New St. Louis “Tech Council” Launches to Burn $475K Federal Grant on… Oh I Dunno, Probably a Job Board?

Strong opinion.

TechSTL, St. Louis’s “First Tech Council” just celebrated its forthcoming April launch with a party at T-REX, according to Nathan Rubbelke on STL Inno. Obviously spurned without an invite, you might want to characterize me now as furiously blogging like a frustrated incel, in order to shrug off any of the criticisms of our beloved “tech” ecosystem in St. Louis that I’m now about to make.

I open with that, because the one objective fact in this article is that I didn’t get invited to the event. The rest is pure opinion drawing from personal experience, so YMMV as they say; feel free to disagree, temper what I’ve said or have your own ideas.

But, look, I am sorry, I’ve tried for years now to keep the following thoughts at bay, but now I’m just about done with the constant shenanigans. I must plead with you, dear readers, can we put the constant championing of St. Louis and allow a moment of raw honesty?

This TechSTL project is exactly what we don’t need: more “entrepreneur support” nonprofits reproducing all of the resources private enterprise and plucky innovators have already established for themselves and the wider community. Furthermore, calling it the First Tech Council is a semantic stretch at best: STL must be in version 95 of this concept by now.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

A week has barely gone by in which someone hasn’t said to me that TechSTL want to talk to you, to which my answer has consistently been, “Tell them to get in touch, I’m not hard to find.” No one has ever gotten in touch.

Whilst I admit such a response may sound less than enthusiastic, so perhaps the message has never been passed along, it has become my de facto position because I have become SO JADED with a city that is near constantly using federal grants and philanthropic donations to undermine and sideline it’s own local entrepreneurs. I genuinely believe it happens accidentally rather than intentionally, but almost always it’s done in the name of boosting local entrepreneurship.

People say that “TechSTL is like STLmade but for tech,” which to them might sound like a wonderful and concise intro, yet immediately raises red flags for me. Because, speaking for myself, STLmade has come to epitomize the bizarre non-collaborative and uncooperative attitude that constantly bedevils St. Louis’ startup ecosystem.

Never Been Done Before (If You Don’t Include the Other 95 Versions of this Idea)

When STLmade came on the scene in March 2019, all the powers that be in the St. Louis Startup ecosystem —all the kingmakers— came out to proclaim it as the first of it’s kind. According to the local influencers trotted out on social media, there had never been an initiative like it, and as Brian Hall of Explore St. Louis said, “for the first time in the history of our community, we’re going to be shining a light on the makers, doers, thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs in this community through STLmade.”

The problem was that it just wasn’t the case. The social media launch of #STLmade was an exercise in collective amnesia.

From AccelerateSTL to Techli to Humans of St. Louis, to Olio City to the original EQ magazine, Venture Cafe’s Happen Magazine, and the original Bourbon Friday Show livestreamed from T-REX to STL Community Cast, Entrepreneurially Thinking and Innovation City podcasts, the St. Louis startup ecosystem itself had literally bootstrapped, funded and produced dozens of local media entrepreneurs who’s entire reason for being was to shine a light on the makers, doers, thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs in this community.

That St. Louis is, in fact, over saturated with media sources intent on telling stories of entrepreneurship is why I updated the EQ website design to aggregate startups and list stories under company names, as you see linked in the paragraph above. Similarly, it may not be totally apparent, but EQ has explicit permission from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Business Journal to post their content… my point is plenty of us are collaborating, it’s literally only the nonprofits championing ‘the narrative’ that aren’t.

Thus, far from STLmade being a watershed moment in storytelling, it was basically the death knell for everyone else. All the possible dollars that could have gone to support the dozens of media startups happening at the time just dried up, as every major organization got behind STLmade because it was almost rude not to.

Olio City had to exit, I tried to pivot EQ into a conference brand, and save for some twee stories on TheSTL, the only voice the startup ecosystem had left for the next 18 months was David Niklaus at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Sadly, he’s now retired, so it’s a godsend that the pandemic has produced Nathan Rubbelke and Paul Riat otherwise we would have no new voices.

