May 21, 2012
Take the CTA downtown and hop off at Merchandise Mart to visit Chicago’s newest tech hub: 1871, a coworking space – and more – that’s a collaboration among some of the city’s biggest startup supporters.
Ride the elevator to the 12th floor of Merchandise Mart, and you’ll be greeted with 50,000 square feet of desks and meeting rooms, along with a 143-foot glass whiteboard.
You might see the summer’s Excelerate Labs class hacking away, mentors from Groupon and GrubHub offering advice to startups, and Code Academy students working on their technical chops. Or peek in on a business class or a coding workshop.
Run as a not-for-profit, 1871 is named after the innovation, passion, and ingenuity that rebuilt Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The space is led by CEO Kevin Willer, also the president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, who spent over 10 years with Google and cofounded its Chicago office. Below, Willer reflects on what 1871 means for Chicago:
Tech Cocktail: What is the significance of 1871 for Chicago?
Kevin Willer: I think this is a really important part of continuing the momentum that we have going on in Chicago now. I would never say this is the solution – that if we have this, we’re all set. We need to do a lot of things really well, and this is a part of getting even better. Some people have said that this put a stake in the ground for us in Chicago, saying, “Hey, this is real. We’re building great companies here and we’re going to build even more in the future. Investors should come here from other places and invest in the companies here. Talent should move here.”
It puts some firmness underneath the ground of the startup community here, and said, “Hey, we’re here. We’re going to make a big, long-term commitment to this startup scene … This is going to be a big part of the future economic development of the city of Chicago, and we’re here to stay and we’re hopefully going to be really successful.”
Tech Cocktail: What are some of the challenges for the Chicago startup scene going forward?
Willer: First and foremost, technical talent is lacking all over this country. For sure, we definitely have that issue here. We have a lot of great business talent here – 2 top-5 MBA schools – but we need to do a better job of training technical talent here and keeping the talent that we do train here and not letting them get away….
We’re starting to see our companies here attract talent from other places that will move here for a startup or a growth company. We have to continue to do a better job of that. We can’t just depend on locally home-grown talent; we have to import talent from the coast and from other places….
The third thing is not that sexy, but we have to be patient. This is not going to happen overnight. We don’t want to just talk a big game; we have to show the results. And if I see anything, I see an incredible pipeline here. You have the big success with Groupon, the big public offering, but now we’ve got to follow it up with companies like a GrubHub or a Braintree or a BrightTag or whoever – all these companies that have raised $10 million or more in the last year-18 months. We have to have some of them keep growing, maybe go public, maybe get acquired, and behind that we have to have a massive pipeline of all the little seed-stage companies. And I know we have that – I know we have that, I see it – but we have to keep adding to it.
Tech Cocktail: What’s been most surprising about 1871 since the launch?
Willer: I’m really close to it – I mean, this has been my life for the last 6 months, at least…. We even opened a month before our grand opening in “beta” just to let some early applicants in to test out the place and tell us what was working and what wasn’t. But I guess it’s not surprising: what’s been so neat is if you bring all the pieces of an ecosystem together into one physical location, you actually create incredible amounts of energy that just is impossible any other way except for physical proximity….
There’s this serendipity kind of thing that just creates a lot of energy. It speeds things up; people get things done so much quicker because they’re down the hall instead of having to track someone down. That’s been surprising how quickly it’s taken hold and how everybody’s just sold about making this place a success long-term. We were hoping for it, but it’s been a little surprising how quickly everybody’s been on board with that.
All of 1871’s reserved coworking desks are filled, but you can jump on the long list for shared coworking space here.
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