A conversation with … Richard Stevens

02/02/2014 7:27 AM

08/08/2014 10:21 AM

Richard Stevens thinks Wichita has come a long way in developing its own technology development scene.

Stevens, a lawyer with Martin Pringle whose practice specializes in startup companies, especially tech startups, said the city has always had the entrepreneurial spirit, and over the last decade it has developed a pool of people with technical skills.

It’s still behind cities such as Kansas City, Des Moines or Omaha in creating a culture and support system, he said, but it’s closing the gap.

Stevens, 38, is married to Wendy and they have three children.

Does Wichita have the people needed to develop a tech startup scene?

We now have people who have those skills in traditional settings who are willing to come out to events like Startup Weekend last year, and pitch ideas and get together in teams and, even if just for a weekend, explore the idea of doing something new, something that would take them out of the confines of more mature corporate settings.

I think that energy is what attracts people to it. Now, not everybody who feels the energy ends up joining a startup, but there are a lot of people in Wichita – maybe dozens, maybe we are far enough along to say there are 100 – that would gravitate toward those types of companies. The energy has started.

So, what’s needed?

We are not as far along as Kansas City or Boulder, because the missing piece is the funding piece. Tech entrepreneurs need funding, but the beauty of it is they need far less than a real estate or inventory or manufacturing business. They are generally not what bankers want to lend money to because they don’t have inventory and real estate and capital equipment. The valuation models are out there, but I don’t know whether people in the Midwest are comfortable with the valuations they use in Silicon Valley, the percentages of equity that you get in exchange for an investment. But the missing gap are the people who are angel investors who are willing to invest in a business that they can drive down to the warehouse district and visit. A lot of people just don’t understand how that model works. But Wichita is full of people, accredited investors, can easily write $20,000, $30,000, $50,000, $100,000 checks as angel investors for ideas that they believe in.

How could that change?

That is the next step, for the energy in the startup community to catch on with investors, for them to say “I’m putting my money into a lot of different places in my portfolio. Why don’t I put some of it into this and see which ones take off.”

That’s what the venture capitalists and angel investors do in Silicon Valley, in New York and in Kansas City, for that matter. There are angel investors out there talking to these startups regularly. There are plenty who qualify financially, that’s not the problem. It’s a matter of them looking not just at real estate, oil and gas or other traditional Wichita-type opportunities, but to look at these tech opportunities.

What ways are usually used to push this along?

If you look at the funded accelerator models, where there is some funding or some funding at the end … they say: We are going to vet you, equip you, give you coaching, mentoring and feedback and, if you survive and graduate, your company will get X amounts of funds. … We are not quite ready for an accelerator in Wichita because nobody has stepped up and funded one, but that puts those people face to face.

If Wichita needs to increase the amount of face-to-face time, what’s being done?

More of these events are happening: There’s the ICT Unconference coming up in April. It’s a different conference model where people can come and bump into each other, entrepreneurs, potential investors. …We’re excited about that kind of stuff, the Startup Weekend; MakeICT just had a kickoff.

What else?

The (Wichita Metro) Chamber (of Commerce) has turned its attention to this area, and that’s good. They have a tech alliance, which I participated in, that holds some promise for encouraging it. Anytime you’ve got an infant that needs a little nurturing, you can use some resources to make sure it doesn’t fall down and get hurt and destroy itself before it gets to the next step of development. So I’m optimistic, and I know there is a lot of different efforts. (President John) Bardo at Wichita State has got some ideas. Energy is important and momentum is important, and I think that momentum is higher than it has ever been.

How quickly can this happen?

The Chamber is taking its time deciding how it can help, and I think that’s a good because you can easily spend a lot of money in a way that doesn’t help or makes things worse … It will happen with connections between individuals.

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