But what impact did STLmade really have after sucking all the oxygen out of local media? A salaried position to monitor a single hashtag… and some gig economy work for some writers and, thankfully, one local photographer (who is definitely local).

I Don’t Write Out of Spite, But I Fear I May Have Cut Off My Nose to Spite My Face

Now, before I go on, let me absolutely clear that even though I’ve mentioned names, I’m not writing this missive to skewer anyone personally and do not hold them responsible for my apparent issues with their organizations. Everyone I have mentioned, I can personally attest that they are lovely and genuine people who are committed to the betterment of St. Louis.

For instance, Brian Hall has always given me the time of day —i.e. consideration and advice— when I need it. Similarly, everyone I know who has met TechSTL’s founding Executive Director, Emily Breedlove, tell me how much they like her. She sounds awesome!

Jason Hall too —the brains behind STLmade and Greater St. Louis— has always given me a moment of his time to hear me out. Last fall we even shared a lunch where he let me express some misgivings about STLmade in front of other gathered members, to which he responded eloquently and totally won me over – it was an amazing moment!

Therefore, I know that I occupy a privileged position in that sense, that such high stature people are prepared to listen to me for a moment. Thus, I do hope that what I pen now does not strike them as personally spiteful, as that’s not my intention, and that they can hear in my tone a genuine need to just speak out to the ‘powers that be’ on behalf of other amateur-professional creator and freelancer service economy players who don’t have the access I have, and assert that ordinary people like us make up the bulk of the entrepreneurship happening in St. Louis.

How Basic Mediocre Decisions Affect the Rest of Us

Surely I have earned the right to push back by now, after at least 5 years of blogging as a cheerleader for this ecosystem? I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.

Over those years, this one thought is rising to a scream now from my chest: there’s a weird sort of tyranny of mediocrity in entrepreneur support nonprofits in St. Louis! There, I said it.

More often than not. Really basic and easy no-brainer decisions in the hands of powerful local organizations seem to go completely against the basic premise of “doing business” as a community.

Take St. Louis Startup Week for the last couple of years: If Erin Joy didn’t do her event, or Erik Lutenegger didn’t host a closing party EVERY YEAR there would basically be nothing worthwhile to attend and very few registrations. I used to consider myself a partner until I realized that a bulk of the attendance numbers claimed for that year were basically from events that all the partners had already planned for that week and done the marketing for ourselves, such that St. Louis Startup Week was really just cannibalizing our numbers whilst utterly failing to boost any of our brands.

Or let’s consider the fate of the Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, which I very proudly got involved with on the budget planning committee for its iteration before the pandemic. I had to make my excuses and leave when it became apparent to me that of the $600K that was going to be raised, not even $50k was earmarked for actual entrepreneurs, and most of it was going to go on salaries for full-time fundraisers dedicated to raising the next funds… I mean, that’s literally funding for funding’s sake rather than improving against any of the stated goals of the nonprofit.

As it turned out, months and months later, I think they did adjust the budget in the end, and among the full time hires they made, I was thrilled to see that my personal picks for two of the roles had been chosen: LaShana Lewis and Hayley Johnston. Sadly, there was a disagreement on who should produce the Equity in Entrepreneurship report —which was the entire premise that funding was based on— and these two rising stars were let go because, as far as I can tell, they had suggested spending the funds on developing the report through local suppliers.

As a result, three years later, I can’t name a single achievement of the Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, and the membership council model that was planned to make it self-funding in future, hasn’t materialized. That’s the same model TechSTL is adopting, so it’s probably DOA —dead on arrival.

Doom Cycle

From the hype on their website, I’m so so so sorry to say this out loud St. Louis, but it strikes me that TechSTL is doomed to make the same mistakes. In fact it already has!

For example, look who made the website? A company in Asheville. Some of that $475K in federal funding for St. Louis has already been spent out of state.

