January can be a trying month for Chicagoans; the holidays are over, yet you’re still in for another eight or so weeks of winter. For the past five years, though, I’ve been grateful to have a January tradition to look forward to — serving as a panel moderator at the Security Traders Association of Chicago’s (STAC’s) Annual Mid-Winter Meeting.
The Mid-Winter Meeting is always one of my favorite fintech events of the year, and getting to lead a panel of smart and opinionated industry colleagues is a lot of fun. This year, my panel was titled “Start Me Up,” and aimed to give the audience some insights into the surging interest in launching a business. I think that STAC’s interest in this topic showcased why the association is still going strong in its 92nd year — companies and organizations can’t rest on their laurels, no matter how established they may be.
Joining me on the stage was a formidable panel of Chicago tech talent: Pete Wilkins of Hyde Park Angels (Pete has previously lent his insights to our blog), Brian Clark of Ascent Technologies, Julia Kanouse of the Illinois Technology Association, and Kyle Tuskey of Deep Systems (a 3Points client).
The points below are not, by any means, an exhaustive summary of what we discussed, but I wanted to share a few insights from the panel that I found interesting:
- One question that still sticks with me: how do you define a startup and when should you stop calling yourself a startup? It feels like many companies these days take liberty with that term in an attempt to make their brands more exciting. Our panel mentioned variables like company age, employee numbers, and revenue maturity, but we came no closer to a universal definition.
- When we discussed boards of directors vs. boards of advisors, I really liked Kyle’s short-and-sweet definition: “Directors are usually equity holders and in it for the long haul. Advisors [have] more of a short-term vision and many times don’t have equity or investments in the business.”
- I asked the panelists what makes a good funding pitch, and I enjoyed Julia’s answer to the opposite question: “My least favorite is anything that is pitched as ‘the Uber of [something].’” It’s a good reminder to market how your company is unique, rather than how it is like another (completely unrelated) brand.
- Pete had a similar response when asked about the Chicago startup scene as a whole: “Our mistake is comparing ourselves to the Valley.” We (and every other city/region) operate in a completely different startup environment than that of Silicon Valley, which makes comparison impossible. But when examined against cities with more similar startup landscapes (New York, Boston, Austin), Chicago consistently outperforms them.
- Brian’s advice for companies on how to avoid common startup missteps: “Focus. Get away from feature creep. You have to learn to say no to customers when it doesn’t fit your product vision.”
Even as 3Points has grown more and more connected with the Chicago startup scene over the past few years, I’ve always stayed on the lookout for new perspectives and knowledge, and this panel certainly provided that. The panel — and the very smart people on it — also reinforced my optimism about Chicago as a tech hub. We’ve known for a couple years now that the city more than holds its own in terms of investment opportunity. Pete himself dropped a number of stats that back up that point in Forbes a few months ago. And with more and more local startups poised for big things this year and beyond (see here and here), the future of Chicago tech is bright.
If you want to talk about Chicago startups, or about STAC and the Mid-Winter Meeting, please connect with me on LinkedIn or leave me a comment below.