This week we’re traveling with Steve Case on the Rise of the Rest road trip to celebrate entrepreneurship, in all its forms, across America. Every day we’ll post dispatches from the cities we’ve seen. Stay tuned for updates from Kansas City and St. Louis.
Every four years, thousands of reporters descend on Des Moines to follow every move of presidential hopefuls at the Iowa caucuses, but there’s another reason to visit this small city in central Iowa. Its startup scene, which accounts for at least part of the reasons that Forbes named Des Moines the #1 City for Young Professionals in 2014, is on the rise.
So, why Des Moines? “I just happened to have been here and this place is awesome,” said Ben Milne, founder and CEO of the payment platform, Dwolla, one of the Des Moines’ most successful startups. But there’s clearly more to it.
Aside from the political caucuses, Des Moines is a major center for insurance and agribusiness—industries that many startups have built business strategies around. The region has a reputation for hard-working residents as well as a low cost of doing business—17 percent below the national average. It’s also attracted a younger population in recent years through revitalization projects that added urban gardens, new retail, and entertainment venues to their downtown.
We stopped by Dwolla’s offices, where the company employs more than 40 people (with more in San Francisco, New York, and Kansas City). Founded in 2008, Dwolla has become a household name around Des Moines (and the entire country), inspiring others to start and keep their businesses here. Down the street, we visited Gravitate, a brand new co-working space where we met many startups, including Tikly. Tikly’s founder, Emma Peterson, told a story that highlights Des Moines’ strong community: it was none other than Dwolla’s Ben Milne who encouraged her to start her growing business.
We were also joined by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds who both trumpeted the startup activity across the state, including in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, where tour partners Seed Here Studio are based. Co-founders Andy Stoll and Amanda West lived all over the country and the world before returning to Iowa to grow the grassroots entrepreneurial and creative communities here in Iowa.
"In 2008, Cedar Rapids experienced the fourth worst natural disaster in US history, Amanda said. "Watching our state work through the clean-up process, we saw an opportunity to help the region not only rebuild but reimagine a classic American city for the Innovation Age. The movement today in Iowa is 2000+ people strong with many leaders. It’s amazing to see what is possible just a few short years when brilliant people get connected."
The pitch competition featured many more startups and their ideas to improve construction worksite efficiency, update classroom technology, digitalize baby books, and eliminate medical appointment waiting times. The winner, Bawte, is poised to solve the age-old problem of cataloging the products you own, along with their warranties and attendant details.
The network of startups in Des Moines is still “percolating,” as Dwolla’s Milne put it. Steve Case, along with our own Julie Samuels, gave some advice on what the community here can do to support it. “You need to get your stories out here,” Julie said. “People need to know what’s going on here in Iowa.”
There is a lot happening in Iowa. The engaged, tight-knit startup community is supporting its youngest members and creating jobs that are bringing Iowans back home. We can’t wait to see what percolates out of Des Moines next.