How did an organization that is meant to represent “Tech in St. Louis” fail to source web design or software development on home turf? It really does beg the question… doesn’t it?

Sadly, we know how: expediency. I don’t doubt Emily is extremely busy, but if this is what we get as a final result, our REAL startup community could have thrown something better up on Wix in a day.

Furthermore, look at the names on the board and steering committee. Mary Louis Helbig and Matt Menietti were both on committees looking into ecosystem data sharing for the equity collective, which despite their heroic best efforts, they concluded was impossible to get all the different accelerators, entrepreneur support organizations and coworking spaces to cooperate and share their data.

Surely, they’ve warned Emily of the futility that awaits her? We owe her this level of information.

I know how impossibly stubborn the situation is, because I proposed a solution to the collective found from a local experiential data survey startup: Okapi. A startup based in St. Louis had the solution to survey data collection across shared audiences while maintaining data protection, but the will to do it just wasn’t there.

Most damning of all, it was the nonprofits that were blocking the initiative. The result? Another promising St. Louis startup failed to be considered for a problem it could literally solve with free money from the government.

What Will TechSTL Do?

For years and years now, committees made of genuinely lovely representatives from Arch Grants, Venture Cafe, CORTEX, T-REX, ITEN, you name it, have said to me that “no one knows what’s going on in our startup community, so we need a newsletter”; or “St. Louis doesn’t have a job board”; or “we need a central calendar to post all our events.”

And every time, I have to point out that EQ has a job board, a calendar and a newsletter and they’re all free to use. They’ve never been used by these organizations.

Yet, for some reason, while they lament the fact that the city does not collaborate, rather than use any of the services or solutions available from any member of the ecosystem, instead they go ahead and build their own version. Case in point, after years and years of talking about it and me suggesting they use EQ’s, Arch Grants built their own job board, which quelle surprise has exactly zero jobs.

I expect TechSTL’s first priority will be to build a job board. And then plan to release some kind of state of the ecosystem report, that will never get past the preliminary survey about what should be in the main survey – problems that St. Louis entrepreneurs solved years ago, but nonprofits continue to insist they still exist.

Nonprofits Targeting Startups Become Deflationary Economic Forces

There is a way out of this tedious cycle through Impact Investing, but for now, if you hear of another entrepreneur support nonprofit coming to save St. Louis’ startup entrepreneurs, I’d recommend you forget “local innovation” and start thinking “economic deflation” for local independent freelancers and creative service providers (y’know the professions that make up a healthy middle class). In my experience, that’s the real economic impact of these types of collectives and councils.

Most of these projects aren’t just failures on their own terms. They also often represent measurable dollars in lost revenue that could have gone to local companies, agencies or startups, for whom that high profile customer win might have been the tipping point for the next senior hire to be made locally or, even better, persuade the next big investor.

By not buying locally, with their free Federal cash, they also completely erode the price of services for the St. Louis freelancer economy. Digital media designers, marketers and producers are nearly all freelancers or self-made entrepreneurs and they can only safely lower their prices by getting more work and innovating their product offering against their cashflow.

But when they’re looked over for basic work they could easily have done, freelancers have to lower their prices just to survive; which usually means they don’t. Federal funding is stimulus cash that could have helped with cash flow into a small business, which could have created more early-career jobs and lifted up a creative community to get more work experience, that would eventually give them the courage to pursue full salaried positions.

So, to end on positive note (and please forgive this entire rant if it has offended you), let it be known citywide that just hiring any local freelance web developer, designer, podcast maker or social media marketer, or their own boutique agencies or influencer networks will do more to boost the economy and create the “most diverse high-tech innovation hub in the country” (One of TechSTL’s stated goals) than any Not-First “Tech Council” can achieve.

Most entrepreneurs in St. Louis don’t need diversity initiatives, festivals and councils to affect systems-level change and generate local impact, they just need more new customers now to trust and engage them. And that’s what stimulus dollars should be put to work on in this city, not funding more fundraisers.