By sometime next year entrepreneurs will have a business accelerator/incubator in downtown Wichita to help them turn innovations into businesses, Gary Oborny says.
Oborny, a Wichita entrepreneur who started a successful real estate company, is co-chair of a Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce-created task force working to foster more business in Wichita.
Incubators nurture companies through a start-up phase; accelerators help companies to grow and scale up rapidly, he said.
The task force is raising $2 million from local businesses and companies and is searching for a director to create a 30,000-square-foot business accelerator-incubator in downtown next year, Oborny said.
Beyond that, he said, a larger chamber effort has raised an additional $9 million from local businesses. That fund, called E2E (entrepreneur to entrepreneur), will create jobs, business education initiatives and more entrepreneurship in Wichita, he said.
The larger overall Chamber effort has created events, searched for promising entrepreneurial projects, evaluated how to back them and tried to foster conversations between entrepreneurs, Oborny said. The goal evolved from hunting up new entrepreneurs to creating an entire and vibrant new business ecosystem to help them thrive here, Oborny said.
“There’s more momentum now to fix things than I’ve seen in a long time,” Oborny said. “I see the accelerator/incubator in 2016 as a major phase in re-awakening our mojo.”
Many business people paid attention, he said, when Wichita’s latest round of business soul-searching began three weeks ago.
James Chung, a data analyst, was hired by the Wichita Community Foundation for a two-year study of Wichita. Chung made a number of stark public assertions, including that Wichita’s economy has been in decline for three decades.
Based on population size, he said, Wichita should draw roughly $10 to $20 million annually in venture capital investment – money available to start companies that often can’t get loans from banks.
That’s not happening, Chung said. Other growing cities, including places smaller than Wichita, are drawing tens of millions or more apiece annually, he said. Wichita doesn’t even show up in the top 160 cities in 2014 for venture capital investments, while Kansas City drew $91.4 million, Omaha drew $34.1 million and Des Moines, drew $14.7 million.
The number of high-growth businesses in Wichita and the number of businesses being started here also lag behind similar cities, he said.
If we don’t want Wichita edging closer to an economic death spiral, Chung said, people need to re-examine their business culture.
Chung said Wichita had lost its entrepreneurship mojo. After that, some of Wichita’s younger entrepreneurs said they felt they have to leave Wichita to succeed.
Local entrepreneurs like Obonry and Jonathan George read the headlines about Chung’s report. They did not dispute it but say now that it isn’t the whole picture.
Things could be better, they said. But they said some of the same established business people criticized by the younger ones have been quietly writing big checks and offering advice. And George – at 32 one of Wichita’s more successful young entrepreneurs and founder of several tech companies – said young innovators here could do a better job of seeking advice and backing from established business people.
People stepped up
Many past conversations about diversifying business trickled away in the past few decades, with not much change, Oborny said.
“When the aviation business is strong we tend to relax and say everything is great – and we are not motivated,” he said. “Then the dip comes and we get excited about doing something. But then the issue is, the economy is not great.
“We have to get beyond that.”
Oborny is a lifelong Wichitan and entrepreneur who runs Occidental Management, a real estate company. Nothing Chung asserted surprised him.
Yes, he said, not enough people invest here.
Yes, entrepreneurs need more investment backing to jump-start a declining Wichita economy.
And yes, we should collaborate more.
But that $9 million raised so far shows that some Wichitans are putting up money, offering advice and trying to get something going, he said.
“What is different about this time is that people stepped up, put up money and helped create a real focus.”
It’s not easy, he said – in part because of who we are.
A complete package
One of our cultural virtues is now also a challenge, Oborny said.
“Fierce independence,” he said. “On the prairie in the 1800s when a farm implement broke down and you were located miles from a parts store, you fixed it yourself. Fierce independence is a great trait, but it doesn’t necessarily work well when you try to create a more collaborative environment.”
The chamber group at first thought it would create that fund of millions and use it to back promising local entrepreneurs. But after more thought, they modified that idea, Oborny said.
They have backed some new entrepreneurial projects and funded one company in July.
But besides raising money and finding talent to back, the task force has created events, arranged meetings between a range of people “getting them outside their usual silos” talking to each other, he said.
The task force lined up “liaisons”– ongoing discussions between what are now 32 local organizations, including Junior Achievement, Butler Community College, Wichita State University and the Hispanic Chamber. They enlisted representatives from young-person groups like the Labor Party and MakeICT along with older business people from the Chamber. A full range, Oborny said.
“We realized this approach we’re developing must involve a much more cumulative effort,” he said.
“They are now more about the complete package of how to solve all this,” George said. He created successful businesses and businesses that failed. His latest creation is Recurrency, launched in March. It is a recurring crowdfunding site where people who like musicians or artists or filmmakers or other creators can support them and stay involved in their projects.
“They could just put up money,” George said of the chamber efforts. “But one of the best analogies I’ve heard is that people track promising young baseball players all the way from Little League to the pros. And yet nobody does that for entrepreneurs where longevity is everything. Some projects fail, but in entrepreneurship you only have to be right once.
“So they decided not just to back people but provide for entire new ecosystem and then provide a funnel to help them.”
“You have to be willing to ask – and you have to be willing to give,” he said.
Conservative or wisdom?
Laura Bernstorf is the current chair of the Young Professionals of Wichita, one group the task force engaged.
She was also one of the younger generation of business leaders who said publicly that Chung was right and that business elders treat younger people too dismissively.
The chamber effort is an earnest try, she said. But she said their effort also may have exposed more of the generational divide.
“How are they letting people know about this entrepreneurship task force?” she said. “Do they do tweets and blogs, where the newer generation lives, where they will see this? Or not? Younger people might not have heard of them.”
Beyond that, she said, “The older generation here is really friendly if you’re like them – nice, Waspy, middle-aged, conservative.”
But George doesn’t agree with that assessment.
“Laura is not wrong,” George said. “But what she described is actually not a failure of E2E but is a failure of younger people like myself and Laura and Kenton Hansen (a co-founder of the Labor Party, an entrepreneurship group) not doing enough to get the word out. We should take it upon ourselves to get the word out.”
Oborny said he paid attention to the concerns of those younger entrepreneurs. Raising concerns is always good for a public debate, he said, and it’s true that local businesses can be conservative about investing.
“But when you’re asked to put your money into a project, they want to know details – ‘how will you make this happen? Does your project have market validation? Do you have revenue? Do you have customers?’
“Some people think just because you have an idea that you can come to Tom Devlin (a longtime Wichita entrepreneur) or to us – and we’ll give you money. That’s not going to happen. Investors need to have answers to those questions. You can call that conservative if you want, but I call it wisdom.”
For more information
To learn more about the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s E2E (entrepreneur to entrepreneur) program, contact Gary Oborny, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Wichita Community Foundation is inviting people to share ideas on improving Wichita’s economy on Twitter at #focusforwardICT.