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: Mike Lewis
Location: Boulder, CO
What’s your background as it relates to Minnesota? Where are you from originally and where did you go to college?
I grew up in Edina and went to school in New Hampshire at Dartmouth College. During one summer during school I interned as a software developer at a startup focused on digital security founded by a University of Minnesota professor.
Why did you leave? Is there anything that could have kept you in Minnesota long-term?
I left Minnesota to go to school at Dartmouth. Once on the East coast I got stuck there. I had several job offers coming out of school and the more intriguing was at AOL in Washington DC. It wasn’t a conscious decision to live there – i just went to the best job.
The comparable jobs in Minneapolis weren’t heavily promoted or made as available. I don’t think any Minnesota firms such as Best Buy, 3M, or even Medtronic did any college recruiting at the time.
What has been your startup experience to date? What are you currently pursuing?
My last startup Qloud had an incredible run and was very successful. I founded this in 2006, raised funding from Steve Case’s Revolution Group, launched our product in August 2007 and by February 2008 we had 25 million users using it every month. That’s substantial growth; we got multiple acquisition offers and ultimately sold in 2008 to BuzzMedia. My current startup, Kapost, has been very satisfying because I’m more experienced and feel that I have more control of the process of launching products to market.
What is Kapost all about?
We make “online newsrooms” for content publishers. If you think of online magazine or newspapers – those are our customers. The core use is making assignments and tasking writer to create content. We also go beyond that in two ways. First, on the demand side we help publishers know what topics are hot from Twitter, search trends or simply having their readers suggest tips. Second, we help the reporting of written content where publishers can track how well their writers are doing with pageviews, retweets, etc.. This way publishers can tell how their writers are actually doing and can pay them appropriately. There are organizations who do similar things such as DemandMedia, Seed, or Associated Content. But all of these do it for their own organizations and not for any publisher using WordPress.
Your father, Mac Lewis, is a well known Minnesota tech entrepreneur, investor and enthusiast. How did growing up in this environment impact you one way or the other?
My dad’s career at CNT (Computer Network Technology) didn’t impact me as much as his stint as a VC with Sherpa Partners did. He worked at home at the time and I remember coming home from school and seeing business plans in his office from his daily meetings. He’d ask me to read them and give him my opinion. I was pretty naive and inexperience then but he’d talk to me about why he was interested in a company or not and it was extremely educational to live with a VC and hear daily how they think.
How does your current environment perceive Minnesota in terms of tech talent and startups in general?
Boulder has a great startup culture. While there are much fewer technical people than NYC, DC, or LA (my three previous cities), there is a much larger community around startups. Every month there is a new tech Meetup that sells out a week in advanced with over 300 people actively pitching and talking about tech startups.
Frankly, any people in the tech industry don’t think that highly of the Minnesota tech scene. Silicon Valley is the top of the tier and after that there are several tier 2: New York is top of that list with Boston, Seattle, Austin, Portland, Boulder and probably LA. After those cities, everything else isn’t highly regarded.
What’s are some of the cultural differences you’ve observed between the two markets (as it relates to early stage tech)?
There’s an entire ecosystem in the top cities. There are meetup groups, developer groups, founder meetups, and all sorts of things to get involved in. Former founders help out new founders with capital and advice. It’s not one thing but a combination of factors that help build a community. You need large companies, startups, venture capital, angels, a school and other factors. I think Minnesota has all of these but it needs some tech champions. Boulder has that in TechStars and the Foundry group. They have some cachet with the broader tech community and are loud.
Could you describe your TechStars experience and the relative value of an incubator to the surrounding tech ecosystem?
I participated in TechStars this past summer and it was phenomenal. This is an incredible incubator experience that helps build the Boulder ecosystem. To get daily feedback from experience and knowledgeable mentors – it’s invaluable. Not just for crafting your strategy but in introductions and relating to the broader industry. The mentors TS bring are top notch and from around the country so you benefit from lots of perspectives and have an “in” amongst all those geographic regions.
One thing that they stress, which i wasn’t aware of, is to be a mentor-driven program. It’s one thing to have mentors help out. It’s another to require them to get involved. Each mentor needs to find a company where they become a “lead mentor.” This means that mentors are seeking companies to help just as much as companies are seeking them.
If a friend of yours who was in Minnesota said he/she was starting a tech company there and wasn’t interested in moving –what advice would you give them?
It depends on the type of company. If they can bootstrap and get to profitability, then i don’t think it’s that big of an issue. If the company requires capital to get to scale and to grow, then i would suggest that they look long and hard at what their money raising options are. There is capital in Minnesota and there have been some great startups that been built there before.
You need a lot of luck and skill when you start a company. You need to understand the industry intimately. You also need to have a network of people around you – both for advice and for help. If you have both of those things in Minnesota, then it’s possible you’re better off staying there then leaving.
What would be one thing Minnesota could do, right now, to foster a better startup culture and to retain talent?
There are lots of smart and talented people in Minnesota. I think an incubator program could be successful and immediately rewarding.
When will all the former Minnesota geeks band together and start a fund to invest in Minnesota startups?
I think a big win would go a long way. A company that was started in Minnesota that everyone in the country could point to would be helpful to give angels confidence that it can be done in Minnesota.
It needs to go the other way too – the startups in Minnesota need to find the angels. I go to a lot of conferences and startup events and i rarely see or hear from Minnesota startups. I would encourage startups from Minnesota to get out more.
Anything else you would like to add?
Sites like this are a great way start to building a better community in Minnesota. I love Minnesota and come back every 6 months to visit. It is already a fantastic place to live – now we just need to make it an equally great place to work as an entrepreneur.