Techstars facilitator Michael Norton bets on Fargo, moves into Startup House

Michael Norton has spent the past year of his life hop-skotching around the U.S. and Canada, facilitating Startup Weekends and observing the startup communities across the board. This summer, after visiting over 25 cities, he decided Fargo was the right place to be.

“I’ve been to cities of 10,000, like Yankton, South Dakota, and I’ve been to cities that have been tech hubs for decades,” he said. “I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a place that I could settle down… and build some things myself.”

Norton’s been involved in a number of projects prior to Techstars, ranging from a building guitars to starting a funnel cake stand, to developing an expertise in audio production and Kickstarter campaigns. In 2014 he joined Up Global, the creators of Startup Weekend, working as a technical project manager.

Startup Weekend was a turning point. He fell in love with the programming, which involves going through the process of launching the foundations of a startup in 54 hours. Until then, he’d spent his time primarily in San Diego and Seattle. Startup Weekend prompted him to embark on a nomadic cross-country journey, facilitating Startup Weekends almost every weekend.

It brought him to Fargo, first in January after meeting Marisa Jackels (yours truly) and Brittany Sickler at a TechStars retreat where we extended personal invitations to everyone to come to Fargo. He experienced winter and he put the leg in the woodchipper. Then, again, he returned as a facilitator for Women’s Startup Weekend in March, 2016.

In these two trips, Norton did his thing. That is, he met people. He engaged in conversation about people’s personal lives and dreams. He sat in 20 Below coffee shop until people knew him on a first name basis and chatted with him like a regular.

It’s something he did in every city he visited, he said; he got to know the locals and the different players that make up a startup community. He talked with the incubators, the coworking spaces, the investors and the entrepreneurs. But he also talked with the coffee shop owners, the people in restaurants, the artists.

And in the end, after hopping from city to city across America, something about Fargo stuck.

“I’ve watched for a place where all of the different players in a startup or entrepreneurial community are working together well,” he said. “There are many. Fargo is one of them.”

Why Fargo?

In Fargo, he sees a rhythm between the different pillars of the startup community, he said. He sees a collaboration between institutional education and community education, and an interest from professors, deans and faculty in the work of entrepreneurs. He sees that there’s an accessibility with people that is hard sought elsewhere.

“The town is small enough that even though things are moving fast and people are excited, you have access to all of the resources that you would want to without going through different filters,” he said. “Asking someone for advice and saying, ‘can I buy you a coffee?’ actually works here.”

He sees an interest from those in legislature, mentioning the Doug and Joe Burgum’s move into civic roles as a point of interest as well.

“There’s people like the Burgums… who have been entrepreneurs, and who understand tech…and, we hope, will make moves to continue to create access points for young entrepreneurs to start off,” he said. “In some cities your legislative bodies are made up of primarily people who were never in business themselves.”

Not to mention that he made good friends here in his short stay, and his appreciation for the Fargo way of life, he said.

“To me, coming to Fargo feels like going to camp,” he said. “It feels like a sabbatical, it feels like taking a break from really fast-paced world and being in a place where I really have space to think and grow.”

Moving to the Fargo Startup House

Fargo Startup House

Things clicked into place when Norton heard of the Fargo Startup House, a free place to live for entrepreneurs managed by Miguel Danielson of Danielson Legal LLC. An application and conversation secured him a spot, and Norton moved in in early June.

Like every Startup House resident, the move comes with a basket of projects that Norton is already beginning to work on.

This month, he began his role doing marketing and strategy for Prairie Roots Co-Op, he said. He is also dabbling in the drone industry and developing an idea for a relationship management software. He has a goal to work on twelve different business ideas in a year, he said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s one per month, one might start and fail in two weeks. Then you move on. I just want to keep trying ideas,” he said.

Where his true passion lies, however, is in a project called Ink Review. Over the past few years, Norton has encompassed a network of hundreds of artists from across the world. He’s gathered and shared their work on Instagram, an account that now has 34,600 followers. Now he’s taking that network and using it to conduct interviews which he hopes to turn into articles and a podcast.

His goal is to talk to artists about their mindset, about decision-making, and explore how the art world and the tech world meet and interact.

“I really like pulling out insights from one discipline and applying them to another discipline,” he said. “I think that can be a powerful way to learn and grow.”

During his time in Fargo — at least a year, he said — Norton plans to continue pushing for growth in the startup community, using his connections across the country to help nourish that growth. He hopes to keep traveling as well, with a goal to facilitate one Startup Weekend per month. But, he said, “Fargo is home base.”

Welcome to Fargo, Michael. Follow him on Twitter @TheRedHype.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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