Lessons from The Combine 2010: What Bloomington, Indiana Taught Me About The Chicago Tech Scene

September 16, 2010

3:20 pm

This past weekend I seized an opportunity to attend The Combine, a multi-day tech startup conference held in Bloomington, Indiana.  Fresh off the heels of SocialDevCamp Chicago, I was eager to see how neighbors to our southeast are building community. What I learned was equal parts startling and challenging.

Bloomington bustles with culture and creative energy as one could expect from a Big Ten college town. A creative oasis in the heartland, from a cultural perspective Bloomington feels like a miniature Austin, Texas. The Combine, spread across multiple venues and days (with concurrent events like TECH Cocktail Bloomington, Ignite Bloomington, and BFusion/BFlex), had the combined feeling that this was the early seeds of an eventual midwestern version of SXSW.

(Not to get carried away reviewing a first-time event, of course.)

In actuality, I draw such a stretching parallel for two reasons; to illustrate the enormous potential Bloomington has, and more so, for those of us striving to build a more vibrant and collaborative technology community in Chicago, that if Bloomington is doing it, we have no excuse to sit on our collective assets.

As I talked over meals at The Combine, people shared some of their hopes for the vibrant community they are building in the town they love. Surprisingly, the only hinderances expressed to me were the conservative nature of investment capital and the small population of the region. There appeared to be no stigma from the past, no ghosts of colossal failures. Unlike Chicago chatter often heard, the people I encountered simply are not choosing to allocate precious time looking over anyone’s shoulders, second guessing others, or licking old wounds.

Instead, leaders I encountered in Bloomington (people like SproutBox founder and The Combine chair Mike Trotzke) understood that good old-fashioned hard work combined with the right attitude and strategy will steadily build the ecosystem and infrastructure they seek over time.

However, Bloomington does seem to share one thinly veiled attitude with Chicago.  I encountered a few cases of NTV Syndrome, that is to say, they too are “Not the Valley.” Tension was evident between some local entrepreneurs and a few in-town expats who had transplanted themselves to the Valley. Thankfully, an overarching part of the conversation at The Combine focused on how to build the unique value of Bloomington, instead of trying to mimic the unique qualities of another region while seeking immediate results.

Indiana investors are also similar to Illinois investors in that they want to see early revenue and are selective about the ROI opportunities in which they invest. This breeds businesses that must focus first on revenue in order to survive, because often it’s bootstrapped.

Visiting Bloomington ultimately allowed me to refocus my Chicago lens and see new perspective. For all the recent press activity fueling impressions of instant gratification for many entrepreneurs, vibrant, self-sustaining communities are not built overnight. What those of us building the tech scene in Chicago need is a fresh perspective on the wealth of opportunity at our fingertips, and a tighter focus on building support networks that provide platforms for everyone’s growth. We must get out of our own way, reject negativity, and intentionally set-out for the foundation-laying work ahead.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Mike Trotzke and John Ramey for lively conversation while in Bloomington, and to John R. Dallas Jr. for adding seasoned perspective to the above thoughts.

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Tim Courtney is a long time Tech Cocktail Chicago supporter. He has organized SocialDevCamp Chicago, Chicago Tech After Hours (ChiTAH), and was an original co-founder of Silicon Prairie Social. You can follow him on Twitter at: @timcourtney.

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