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The Future of the DSM Startup Community Post-COVID

Small Business and Startup Stories

March 26, 2021


Mike Colwell, executive director of entrepreneurial initiatives for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, is retiring this month. Before his exit, he sat down with Tej Dhawan, chief data officer with Principal Financial Group and startup advocate, and Ben Milne, Executive Chairman of Dwolla, to discuss the where the Greater Des Moines (DSM) startup community is going as the region moves forward in a post-COVID world.

Building the Startup Ecosystem in 2010

On November 14, 2010, Dhawan and Colwell met after Dhawan left his own technology company. He was in the midst of trying to find ways to give back to the community and help another tech founder start his own company. Colwell had chosen that day to show up and assist the founder as well. Dhawan and Colwell set a lunch meeting for later that day and ended up discussing how to advance the startup community in DSM through mentoring and startup-focused events.

Milne remembers that from 2010 to 2012, the number of meetups and events for entrepreneurs hoping to start their own businesses flourished. He says that Dhawan and Colwell’s investment, along with that of others who had a passion to see growth in the DSM startup community, has had a huge and lasting impact on the region. From helping finance early meetings to offering advice on what to do and not do as a new founder, many have benefited from the mentoring that continues to happen in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of DSM. 

The three discuss the beginnings of StartupCity DSM and the culture it created, that of a welcoming place where you could come and go as you pleased and help others without judgement. StartupCity DSM served many functions but Tej says he remembers it as a community center that also hosted events and created connections that have lasted to this day. Colwell says that it served as an instigator for the DSM community. 

Milne explains how the interconnectivity of the people within the startup community continues to help create new events, making it easier for the next generation to jump off and build what has and will come next. Colwell cites Plains Angels and the Global Insurance Accelerator as two groups that grew from StartupCity DSM. 

Post-COVID Changes

Dhawan says the hard workers haven’t stopped working because of COVID. They are working even harder. Some companies will realize their business model isn’t working. These founders will have learned lessons they can carry on to their next ventures and pass on to others. He says growth comes from those negative lessons and hopes founders will keep sharing them.

For Milne, his attention has turned from a DSM focus to an industry focus. Because outside investors are meeting over Zoom, companies can be built here quicker than he ever thought possible prior to COVID. Because of that, no one even asks where you are located. They ask about the opportunity, essentially leveling the playing field.

Both Milne and Dhawan touch on the potential problems of Iowa’s current brand and the problem that brand poses with recruiting and hiring the type of professionals needed for continued growth. Dhawan discusses his fears surrounding how future generations will view Iowa. He says the startup world is an ecosystem and if part of it is dying, the whole ecosystem falls. Dhawan cites restrictive policies put forth in the state which hinder the startup community from retaining and attracting new talent as the part of the ecosystem that is at risk. Colwell agrees, saying if you lose diversity, it’s going to hurt. All three highlight the importance of inclusivity creating a stronger business. 

In thinking about the next 10 years, Milne says he is optimistic because attracting capital is more accessible because of COVID. The founders are getting better advice faster because there is a larger pool of people to talk to thanks to virtual meetings. The faster access to capital is going to continue to be game-changing, and the only thing stopping people from building good companies is their own ambition and execution. 

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Startup Stories DSM

Startup Stories DSM is a podcast featuring conversations with entrepreneurs who share both their victories and failures on their paths to success. It is produced by the Greater Des Moines Partnership.