Wright: Highlights from the Summer Startup Tour


The Summer Startup Tour has finished, and here’s what we learned.

People are taking bets on themselves (again). Iowan’s are starting new businesses at a record pace. Sparked by the pandemic, there is a resurgence of people solving problems, creating, trying a side hustle, and starting businesses.  

Why is Des Moines, Iowa unique to the ‘Covid Entrepreneurship Explosion’? 

  1. Many people with roots in Iowa moved to Des Moines due to the pandemic. One of the biggest advantages to Des Moines and Iowa is profoundly simple: it’s a great place to start and grow a business.  Strong networks of support for entrepreneurs and creatives already existed here before COVID-19.  Startup champions are created here every day by someone’s decision to care and help entrepreneurs take the risk.  
  1. The pandemic caused us all to look at our quality of life. It’s the biggest catalyst for why newpreneurs are deciding now is the time to pursue their dreams and ideas.  Similarly, I’ve seen many entrepreneurs turn their side hustles into a full-time business and form a ‘company of one.’  Companies, in turn, are looking to outsource work forced by the labor challenges of finding talent.  It’s the perfect storm for those looking to work for themselves and set their own hours.

The idea behind the first-ever Summer Startup Tour was to put the entrepreneurship community front and center as people reemerge back to the spaces for making, creating, and building businesses. Tour stops included:

  • Gravitate Coworking, small & large shared community space in downtown Des Moines
  • Maple Ventures, incubation space for industrial technology startups in Valley Junction
  • Mainframe Studios, affordable workspace for artists located in downtown Des Moines
  • xBk Live, a music and entertainment venue located in the Drake neighborhood

Photos by Jami Milne.

Community collisions matter.  The pandemic changed the way we work. It became clear that we need to remember that our work is never alone. Gravitate Coworking knows this well, where it’s familiar ground to freelancers, remote workers, or small startup teams. I’ve noticed more recently, it can be the first welcoming spot a transplant or newcomer to the city pull-ups to check out if Des Moines is a place for them. While the coffee, wifi, and natural light are big draws, the fabric of the community created here is what shines.  People know when they walk in, they’re not alone. They have the people around them to remind them to keep going or sometimes pause and change course. Both are okay and valuable through the entrepreneur’s journey.     

Photos by Jami Milne.

Success leaves clues. As we stopped at Maple Ventures, home to people building physical products, the panel of businesses built in Iowa, quickly pointed out how they didn’t know it all or anything when first starting out. It’s a story fairly common for any first-time founder.  Whether it was first building a wearable electronic device used to measure factory safety to prevent injuries to manufacturing a large-scale wastewater treatment solution, all hinted that it can be done. 

We need to study success by finding clues from entrepreneurs who have been there. Importantly, we have to investigate the failures when they happen (as they do) and learn from them.  

Photos by Jami Milne.

Art happens here.  The ability to see beauty is for all of us to experience. Creatives and artists know this all too well.  They believe they can bring beauty to life and make things happen every day.  It was important to me to merge the two worlds of art and entrepreneurship when planning the tour. The challenge to build a career and ‘make it’ are familiar to both artists and entrepreneurs. Photographer and Mainframe artist, Jami Milne, stated it perfectly from her vantage point capturing portraits through her camera lens. 

“My past career called them pirates and disruptors but in this life, they’re referred to as entrepreneurs: those creators who believe so deeply in what they’re meant to make that there’s no other option than to bring it to life. As an artist, I know this feeling in my core — proof that we’re made of the same stuff.”  

Photos by Jami Milne.

Music creates vibrancy.  If you didn’t attend the last tour stop at xBk Live, you missed out on the magic happening here in Des Moines. Tobi Parks’ venue located in the Drake neighborhood is one to check out. The tour ended by first featuring our music makers, creatives, and entrepreneurs building the music economy through a lively panel discussion. From an entrepreneur building custom guitars for Emmy-winning artists to a producer creating music for Imagine Dragons, Des Moines is home to a vibrant group of people you may never have known are here. 

With the final stop being at a music venue, we had to have a live show. The Finesse, a local band covering the sounds of hip-hop, jazz, rock, and the blues, reminded us all why we show up for music.  Music moves us.  As shows reemerge and live music returns, it is critical to continue to show up for the music performers, organizers, and venues owners.  The call for support is simple (and fun): Look up what shows are playing and buy tickets.  

Photos by Jami Milne.

Let’s bet on entrepreneurs. 

Like entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship community builders come in many forms. Journalists, economic developers, accelerator directors, educators, investors, corporate executives, policymakers, founders, artists, and researchers (to name a few). 

Through my short seven years of working directly with entrepreneurs, I’ve observed how it starts with anyone who cares enough. The Give First Mentality has been around Iowa for a long-time. It’s a mindset that helps shorten the learning curve for entrepreneurs building in our state.    

Often we forget that starting a business is risky.  Entrepreneurs have to pause or pivot their businesses all the time. Sometimes they have to close, sell, or transition to something entirely different.  The news of a business closing can be shocking to a community.  It is shocking to the entrepreneur too. 

Yet, the more we bet on entrepreneurs, the more we will find how their resilience to overcome challenges despite all the odds, is something to be celebrated.  For every business that closes, what if two new ones started?  

As Iowa breaks records for new business starts across the state, let’s continue to build upon the momentum.  Whether it’s small businesses, startups, creatives or entrepreneurs in Iowa, let’s support them all.  

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