Business Q & A

April 20, 2014

A conversation with Herb Sih

Herb Sih is like a little bit of Silicon Valley in the Midwest.

Herb Sih is like a little bit of Silicon Valley in the Midwest.

Sih, managing partner of Think Big Partners of Kansas City, helps entrepreneurs and advises on how to build community entrepreneur ecosystems and commercialize emerging technologies.

Sih, 47, will be in Wichita on Tuesday to help lead the ICT Unconference, a gathering at the Wichita Marriott to jump-start the entrepreneurial activity level in Wichita.

He has started more than 20 companies, including some of Kansas City’s fastest growing companies, and sold seven of them. Prior to that he was a senior vice president for Wachovia Securities and before that, a helicopter pilot and officer in the military. He graduated from the University of Kansas. He is married to Melinda, and they have three children.

What is Think Big Partners?

I’m an entrepreneur myself, and we couldn’t find a place like it, so we built it ourselves. It’s where entrepreneurs can walk in with a good idea and walk out with a profitable company. We went and created what we wished we had. … It has four components. It’s a business incubator. It’s a tech startup accelerator, which is different from an incubator in that it has a shorter program with a much higher cadence. It’s a co-working space, which is really a loose confederation of like-minded people that share resources. Most are 5,000 to 10,000 square feet, and 79 percent do not make money for the operator, so it’s really a labor of love … and we offer professional services, acting as an innovation partner, which means consulting and finding a market when somebody has a good idea, or when there’s a market, looking for a solution.

What is an unconference?

When you go to most conferences, at least for me, I show up, sit down and tune in – and 15 minutes later, I’m tuned out, because of the tired dialogue. But you’ll meet somebody you know or somebody you were looking for and start talking, go to lunch with them, and wish you could just keep on talking. This conference just flips that around. It creates unscripted dialogue. It’s very dynamic, very spontaneous, but it’s also very productive, because there is actually a method to it.

How can the unconference stimulate tech entrepreneurialism?

Our experience is that there are distinct patterns: 10 percent of entrepreneurs create 66 percent of the jobs. … If you look at that number, without being disrespectful to the consumer lifestyle businesses, high-end gift shops, coffeehouses and the like, you have to focus on the entrepreneurs that really create the jobs. Four percent of tech entrepreneurs create 44 percent of jobs, and those entrepreneurs produced an average of 73 jobs each over 10 years. They are really, really, really busy. If you really want to get a community energized you have to get the right components: high, medium and low-growth entrepreneurs, as well as more mature businesses that could become demand partners. … The unconference model is to get the right people having meaningful dialogue: “I’m an entrepreneur, buy my product; I’m a headhunter, I’m looking for talent; I’m with the university, this the research we’re doing.”

Is there a cultural barrier for the Midwest in becoming an entrepreneurial hotbed?

Well, there is. … Being in the Midwest means we don’t always have access to the money, the talent and the press. When you say I’m from Kansas City or Wichita, sometimes people’s eyes glaze over. But I think that’s changing. In 2010, when I started going to California, some people there literally could not find Kansas City on a map. Then that moved to, “Oh, you’re country bumpkins. Do you drive tractors? Do you have the Internet?” But about a year and a half ago, I started hearing, “You know, we could learn something from the Midwest.” My jaw just dropped. In the Midwest, we tend to build relationships, to want to develop trust in the people we do business with. In the tech world, so often you don’t spend time with, or even see, the people you’re working with. But if you work in the connected world, you’ve got to be able to trust each other. That may be something that is lacking. So, there are still challenges, no doubt about it, but in telling the story of the Midwest, attitudes are changing.

What is needed in Wichita to develop one?

What makes sense is to work with whatever you’re good at. Look at Wichita’s long history as the Air Capital. It’s one of the biggest aviation clusters in the country, along with Seattle. What do you do with that? It’s an opportunity to take all of that expertise and knowledge-base that helps support the aircraft industry and ask how do we reshape that to look at emerging technologies, such as advanced materials, advanced fuel systems, advanced robotics, all these different fields. You have to look at where the puck is going, and what kind of new tricks an old dog can practice.

What is missing is you’ve to get more inertia moving. … You’ve got a lot of the pieces, but you’ve got to get people interconnected. There is a certain way of doing this. It’s a recipe. You don’t have to have all the proportions exact, but you do need the right ingredients.

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