TechSTL Responds to EQ’s Critique
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- Published on February 14, 2022
- Last Updated April 22, 2022
- In Opinion
- Directly Sourced
- Phone Interview
- Email Interview
- Edited by EQ
In response to my recent opinion piece, in which I criticized TechSTL for claiming to be St. Louis’s “First Tech Council”, Founding Executive Director of TechSTL, Emily Breedlove, contacted me over the weekend and we arranged to meet in person. I thought it was brave of her to reach out as she could have just ignored me, so I brought us both coffees from Starbucks and we “walked and talked” for a couple of hours in Forest Park.
I was really impressed with the person I met. There’s lots I could say, but the sense I left the meeting with is best exemplified by the text I sent, replying to local founder friends who were eager to know how it went.
“I like her. She’s one of us.”
Primarily, I loved the fact that she was battle scarred, figuratively speaking. Early into our conversation it was obvious to me that she had genuine experiences to share and understood founder motivations, both economically and philosophically.
This was a relief to me because community leaders who don’t have a visceral understanding of how insecure entrepreneurship actually is —and what motivates everyone to choose precarious labor in this day and age— are, in my experience, the worst offenders for creating busywork for everyone else.
And creating endless busywork is my beef with many Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESO) in St. Louis.
In my article, I expressed deep concerns that our local nonprofits foster a collective delusion that there isn’t a self-sustaining media ecosystem in St. Louis (of news stories, job boards, event calendars, social networks, meetups, livestreams and podcasts), purely for the purposes of chasing federal grant money. As a consequence, these nonprofits disenfranchise and jeopardize the livelihood of all the entrepreneurs who are building independent media organizations that serve the community (think podcast studios, social media agencies, video channels, media production teams, happy hour events, conferences).
Worst of all, my observation is that federal funds are often channeled into building expensive yet mediocre replicas of startup resources that enterprising individuals already built themselves, through years of contributing their own sweat equity to the St. Louis Startup Ecosystem. Far from providing the “connective tissue” that every ESO promises in their mission statement (even TechSTL), most of these organizations become ivory towers who completely fail to support and engage any of the creators in their own community.
All that being said, Emily didn’t create these problems, she inherited them. Our frank discussion ended with something promising: she recognized that most of the startup mentor system in St. Louis is built around retired executives rather than seasoned founders.
“Part of this is really shifting our focus to build a more aggressive mentoring program that puts founders at the forefront,” Emily told me over the phone, when I was recapping our conversation in Forest Park for clarity.
“And we don’t do that; we let the executives run the show. And that’s what keeps mentoring mediocre.”
“We need to establish a more reputable program that creates consistency and accountability for mentors. But we also need to put the founders, especially the seasoned founders, at the top of that, so that they’re the ones who are driving the mentoring program and not just retired executives.”
Hear hear. Personally speaking it’s hard for me to not be heartened by that sentiment as I’ve already proven that the majority of business owners in St. Louis are eager to collaborate and mentor each other through massive volunteer initiatives like EQ Leadership Labs.
So, in that sense Emily vindicated some of my most deeply held intuitions. Yes, I still have questions outstanding as to how the federal grant will be spent and I continue to entertain serious concerns regarding TechSTL’s ability to affect change, but I am pleased a dialogue has begun.
I agree with much of the first article and love the premise and direction expressed in this article. But where are the experienced founders and why aren’t they showing up to support the organizations that supported them?
Full disclosure: Breedlove is a mentor of mine and TechSTL sponsors my publication, and Allen is a friend and colleague (as well as a competitor).
I am so impressed with both of them and their obvious passion for startup founders. I can’t wait to see what both of them do to enact real improvement in founder resources and communication.
In response to “where are the experienced founders and why aren’t they showing up to support the organizations that supported them” …
The experienced founders dont build in STL because they dont get real local support. We all leave. Fyi, before I’m lambasted and dismissed – I’ve successfully raised funding, been successful in another field and am tied in with a supportive network of founders, investors and advisors in the Bay and around the country. Our HQ is still located in STL but I dont spend time there anymore. STL having a burgeoning “tech ecosystem” is not true unless its specifically applied to bio/life sciences and ag.
The most successful founders from STL – John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins), Jack Dorsey (Twitter/Square), Sam Altman (Open AI, YCombinator) dont build in STL. They in fact dont become successful until they leave. There is not a lot of media nor network support for founders in STL.
STL is the city always brimming with “possibility” and “on the cusp” – it never materializes and I have a lot to say about why it never does (from personal experience as well as the experiences of others who’ve gone on to raise millions for their startups outside of STL).
I hate to say it but I don’t think there’s much incentive for experienced founders to get involved in a lot of very early stage companies.
Also, as expressed in the article, a lot of nonprofits create busywork where you can’t give your time effectively. I personally find that formats like pitch competitions aren’t always conducive to proper mentorship and there’s so much focus on companies pitching investors and business models, that as an experienced founder, I often find myself despairing at how little focus and thinking there is on “selling the product to the customer” or reaching your target market.
Plus, coming up through the ecosystem myself, there’s a lot of dog and pony show stuff that you have to do as an early stage company that you end up in the position of “kissing a lot of frogs,” but in St. Louis’ case with events like Startup Connection, Missouri Venture Forum, InvestMidwest and StartupWeek for instance, you’re often not even meeting potential investors but just “industry professionals” at best and random locals at worst.
Part of the problem the nonprofits create is the nonsense narratives are not targeted to startups and everything is really about the aggrandizement of St. Louis more than it is about winning customers or investors, so I think a lot of founders get wise to it pretty quickly and decide there are better ways to spend their time.
I feel bad saying all that, but hey what’s the point of pretending anymore. Startups need to stop being treated like the “curiosity” at the 1904 fair and the federal money should be spent on initiatives that attract investors and potential customers to our local industries (I actually think BioSTL does a pretty good job on this with GlobalSTL Health Innovation Summit).
Those of us in the North Carolina Entrepreneurship Ecosystem are not surprised about your exchange with Emily. Our loss was your gain. I appreciate the candor of your article and agree with much of the narrative. Keep fighting the good fight.
As a former Founder, I appreciated this article and the one criticizing TechSTL.
Regarding my thoughts on the following from Allen, “I hate to say it but I don’t think there’s much incentive for experienced founders to get involved in a lot of very early stage companies.”…
I’ve only seen the relationship between early-stage companies and experienced founders to be valuable when the experienced founders were Angel investors. I think having skin in the game incentivizes them to provide the coaching necessary for new entrepreneurs that deeply understand the problems of their target market but lack execution experience.