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An explosion of startups…in the Land of 10,000 Corporate Drones a very serious proposal


This will not be a presentation, but a conversation and brainstorm based on the following :

    • Executive Summary**
  • One of the Twin Cities’ greatest claims to fame is its 20 Fortune 500s
  • Our best bet for startup growth is to build on this unique regional resource
  • Why? Startup ideas coming out of corps have greater potential for scale and value creation
  • How? By working with local corporations to…

1. To encourage wannabe entrepreneurs to leave cubicle land. 2. To tap into deep experts from within corporations as SMEs

    • Full-length diatribe**

Consider some amazing facts about the Twin Cities. We have:

  • The highest per-capita concentration of Fortune 500 companies (20).
  • Businesses that are the undisputed leaders in their domains (retail, health care, financial services, banking, medical devices, manufacturing.)
  • Arguably the most literate population of any metro area.
  • One of the highest concentrations of undergraduate colleges.
  • An environment, climate and culture encourages and rewards hard work, perseverance and authenticity (in other words, a meritocracy).

We have a rare set of strengths that any region would envy. Obviously, we are not New York, Chicago or San Francisco. But why would we want to be? Rather than chasing after the growth models of those regions, our growth must spring directly from our unique advantages. Our success should be dictated by our DNA.

The Internet, software and mobile technology have been the focus of entrepreneurial activity for nearly 20 years. The entrepreneurs who have led this charge have been young, digital natives who probably were not going to climb the corporate ladder anyway. Not surprisingly, startup culture has come to be dominated by people under 30 and it appears that the cities that can attract the greatest number of these young entrepreneurs (and the risk-tolerant VCs to prop them up) will win.

And thanks to the breathless media coverage of blockbuster successes like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook, many of us labor under the idea that entrepreneurship is only about young, impatient college dropouts who only need a good idea and an abundance of passion in order to be successful. If this were true, then the Twin Cities, with its stock of highly educated, risk-averse corporate employees, might as well hang it up. Game over. SFO 50, MSP 0.

Or…we could double-down on what makes us unique. We could take to take a cue from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about going to battle “with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.” And to be honest, in the Twin Cities we have nothing if not armies of corporate cube-dwellers. We’re awash in corporate casual.

This sea of suburban-dwelling, 9-to-5 working, 401(k)-saving employees…are our secret weapon.

We are sitting on a deep talent pool of people who are intimately familiar with many of the most complex and essential systems that run the world’s industries and fuel the global economy:

  • How food is grown, processed and distributed across the globe.
  • How consumer goods are designed, manufactured, marketed and retailed.
  • How financial instruments are deployed to support businesses and families.
  • How materials science is harnessed to prolong human life.
  • How health care is delivered.

How do we tap into this great reserve of deep talent? First, let’s set aside the fantasy that inside every corporate employee is an entrepreneur trying to get out. Managers and directors don’t necessarily make great entrepreneurs. And that’s ok.

But there will definitely be some corporate malcontents who want to innovate. These are the people who, thanks to years in the game, have come to realize that there are untapped markets and better ways of doing things. They may have company support. They may not. Either way, we must help them develop their ideas and take them to the street.

There are also deep experts within corporations who have no intention of ever leaving. People who know the intricacies of products, services, industries and an infinite number of technologies. These experts must be connected with the startups that could benefit form their knowledge.

The advantage of catalyzing the deep talent within our corporate employees is a matter of scale and impact. Corporations by definition create and participate in large-scale, often global systems that have far reaching impact. These are systems (e.g. payments, healthcare, manufacturing, shipping, agriculture, etc.) where even the tiniest efficiencies can result in million- if not billion-dollar savings. Startups that address needs at this scale are inherently more valuable and more likely to hire at scale than, say, the next Groupon.

The vision I’d like to share is that in 10 years, we will witness an entrepreneurial explosion in the Twin Cities that will be remarkable because of:

  • the great number of mature, seasoned founders who have come from previous careers in corporate environments.
  • the sophistication of the products, services and solutions that these startups have introduced.
  • the potential and actual scale that these startups are able to achieve.
  • the revenue that these businesses are able to generate.
  • the number of jobs that these businesses area able to create.

Although I have developed the following recipe for how to achieve this vision, I’d like to vet these ideas and gather more/different ideas from attendees.

  • Understand the ecosystem more intimately – track startups, founders, supporters, funding sources, mentors, etc.
  • Encourage coordination between enablers, such as MOJO MN, Project Skyway, MHTA, EO, CoCo, Carlson School, St. Thomas, The Collaborative, etc. (sorry if I missed anyone!)
  • Create a plan for meeting corporate entrepreneurs at the door – help broker/offer transition plans, education, support, etc.
  • Create an outlet for deep experts within corporations who want to contribute to startups
  • Work with corporations to make this entrepreneurial explosion a win/win. This means creating a structure that minimizes risk of poaching and fears of spawning competitors (by giving corps first shot at supporting and nurturing their own entrepreneurs and also addressiong IP concerns).


Minnebar 8 (2013-04-06)


Don Ball