosystem, and its dedicated incubators have been celebrating a banner year, even though they are themselves start-up newbies like the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center’s 1871 workspace (in reference to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871).  Chicago even has its own all-encompassing brainiac convention, called Chicago Ideas Week, that has been picking up steam (and scale, with globally recognizable speakers) in the last couple of years.

Excitement for start-ups—despite last decade’s Dot Com Bust and Great Recession—is as steady as ever before and perhaps even more so in the Windy City.  The entrepreneurial problem-solvers among us will simply never run out of good (and bad) ideas for improvement, new services and goods, and experiences.  New businesses are dreamt up, jotted down, and kicked off.

What Chicago has to offer the fast-paced market of start-ups, VCs, and near-quarterly paradigm shifts is something I call the Chicago Model, for starting up successfully.  There are a few major tenants to this model that make the Chicago business environment for entrepreneurs and start-ups engaging and rewarding:

Hard-Working & Methodical

You have probably heard of the Midwest work ethic.  It is a real thing.  Many of Chicago’s new ventures have come about by more traditional business roots—with an innovative start-up-like twist—that are driven by hard work.  Often start-ups here have launched and established themselves more like their bricks-and-mortar predecessors.  They start with sound up-front planning, capital scraped together from family and friends in order to launch more fully (versus launching an idea that needs immediate backing by a VC to be viable), and the traditional elbow grease needed to meet and engage real customers, network in the community, and build solidly from the ground up.

Customer Focused

Chalk it up to the friendly Midwest persona, but Chicago-based entrepreneurs and start-ups talk more about their customer and customer experience, and put it squarely forward as a central focus in their business thinking, than is heard in most other innovation geographies.  Such a core focus drives long-term growth of the business by working from the customer to the bottom line, not the other way around.

Thorough & Thoughtful

Chicago’s burgeoning start-up environment often has a palpable underdog vibe which has contributed to a desire to succeed simultaneously despite and because this is not the Bay Area or NYC.  The drive to succeed can be seen in businesses that are more thoroughly tested, thoughtfully planned, and driven with a sense of urgency to be and remain relevant and engaging.

Trust & Partnership-Based

Give a Chicagoan a good reason to trust you and they will build a lasting partnership with you.  People who start a business in Chicago are here because it is “our kind of town.”  There are fewer talent siphons, business vagabonds, and wantrepreneurs gumming up the start-up community in Chicago.  Strategic relationships are what they mean, more often than not, in this town.  This helps entrepreneurs find reliable support when they need it, build stronger and more resilient businesses, and connect with like-minded leaders in the Chicago business environment and beyond.

The Chicago Model for start-up success is a combination of focus, planning, drive, and fundamental business building that has resulted in some of the most admired start-ups being headquartered in or within line-of-sight of the Loop. As more businesses launch here they are wholeheartedly taking advantage of the very real and meaningful “can-do” attitude that is at the heart of so many success stories here.

There is evidence that the rest of the start-up world is seeing Chicago's contributions.  The formula for success is a bit different here.  Building something, with drive and purpose, a real connection to customers, and a quality engagement and investment in talent is not rocket science, but the conditions have to be correct for it to occur.  It is in Chicago where those conditions align time and again, and consistent success happens time and again.  It is the Chicago Model for start-up success.