#StartupsEverywhere: Indianapolis, Ind.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Julie Heath, Executive Director, The Speak Easy 

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.


Helping Innovation Blossom in Indy

The Speak Easy, a non-profit coworking space in Indianapolis, serves as a successful hub of entrepreneurial activity in the Midwest. Hosting startups and businesses from a variety of industries, The Speak Easy provides a setting for entrepreneurs to collaborate and innovate with one another. Julie Heath, The Speak Easy’s executive director, recently took the time to chat with us about the co-working environment, issues impacting local startups, and the space’s participation in Congressional Startup Day.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? What is your background? 

Over my career, I’ve split the professional world into quadrants. Half of the organizations I worked for were non-profit and half were for-profit, and half were large and half were small. I worked in each of those quadrants, and what I found is that they all speak different languages. A startup with a staff of two uses a very different language than a large company, and that’s a very different language from what a non-profit uses. 

I’ve always been in entrepreneurial roles, often with the launch of projects or the launch of business lines, including serving as the first full-time employee at a software startup. Often what I’d do is figure out go-to-market strategy for something we were rolling out. 

Tell us more about The Speak Easy. What role do you play in helping entrepreneurs across central Indiana?

The Speak Easy was started in 2011. That’s when the first seed funding came from the city—specifically from a group called Develop Indy—and then we officially opened our doors in 2012. The concept of co-working wasn’t very well known, so they called it a Moose Lodge for startups, which is a good descriptor actually. 

I think it was almost by accident that we became a non-profit. We’re much more analogous to a private club, which is different from the usual co-working model that generally involves a real estate play. We ended up becoming a community and a place where ideas could be born. Ideas could become companies, or products, or civic groups, even meetups—like hardware meetups or Python language meetings. 

We consider ourselves successful when startups go from “I have an idea” to “I have customers.” And that’s what’s different about us. We do a good job of getting people through that process by lowering the barrier of entry to entrepreneurship. Our memberships are only $75 per month, which is just about the cheapest rent that you can get. 

And then there’s this idea of “manufactured serendipity,” or the ability for ideas to collide. These collisions work so well here because we’re sector agnostic. We have members who are from every industry and across the board in terms of subject matter expertise. This lets our entrepreneurs overcome the friction points around innovation because of this diversity of perspective and experience.

What makes Indianapolis’s startup ecosystem unique? 

Members of the community are empowered to create a hub of activity. The Speak Easy staff doesn't "own" much of the programming; rather we encourage members and community partners to collaborate and try out new programming. We host a number of events, including 1 Million Cups—which is run by community leaders from the Indy Chamber, Ivy Tech, Elevate Ventures, and several small businesses. Another program called ‘Smartups,’ which is marketing for startups, is run by the founder of one of our alumni companies.

When no one really owns the space, and everyone can come in and contribute, you have a flourishing environment that allows new ideas to be born.

There’s also something special about the Midwest. There’s an impulse towards neighborliness here. Everyone in our community lends a hand, and that’s kind of our unwritten value. Leave it better than you found it, lend a hand, and meet someone new. 

The cost of living in Indy and in the Midwest is also a lot lower than the urban coastal hubs, so I think if you’re bootstrapping your business and trying to get off the ground, you have a better shot of doing that here. If it’s going to take 48 months for a company to dial in product-market fit, the runway can be extended in a lower cost of living area. At $75/month and a lot of advice from other members, you can get pretty far.

Are there any policies at the federal, state, or local level in particular that have helped The Speak Easy?

Kauffman Foundation research shows that three out of 1,000 people in the U.S. will launch a business this month. In Indiana, it’s actually two out of 1,000 people that are launching a company. 

To move the needle on the number of people starting companies, we should solve for health insurance access in the first 24 months (of starting a new business). If we could get those first two years covered for entrepreneurs and new startups—in terms of health insurance at a really low price point—we’d also likely increase company survival rates in year one and year three. That’s what I’d solve on the state or federal policy level, if I could snap my fingers and do it. 

What issues are Indiana startups and entrepreneurs dealing with that should receive more attention from state and federal policymakers?

Access to capital is probably the number one thing our entrepreneurs would cite, because a lot of them are looking for either pre-revenue capital or market rollout capital.

I encourage policy makers to focus on the earliest part of the entrepreneurial journey—the ideation, proof of concept, and market intro stages. Once a company has a degree of product-market fit, several customers, and some revenue, it’s really easy for market solutions to help that company accelerate. It’s the beginning stage, when a startup doesn’t yet have revenue or customers, that we could—as a region, city, state, and country—create effective policy for optimal impact. 

Rep. Susan Brooks visited The Speak Easy during Startup Week Across America in 2018, and staffers from Sen. Mike Braun’s office visited as part of 2019 Congressional Startup Day. What were those meetings like, and why is it important to have startups and entrepreneurs engage with their members of Congress? 

Data from the Kauffman Foundation shows that new businesses—companies that have been around for 0-5 years—represent 20 percent of gross new jobs and almost all net-new jobs. By definition then, we should be supporting them because they are the future of work. There’s nothing better than having someone with a 30,000-foot policy view getting into the trenches and talking to entrepreneurs who are dealing with the day-to-day rigors of starting a company. 

Last year, we got a call from Rep. Brooks’ office that the congresswoman wanted to come by and meet with us. She carved out maybe half an hour or an hour of time, and two hours later she was still talking to a group of entrepreneurs here. I think they were really good conversations, and everyone there was very engaged. 

This year, we talked about health insurance with Sen. Braun’s staff for a large part of the conversation. It’s the one issue I can point to and say that, if we can solve this, we can unleash innovation and entrepreneurship. Senator Braun’s staff indicated that the senator experienced traction with his own company once he was able to offer health benefits, so it sounds like this is an area of key interest.

What is your goal for The Speak Easy moving forward? 

It relates back to the idea of manufactured serendipity. Our entrepreneurs get traction when they interact with established companies that value innovation, with entrepreneurs in other industries, and with our remote workers who have deep subject matter expertise. I’m looking for ways that we can help codify that. There are models we can borrow from in the non-profit space that enable information sharing and skilled help. 

We haven’t figured it all out yet, but we’re moving in a direction where we streamline entrepreneurs helping one another. Then we will quantify the economic impact of the help and that expedited progress.

All of the information in this profile was accurate at the date and time of publication.

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email edward@engine.is.