July 18, 2012

Belated Response to PandoDaily Reporter Trevor Gilbert’s Article about the “Midwest Mentality”

Sunny Chicago in early June – Photo by Nate Burgos

Back in March of 2012, Trevor Gilbert wrote about “The Midwest Mentality”(1) which riled a number of Chicagoans involved in the local startup scene. I read it then and read it again. My reaction remained the same after my second reading: disagreement. Being a Chicagoan, I feel that Trevor’s piece felt like it was mostly written in a vacuum, and in a voice that was more grand than grounded.

Trevor’s Theme #1: Pragmatism is not hot
I wonder if Trevor has seen the movie “Top Gun” (1986). The lead character Maverick, a fighter pilot, is fond of this anthem, expressed with macho-conviction: “I feel the need ... the need for speed!” A hasty entrance into the market, with a potential spike of success, appears to be Trevor’s taste. He claims: “no ‘hot’ startup could ever exist in Chicago.” His examples of the “’hot’ startup” are the usual suspects(2) in Twitter (San Francisco, California) and Facebook (Menlo, California, by way of Cambridge, Massachusetts). Both are highly-trafficked, highly-reported in the media, and highly-noted by critics for being inflated with the froth of popularity.

Debut of coworking space 1871 in May, 2012 – Photo by Nate Burgos

To Trevor, pragmatism is a lackluster business proposition. Trevor posted his article in March. A couple months later, 50,000 square feet of space called 1871 (the year of the Great Chicago Fire) made its debut in downtown. 1871 is part of the steadily growing coworking scene in Chicago, (in addition to The Coop, one of the first local coworking spaces). These places were established to accommodate people who want to achieve something real, something useful, something worth their focus. Speaking of intensity… 

Trevor’s Theme #2: Intensity is found only in the Valley
According to Trevor, another synonym for “Midwesterner” (besides “practical”) is “conventional.” Long-term commitment and incremental growth, paired with respectful working hours, is “conventional”—too conventional—to realize anything he calls “disruptive.” Words, like “disruptive” and “revolutionary,” are pre-loaded with a lot of promise, declared and assured in advance. They also embody “intensity” which Trevor also claims is the missing ingredient in Chicago’s business scene.

Playwright Tennessee Williams said, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Time can be interchanged with intensity. Intensity can be distributed over time, from point to point. I look to Chicago-based companies such as 37signals, Coudal Partners and Threadless, who took the time to make practical things and sell them, from Basecamp to Field Notes to Tshirts. The beauty of these products is their usefulness—their pragmatism. There is also beauty in how they got real, which wasn’t overnight, but the results of sustained effort.

To Trevor, the Midwestern value of hard work lacks the Valley’s intensity and is therefore insufficient. In the examples of 37signals, Coudal Partners and Threadless, it continues to be hard work that brings them success. I don’t see how dedication lacks intensity.(3) Need more examples of Chicago-based companies intensely bent on making things? Check out Built in Chicago’s list.

Founder and investor Chris Dixon tweeted, “Despite what you might think from media coverage, startups are still an extremely niche activity everywhere besides northern CA.”(4) Contrary to what Trevor believes, demonstrating intensity isn’t beholden, nor was it ever exclusive, to the Valley.

Tips for Trevor’s next visit

Taking a cue from travel writers who make revisiting a point in order to nurture and evolve impressions and observations about a place, here are initial recommendations for Trevor’s next Chicago visit:

Attend a CreativeMornings/Chicago event – This monthly breakfast lecture series for creative types is typically held near the end of the month. It was founded by designer Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swissmiss. What she started in Brooklyn, New York (circa 2008), has extended to cities all over the United States and internationally. CreativeMornings arrived in Chicago in June of 2011.

Visit a Chicago coworking space – Aside from 1871, there are others, some of which are featured in the video, “The Owners”, by the people of Desktime who “create simple, useful software to help people find, share and manage extra space,” and also manage The Coop.

Attend Chicago Ideas Week – For one week in October, CIW consists of 80+ sessions across the city and “aims to be the platform for sharing big ideas and making big things happen.” This echoes architect Daniel Burnham’s command of “Make no little plans… .”

• • •

It’s fitting to hone in on this passage from Trevor’s piece: “Sure, being pragmatic has its benefits. Work a 9 to 5 job and see steady, predictable growth over time. You get a salary, and you are possibly acquired. You spend time with your family and get to send your kids off to college. That’s fine, but it’s not revolutionary, which is something that the technology industry—regardless of geography—is based upon.” If blessings like parenthood; time with family, friends and loves ones; and getting an education—especially providing schooling for one’s kid/s—aren’t revolutionary, especially in these harsh economic times, I don’t know what is. Many groups, especially small businesses, are composed of colleagues, spouses, with the responsibilities of parenthood, who are pursuing what they want to do and “putting a ding in the universe.” Enjoying a living—as a wife, husband, mother, father, friend—need not be incompatible from making a living. Inspiration(5) infuses both personal and professional lives. Trevor’s next passage fortuitously states: “Midwesterners have their priorities straight… .” On this point, I completely agree.

• • •

“This has got to be the digital capital not just for the Midwest—I want this to be the digital capital for the country.”
Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago

• • •

San Francisco contributor to the Architect’s Newspaper and roving design freelancer Lydia Lee tweeted, “‘Companies grow and die off so quickly, permanence is not always respected here in the Valley.’ sez SJ dir. of planning.”

(1) Read Web-product maker Andrew Wicklander’s “Dissecting Pando Daily’s Hack Job Covering the Chicago Startup Scene”

(2) To be painfully obvious, there are other creative companies, besides the over-reported Twitter and Facebook. Lists like these help: A Field Guide to The Female Founders, Influencers and Deal Makers. Plus, why noted Chicago-based companies such as 37signals Basecamp and Threadless were glaringly absent? (Similar to writing about the design scene in Grand Rapids, Michigan, without mentioning Steelcase).

(3) Gentle reminder: it takes a lot of energy and hours to get something real.

(4) Discovered via a retweet by Nasha Virata, Founder of Tutorbeat.

(5) Jason Fried of 37signals said it best, “Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t wait for you. Inspiration is a now thing. If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work.”

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