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thrice all american: On Tech Startups and Tacoma
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On Tech Startups and Tacoma

· Posted Wednesday October 8, 2008 by jamie

Recent Seattle P-I to Puget Sound Business Journal transplants John Cook and Todd Bishop have temporarily set up home at Where Are John and Todd? while their new BizJournal site comes online. Today John writes about a recently-started Seattle angel investment group called the Founders Co-op. Their philosophy: provide limited capital (typically $50k to $200k) to seed stage tech startups, usually those still in the two- or three-employee stage, while also fostering an atmosphere of openness and support amongst their community of entrepreneurs. Similar smaller-than-VC-amounts investment groups exist in the Seattle market in the form of Curious Office and Monster Venture Partners. This all on top of a generally high level of networking and community amongst those in the Seattle startup community.

Now, what for Tacoma? We’ve got a couple of small tech companies around here, but choosing to locate in Tacoma (rather than, say, Pioneer Square AKA startup central) is the exception to the rule. There’s not a lot of networking between employees at different companies. There’s not “district” where these companies tend to locate. Programming talent is hard to find. (I’m not sure if this last thing is because programmers don’t live here, or because they’re all commuting to their jobs in Seattle/Redmond/wherever…)

But generally, the question is begged, why isn’t there an active startup community in Tacoma. We are within an hour of the Seattle market. There are all sorts of buildings with the cool loft spaces that small software firms like so much. UWT’s Tech Institute is by all indications growing, turning out both undergraduate and graduate software developers. UPS and PLU, both excellent schools, also turn out CS graduates in respectable numbers. Sure, there’s not the sexiness of being in Seattle, and I don’t have any illusions of Tacoma having as broad a tech presence as said neighbor-to-the-north, but it’s hard to see what’s standing in the way of more of a startup presence here.

I wonder if maybe the funding piece of the pie is one of the factors holding us back. Yes, there’s the Tacoma Angel Network (and non-funding-related support from the William Factory Small Business Incubator), but those are a little bit heavy on some of the details that many tech startups tend to scoff at, such as detailed business plans. In all honesty, most of these startups are coming to fruition through the efforts of programmers and designers, not MBAs and marketers, and the value is in the idea (and making it come to fruition), not long term goals and overly-thorough market analysis. Yes, there will be failures, but providing a framework for seed-funding ideas for small companies, without formal business process overhead, simply works for small tech companies. Bay Area venture firm Y Combinator has proven it with companies like Justin.tv, Loopt, and reddit. Curious Office has seen success with Imagekind (acquired by CafePress) and Shelfari (acquired by Amazon). Granted, there’s nothing precluding any of these firms from funding a Tacoma company, but to my knowledge it hasn’t happened yet.

So what if there were a Tacoma tech startup funder/incubator? It could be an extension of the Angel Network or it could be it’s own thing, but the operative thing is that it would provide relatively minimal funding (at least in the venture funding sense), and favor ideas over formal business plans. Picture a shared office of small two-to-three member teams working on a number of projects, each with just enough funding to cover equipment, salaries, and other overhead. An exciting collaborative atmosphere. Tons of new tech jobs for Tacoma residents! If it were connected or closely allied with the UWT Technology Institute (and/or UPS, and/or PLU), even better, because we can tap that talent before it takes jobs elsewhere–a great way to keep one segment of “cultural creatives” in town after they’re done with their degrees. (And the area around the UWT would be great, location-wise, for this…) Now, I don’t have the money to be a part of making this happen, but I really think it would open up some exciting potential for the future of Tacoma, downtown development, commerce, etc.

Thoughts, anyone?

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Comments:

  1. I have lots of thoughts on this one, Jamie, and would like to hold further discussions on the topic. I am running out to a parent teacher conference now but look forward to laying down some infrastructure in town to support start up efforts.

    Two things off the top.

    Reinvigorate the South Sound Chapter of the WTIA, as they have lots of resources for entrepreneurs (full disclosure I am on their board).

    Put a birds of a feather group together to discuss the topic at the end of the South Sound Technology Conference on November 21st.

    Andrew Fry    Oct 8, 01:05 PM    #
  2. I am running out to a parent teacher conference now but look forward to laying down some infrastructure in town to support start up efforts.

    So you’ll have that done by the end of the day?

    Kidding aside, I’m definitely interested in hearing about your vision.

    jamie    Oct 8, 01:19 PM    #
  3. It’d be cool if the incubator included a set of services to help get ideas off the ground. Not only a shared workspace but a discount on web hosting or an in house designer (that’s for us programmers who don’t necessarily put the best front end together).

    Michael Maitlen    Oct 8, 02:04 PM    #
  4. Great idea, Jamie. You should do it!

    Seriously, I think about this stuff all the time. It’s not really about Tacoma not having a tech culture (it doesn’t), it’s about a lack of an entrepreneurial climate.

    The question then becomes what can be done to increase Tacoma’s entrepreneurial activity? The challenges here are many. A huge factor is the fact that the largest employers are government and hospital – as opposed to for profit companies.

    While it is possible to create cultures of innovation out of government and hospital workers, it takes great vision and leadership. This then becomes Tacoma’s challenge.

    morgan    Oct 8, 07:51 PM    #
  5. Where Morgan hits the nail on the head is the employers in the area. As an added point, those tech companies that exist here, and there are plenty of them, generally have a federal, governmental or public utility customer base. It would be nice to see consumer product or business application and system focused companies increase in number.

    Andrew Fry    Oct 9, 03:28 PM    #