From the outside looking in is a dual-purpose interview series with former Minnesota tech entrepreneurs pursuing their startup companies elsewhere. It’s great to see homegrown talent making it happen — but why not here and what can we learn from their perspectives?
Entrepreneur: Courtney Guertin
Hometown:Lino Lakes, Minnesota
Location: San Francisco, CA
What’s your background as it relates to Minnesota? Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in Lino Lakes Minnesota and graduated from the U of M with a degree in Computer Science where I had the luxury of being the water boy for the MN Roller Girls.
Is there anything that you feel the U of M’s Computer Science Department could do to better prepare students to be tech entrepreneurs?
I haven’t been involved with the CS department since 2001 so I am not familiar with their current program and I am sure it has changed a lot over the years. However, when I was a student there was little talk about entrepreneurship and starting your own company.
If the U of M is not doing this already they should be hosting events like MinneBar and sponsoring projects like Startup Weekend. They need to foster innovation and bring in talented leaders for conferences and tech talks.
It would be great if the U of M could put together an incubator that would work with the alumni and students. Minnesota has a lot of resources and talent, it just needs a catalyst to create a very successful community.
Perhaps they could offer a course where students would create a small startup from idea to execution. At the end of the semester or year they could have a demo day and launch their ideas. It would be great if they could somehow involve entire the student body. The course would also cover a variety of topics that are important to starting a company.
Is there anything that could have kept you in MN post graduation?
I actually worked in MN for several years after graduating. I moved out to San Francisco to work at Digg.com because I wanted to join an innovative web company that reached millions of people everyday. Even if Minnesota had a large tech scene I believe I still would have left to try something new.
Change and adventure is important to me.
What has been your startup experience to date? What are you currently pursuing?
I’ve worked for startups essentially my entire career. Right after graduating I joined a great startup called Archemedia where we developed software for the financial, mortgage, and health industries. I learned more there in 6 months than I did all throughout college.
After Archemedia I worked for a small company developing a web application for the insurance industry. I then decided that I wanted to pursue my own venture and started doing web development for a variety of clients.
I tried to start a company that I like to describe as “Basecamp for HR” but we couldn’t get funding and were unable to get a our self-service product out in time. We had mortgages to pay and while we worked at other jobs to pay the bills the company was dissolved. I learned a lot from that that experience.
I then moved out to San Francisco to work at Digg.com where I worked for 18 months before leaving to start a new venture.
A talented friend Amadeus Demarzi and I started a company to develop products that we were passionate about.Our first project was a fun iPhone puzzle game called Skeemo.
I then spent time building out a platform to discover, share, and become inspired by fashion and decor called FollowStyle. We recently launched and a small team in LA is continuing the development. Our mobile apps will out Q1 2011 — keep an eye out.
I’m now focused on Kiip.
How does the Valley perceive Minnesota in terms of tech talent and startups in general?
Many believe that Minnesota, and the Midwest in general, have very talented engineers. There was a time where half of Digg’s engineering staff was from the Midwest.
Minnesota is less known for startups and better known for their large corporations such as 3M, BestBuy, Target, Medtronic, etc. I don’t think MN will be known for their web startups until there is a very successful web company or organization that defines the space (e.g. Chicago’s Groupon, New York’s Foursquare, Tumblr, Gilt, or Boulder’s TechStars).
What’s are some of the cultural differences you’ve seen between the two markets (as it relates to early stage tech)?
There is an incredible amount of support here in CA for entrepreneurs who are just starting out. People really do go out of their way to help you with introductions, advice, tech suggestions and more. Minnesota does encourage startups but the community obviously isn’t as vast as the Bay Area.
What is your opinion on the value of incubators/seed capital?
I am a huge fan of incubators such as YCombinator and TechStars. They back their companies by providing them expert advice and enough money to produce a product that can stand on its own. They also introduce them to the hundreds of investors and help them with initial marketing. Several of my friends have developed successful companies via these programs.
In CA everyone’s starting/pursuing a tech company. How does this make life easier or more difficult for you?
The culture here is very inspiring. CA has some of the best engineers, designers, and business minds in this industry. You can’t help but become a stronger engineer when you’re working with so many talented people. If you have the entrepreneurial itch then CA will definitely make you scratch it. This in turn opens many doors and opportunities.
If a friend of yours who was still in MN said he/she was starting a tech company in MN and wasn’t interested in moving, what advice would you give them?
Make sure you have a business person that can connect you to market you’re trying to serve. I’ve seen many startups that lack in marketing/sales. It is rare that you can take the approach of building a community before making money. Many engineers know how to make a killer product but they are unable to take to market.
I would also reach out to bloggers and people on Twitter to help talk about your product. If you have a compelling product people will write about it. You do not need to live in CA in order to spread the word about your company.
What would be one thing MN could do, right now, to foster a better startup culture and to retain talent?
I think the tech leaders in Minnesota should reach out to incubators (e.g. TechStars) and talk about creating a branch in the Twin Cities. They have a model that seems to be working well and are producing some exciting companies that are quite innovative.
When will all the former MN geeks band together and start a fund to invest in MN startups?
It would be great if we could start a Minnesota Mafia investment group. We’ll see what the future holds. However, investment can come in a variety of ways other than money such as time with advice and mentorship.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions: courtstarr [at] gmail [dot] com. I love talking with people about startups!
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