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: Kurt Wilms
Location: San Francisco, CA
What is your background as it relates to Minnesota?
After growing up in Lakeville, I graduated in the spring of 2005 from The
University of Minnesota with a degree in Computer Science. While I was
a student I did a lot of interesting things, including working with the Grouplens Research group where I learned a ton about online communities, recommendation systems, etc. The group is also run like a startup so that was a nice way to learn what startup life is like.
Is there anything that you feel the U of M’s CS department could do to better prepare students to be successful entrepreneurs/tech founders?
I think there are plenty of opportunities for students at the University of Minnesota to get involved in classes and programs that help prepare them for entrepreneurship. I know John Riedl lead a class that planned, built, and launched a small scale startup called chipmark. The Carlson School is known as a leader in preparing students to be entrepreneurial leaders.
Is there anything that could have kept you in Minnesota post graduation?
For me personally, I’d had been living just outside of Minneapolis since I was very young and I wanted to move to another city outside of Minnesota, so I started with Chicago. Most of my friends who I graduated in with ended up getting tech jobs locally.
Was there any consideration towards coming back to Minnesota from Chicago or was it an obvious decision to head out to California?
I enjoyed my time living in Chicago, but I wanted to see what Silicon Valley startup life was like. So for me, I wasn’t considering moving back to Minnesota.
What has been your startup experience to date? What are you currently pursuing?
I moved to San Francisco at the beginning of 2007 to work as a Software Engineer at Digg. I think I was the 17th employee at Digg, and the 4th engineer; so I really got a chance to see what life was like at a small SF startup. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working there! I was exposed to a lot of complex tech problems, I met a lot of smart and talented people, and I was able to work on interesting problems.
This July, I left my job at Digg to start fflick.com and I wrote most of the initial software that powers the site. I brought some other ex-Digg employees on to help me start the company and now we are at four employees. We are working on building a technology company to tackle the problem of filtering, analyzing, and organizing all the social media data on the web.
How does the Valley perceive Minnesota in terms of tech talent and startups in general?
I don’t think there is any general thought about Minnesota in the valley. There is lots of technology talent all over the country. Outside of California, the cities I hear the most about are New York, Austin, and Boulder.
What’s are some of the cultural differences you’ve seen between the two environments (as it relates to early stage tech)?
You can easily see why most startups choose to locate in San Francisco. The sheer number of engineers, investors, and people who can help a company succeed is so large compared to other cities.
There is an amazing amount of “start-up” energy in San Francisco. So many people think they have the next big idea, and they aren’t afraid to spend a few years of their life to try to make their idea a reality.
What is your opinion on the value of incubators, seed capital and mentorship?
I think some of the programs that help get startups off the ground such as Y Combinator or TechStars are good for first time entrepreneurs because they help get over some humps such as getting legal help setting up a company, and dealing with investors, partners, etc.
The value of raising money is something that you will hear a million
opinions about. Personally, I’ve enjoyed reading Paul Graham’s thoughts on the matter.
In California everyone’s starting a tech company. How does this make life easier or more difficult for you?
This is so true, and it most certainly makes life much more fun. There is always someone you know, or one of your friends working on a new idea. Some ideas get traction and develop into something, while others fizzle out. It is fun to hear about what problems your friends are trying to solve outside of their day jobs.
If a friend of yours from Minnesota said they were starting a tech company in here and was not interested in moving, what advice would you give them?
I don’t think there is any need to move out of Minnesota to start a tech company. The relationships you can build in San Francisco help, but you can still certainly build a company outside of the valley. Above all, I would recommend connecting with other local tech entrepreneurs. Getting advice and networking with other entrepreneurs goes a long way in getting a new startup off the ground.
Anything else you think would be relevant for a Minnesota tech entrepreneur to know based on your experiences in San Francisco?
To anyone that is thinking about starting their own company I’d say, “Go for it!” You will learn a lot about yourself and most likely have a lot of fun trying something new on your own. No matter if you are in San Francisco or Minneapolis, if you have passion and a great idea, you will succeed.
When will all the former MN geeks get together and start a fund to invest in Minnesota startups?
Ha! That would be a fun fund wouldn’t it? :)
Previous installments of From the Outside Looking in: