We bet you’re not expecting our answer.
The tech scene is growing in places across America that you wouldn’t expect. Last week we attended the second annual Monetery conference in Des Moines, IA, organized and hosted by Dwolla. The conference brought together the tight-knit tech scene in Des Moines and tech leaders from Silicon Valley and other major cities for a meeting of the minds. Des Moines, like many cities around the US, is looking to attract tech companies to provide more job opportunities for the wealth of tech talent that graduates from nearby universities and to bolster the community’s economy.
Amid topics ranging from how to measure a successful startup to data as the “oil of the 21st century,” a few common themes stood out: culture, relationships and inclusion are all foundations of a successful startup. Companies that invest in these three things are by far more innovative than those that don’t. No single perspective is allowed to overshadow the rest because there’s a variety of them being brought to one table, meaning more ideas are surfaced, and more people are considered in the design of a product. These teams are able to adjust to challenges, are more connected and well-rounded, and are overall more successful.
The conference was uplifting evidence that tech is catalyzing positive impact and connection in cities all across the country. Here are some other things we learned while we were there.
Matthew Prince and Ben Milne had a fireside chat to talk about the things they learned while building their companies. Here are some key takeaways:
- Remote work and recruiting out of state allows companies to draw from the largest pool of diverse talent, creating more inclusive teams who win and innovate.
- Create a culture where you can have difficult conversations. Issues will arise as you’re building a company, and avoiding them will slowly drive your culture into the ground.
- Communication changes as you grow. As your team scales, it will be more efficient to shift from knowledge sharing through messaging to more “processized” solutions.
- Delegating ownership is critical to building high performing teams. Empower employees to truly champion something from end to end.
Martina Lauchengco, Lindsay Knight, Albert Wenger and Dave Tucker talked about the top measures of startup success. Contrary to what you may expect, the conversation focused on qualitative measures rather than quantitative.
- Adopt a learning mindset — It’s okay to fail, as long as you learn from it. Companies that have this as a core value that’s embraced from leadership are the most successful with this. Make mistakes, learn, and improve as you iterate.
- Always listen to your customers — Listen to your customers so you can build something that they want and need. Ask them about their experiences, form relationships with them. Build, test and iterate (*make mistakes) until you nail it.
- Build intentionally at the beginning so you can go faster later — Build your team carefully early-on, hiring for diversity and values-alignment. Being values-aligned means that your team will consistently be unified in achieving your company’s goals, and diversity means that it will both be agile in facing challenges and innovative in coming up with ideas.
- As you grow, maintain your company culture — Especially if you hire remote employees. If you do hire remotely, bring them to HQ at least once to meet the rest of their team. For collocated teams, make sure their office space reflects the brand and employee experience you want them to have to avoid costly churn.
Sherri Davidoff shared about the importance of community when building a team in an engineering industry. She founded her company in Missoula, MT with $0, no labor pool and no manual. (“The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity.”) Today, her team of 30 is employee-owned and brings in $2.5M in annual revenue. She acknowledged the importance of knowing your limits and hiring people with strengths that complement your own. There will be ups and downs in growing a business, so building strong company culture and trust is key in making sure your team will get through the challenges and be stronger for it. Sherri’s 3 Cs of team building (Competence, Character, Caring) and motto, “People first, work second,” have together helped her create a tight community where employees feel ownership of the work they do everyday.
Andrew Yang’s business acumen, deep passion about the US and ample dad jokes made for a lively conversation about technology and the future of our country. As an entrepreneur himself, he had valuable advice for the startup founders in the audience, like:
- Focus on solving a problem that you care about.
- Follow the facts and see where they lead. Continually look for insights that will help you develop a better product for your users.
- Devote at least 5 years to something to see if it’s going to work.
- Block out all the noise. Everyone will have advice for you, but you have to find your own path.
- Have people who will stand with you through thick and thin. Your friends and family will be invaluable constants in your life.
Andrew is championing for a more strategic approach to entrepreneurship and innovation across the country because of the positive impacts startups have on hiring and the economy. He recognizes that the government has an incredible opportunity to embrace technology for the prosperity of its people.
Harper Reed talked about how investing in people is crucial to creating an equitable and ethical future with big data and AI. It’s inevitable that data and AI will be used to fill more of our needs. There’s a risk that a future with AI could be dicey, but we can reduce that risk by investing in people.
- Invest in a diverse team — So your products and services are designed by a team that’s representative of the people who will be impacted by them. “Hire a black woman. They’ve been through a lot and they’ll make good decisions.”
- Invest in user experience — Go out into the field and talk to people. Focus on making the best thing for the most people. You won’t please everyone, and that’s okay.
- If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist — Use data to design for people (and be sure to protect that data).
- Attribution, Permission, Transparency — These are the three virtues for data protection, which build trust with customers. Your company’s reputation can be taken away in a single data breach, so having the proper safety measures in place is crucial to any company’s survival.
Dwolla brought together like-minded tech leaders from the coasts and MidAmerica to connect over values and talk about how we can use tech to enable a better future in our increasingly technological world. The range of insightful and relevant topics made for an exciting day for anyone interested in tech. Dare we even say that it was one of the best conferences we’ve been to? (And we have attended our fair share.)
The conference gave us a taste of the flavor of tech that’s developing outside of major tech hubs. The Midwest is “Yes, and-ing” the Silicon Valley mindset as its tech scene grows. We looked forward to what is yet to come.