There’s one important address for an entrepreneur in Indianapolis to have.
It’s 5255 N. Winthrop Street. Home of The Speak Easy. It’s a brightly painted one-story warehouse steps from a street full of quirky, locally owned restaurants and shops, and 15 minutes from downtown Indianapolis.
It’s where freelance developers and designers code on couches, where start-up founders and investors camp out in conference rooms, craft beers flow during evening hackathons and meet-ups, lawyers and marketers give business-building workshops and where corporate CEOs come to scout out the next technologies to best serve their business.
Call it a community center for start-ups, a central gathering place for entrepreneurial activity. Even better, it’s a key economic development driver for Indiana’s biggest metropolis, creating new jobs and wealth around emerging technologies and industries.
“There’s a commonality when you walk in our space,” says executive director Denver Hutt. “Everyone here wants to do something. Everyone here is working on something cool.”
But the Speak Easy isn’t the only place where start-ups are congregating these days. In at least a dozen cities across the United States, physical spaces are being created to unite communities of entrepreneurs and to give those who support them — governments, design agencies, corporations, universities and financiers — one place to go to get involved.
There’s General Assembly in New York, Capital Factory in Austin, Galvanize in Denver, Geekdom in San Antonio, 1871 in Chicago and the recently opened 1776, just steps from the White House in Washington, D.C.
They’re becoming a critical and powerful piece in the development of ecosystems around entrepreneurship, says Brad Feld, a venture capitalist and author of Startup Communities.
“They create entrepreneurial density and have lots of different ways for people in the community to engage,” he says.
Take Myles Grote. The co-founder of bookacoach joined Speak Easy last October.
Within weeks, he’d pitched his platform for matching student athletes with private coaches to a room full of investors. He’d met the developer of a planned 360-acre sports complex under construction near Indianapolis and a likely partner for his business. He now compares notes with the founders of Mytm8, Speak Easy members building a team management app for youth coaches.
“There are so many synergies to our businesses,” Grote says. “I wouldn’t have met them if I hadn’t joined Speak Easy.”
In each city, it all started with a set of motivated and inspired entrepreneurs who could mobilize a community in a cool and affordable space in a convenient part of town where creative people wanted to be. Most begin with an initial investment from wealthy founders or sometimes with help from a combination of private sponsors and public funds.
In Indianapolis, four founders came from backgrounds in branding, Web design, e-mail marketing and law, and wanted a place for all disciplines to collaborate and work beside each other. In early 2012, they redeveloped the old carpet factory in an up-and-coming area of town called Broad Ripple, outfitting the space with design materials repurposed from other things.
“That’s the same way a lot of these start-ups are, taking old industries and repurposing them for new life,” Speak Easy’s Hutt says. The center has more than 200 members today.
In Chicago, a partnership of the city’s most important venture capitalists, philanthropists and government leaders, created 1871 in a historic downtown office building. Its name signified the rebuilding of the city after the Great Chicago Fire that year.
The location is convenient for drop-ins by the CEOs of McDonald’s, Motorola Mobility, Microsoft (when he’s in town) or the mayor himself. Executives now contribute about 220 hours of mentorship to 1871 members each month. In the year since opening, more than 225 companies have occupied space, and they’ve raised $30 million from investors.
“I had no idea how much involvement from the community we’d have,” says Jim O’Connor Jr., interim CEO and an 1871 co-founder. “Leaders who have already IPO’d and been successful are coming back to share that experience through mentorship. That’s pretty incredible.”
The location of 1776 near the White House is a symbol of its deep connection to public policymakers and the complex government-regulated industries for which the city is known. Start-ups there are building businesses that transform education, energy, transportation or politics. More than 125 have already occupied the space since its grand opening in April. An expansion is already planned.
“Our whole philosophy is to take these four walls and bring the entire community into our space rather than have start-ups navigate the geography,” says co-founder Donna Harris, who previously traveled the nation as a leader of the Startup America Partnership.
That mission has been powerful in building up new businesses, even in three months time.
At a recent round table with U.S. government leaders and corporate CEOs at the facility, Troop ID founder Blake Hall learned that Congress would sign a bill that day relevant to his business helping veterans use their credentials to get military discounts online.
Hours later, he showed up on Capitol Hill to be part of the signing and be interviewed by members of the media.
“If we’re not curating those conversations, those connections aren’t happening,” Harris says. “When you have a space like this, there are happy collisions everywhere.”
Laura Baverman is a Raleigh, N.C.-based business journalist covering start-ups and entrepreneurship for regional and national publications. She previously covered entrepreneurship for the Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett newspaper. Baverman can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @laurabaverman.
Courtesy of USA Today