Kyle Oppenhuizen is the Business Record’s Tech and Innovation beat reporter.Have an idea or tip? | (515) 661-6086kyleoppenhuizen@bpcdm.comTwitter: @KyleOppenhuizen
Kyle Oppenhuizen is the Business Record’s Tech and Innovation beat reporter.
Have an idea or tip? | (515) 661-6086
Twitter: @KyleOppenhuizen

Tuk ... Tuk ... Tuk ... Goose!

Conventional wisdom says the work environment in a technology startup is different than most businesses. As Matthew Smith proved last month, the community’s social environment is unique in its own right.

Smith, founder of, organized an event called the Tuk Tuk Goose Chase. The premise: Nine teams fixed up, decorated and raced old three-wheeled Cushman trucks.

The race drew participation from startups such as Goodsmiths LLC and Hatchlings Inc., as well as small businesses and organizations.

Smith got the idea after a friend asked him to do a race in India with auto rickshaws, three-wheeled motorized taxis sometimes referred to as tuk tuks. That didn’t work out, but the idea was planted and Smith wanted to make it happen in Des Moines. He went around the Midwest finding the closest vehicles he could – the Cushmans, vehicles that used to be utilized for such tasks as delivering mail.

The event drew sponsorships from local businesses as well as Boulevard Brewing Co. The race even got noticed by organizers at Austin, Texas-based South by Southwest (SXSW), which hosts a technology conference in March concurrently with its music and film festivals. After seeing the event on live webcams, SXSW organizers expressed interest in setting up a race at the festival, though nothing has been decided yet.

Whether or not that happens, Smith was impressed at how the tech startup community in Des Moines rallied around the event.

“I think it shows collectively the power of what the combined efforts of the startup community getting together and rallying behind an idea can do in a short amount of time,” Smith said. “It’s emblematic of what’s amazing about Iowa, which is startups helping startups. It’s not a back-stabbing place. It’s a place where people want to help.”

A different type of Thinc-ing

Thinc Iowa, the second annual technology startup conference held in October by Silicon Prairie News, attracted 100 more attendees than the previous year and organizers are considering it a success.

The inaugural event focused on connecting startups and the traditional business community. This year, organizers decided to focus on a broader theme of entrepreneurship and innovation, said Geoff Wood, chief operating officer at Silicon Prairie News, which writes about the technology startup scene in Des Moines, Omaha and Kansas City.

“We made a conscious change based on the feedback we got in 2011.” Wood said.

Wood said they modeled this year’s Thinc Iowa after his company’s other large event, Big Omaha, and in the process drew 400 attendees, up from 300 the previous year. The event’s 2012 goal was to inspire attendees, most of whom worked in start-ups, and create more collaboration within the start-up community. The first event also led to unforseen business connections, such as Dwolla’s Ben Milne with a future investor.

“Really, that’s probably what I’m most excited about: to look back in six months and find out what things were kind of sparked at Thinc Iowa,” Wood said.

StartupCity’s Year 2 goal: more business involvement

In its second year of operation, tech business incubator StartupCity Des Moines plans to seek more involvement from traditional business leaders.

“The one thing that most young companies need is the voice of experience, the voice of mentors,” said StartupCity principal Tej Dhawan. “I’d love to see many, many more mentors engaged.”

He’s not quite sure how StartupCity will go about it, but the tech business incubator needs to have more involvement from business leaders, he said. Part of that effort is just making sure that business leaders are aware of the success stories in StartupCity and the tech community at large. On a deeper level, it’s about helping entrepreneurs gain the tools to succeed.

But as StartupCity learned in its first year of operation, just because it’s a thought doesn’t mean it will become a reality, said Dhawan.

“We’re going to have to have a little more deliberate effort to reach (the business community) and tell the stories of the tech successes that are happening,” he said. “We’ll probably beat the drum a little bit louder, with a little more frequency.”

Other goals include:
Expanding the number of startups housed in the incubator at 317 Sixth Ave. from the current nine to around 20 by the end of the second year of operation. StartupCity has turned down nearly 150 applicants in its first year due to companies either not being the right type of high-growth tech-based startup, or potentially being a competitor to an existing startup in the space.

Identifying ways to ensure that StartupCity is sustainable. None of its businesses have had a liquidity event yet such as an acquisition or merger, and that’s not expected to happen until the third year. The incubator is essentially in a three-year experimental phase currently through its funding from a number of different sources, including the city, the state and the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

StartupCity year 1 notes:
• Home to nine startup companies

• Became the meeting place for the tech community, informally, through events such as Startup Weekend, and by hosting local, national and international politicians.

• Helped create a statewide organization through the Startup America Partnership. StartupIowa provides more visibility and resources to Iowa entrepreneurs.