Mayors from across North Dakota gathered in Fargo on September 24, for the first ever Mayor’s Summit for Entrepreneurship, to get an indepth look at the make-up of Fargo’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The event was organized by Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney and his team, as well as Emerging Prairie.
“We hope the Mayors can hear what’s happening here, and how that can be replicated in other communities,” said Scott Brusven, Director of Partnerships and Events at Emerging Prairie.
In chop-chop style, the event consisted of 17 presentations, given in three minutes with no slides. Presenters, many of them local entrepreneurs, spoke about what’s working, and where they need help.
“It’s nice to see the city get some skin in the game,” said Dan Mahli, Senior Planner for the City of Fargo. “That’s how we can really get into the fabric.”
Throughout the event, a few key components surfaced as to what we’re doing well with this startup community, and where we can improve. Here are five of them.
5 takeaways on Fargo’s startup scene
Yasuyuki Motoyama, Director of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation, gave a keynote to start off the event where he shared research from years of studying entrepreneurial ecosystems across the nation. What he’s found, he said, is that the most crucial piece to a successful ecosystem is not venture capital, or universities, or incubators, or talent.
“Even if you have all of these, things may still not work if entrepreneurs are not connected to other entrepreneurs and support organizations,” he said.
That said, he was very impressed with the level of connectedness he sees in Fargo. The fact that 1 Million Cups Fargo has the highest number of attendees in the nation, consistently beating out its birthplace of Kansas City, tells him that something here is working, he said.
It was the connectedness of 1 Million Cups that pushed Edie Ramstad, founder of Weave Got Maille, to keep her business alive.
“I was planning to shut down the business Friday. Wednesday, I went to 1 Million Cups, and was completely re-energized,” she said. “Now, we are number 3 in the world, in an industry of 700 companies.”
Likewise, what entrepreneurs need is for the city to get out of the way. And this came not from the entrepreneurs, but from the city leaders.
“We cannot lead entrepreneurship,” said Jim Gartin, President of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead EDC. “It must be led by the entrepreneurs.”
Charley Johnson, President and CEO of Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said part of this means supporting the groups created by the entrepreneurs.
“Keep working to have these organizations stay self-sustained,” he said.
Speaking of sustenance – while money is not the key puzzle piece to a healthy ecosystem, it’s definitely a big one.
Jared Stober, Director of Innovate ND, spoke of the funding programs that exist now for entrepreneurs, and encouraged people to spread the word for what’s out there. However, he said, there is still a huge need for more funding.
“We run on legislator’s dollars,” he said. “And last year we ran dry nine months before we were supposed to. The demand for funding is huge.”
Other entrepreneurs like David Batchellor of Appareo Systems, pointed out that other states have a much higher rate of investments than North Dakota.
“North Dakota has a lot of money,” he said. “Why are we limiting our money for investments?”
A big problem, he said, is that North Dakota’s seed capital investments are limited to $3.5M in tax credits per year. This means that all investors in all businesses in the state can only claim a total of $3.5M per year, he said, making anything over $7.7M of total investment ineligible for tax credits.
“If we want to create an environment of growth in technology and advanced manufacturing companies we need to encourage more investing and investing at higher levels ($1M+),” Batchellor said.
An ecosystem is made up of many parts, as was represented by the diversity of speakers at the event. From teachers, to city leaders, to game designers, to artists, each facet is necessary for success.
Mark Weiler, President and curator of ecce arts gallery, said he has seen the role of Fargo culture play a huge, if less publicized, role in transforming the city.
“I’ve seen unparalleled change in downtown Fargo over the last decade,” he said. “By creating cultural collisions, we’re able to do seminars like this, like TEDxFargo, like Midnight Brunches, like Misfit Conference. It starts by sitting a tech engineer next to an international yo-yo pro. Which actually happened.”
The general consensus from the presenters was that there are a lot of good things happening in Fargo, and a lot of healthy startup activity. Now, many presenters urged the city leaders and entrepreneurs in the room to keep it going.
Greg Tehven, emcee of the event and Executive Director of Emerging Prairie, encouraged the audience and the Mayors to start moving towards positive action.
“This can happen in cities of all shapes and sizes. And it can often be accelerated by the positive voice of a Mayor,” he said. “Let’s challenge each other to think of why things can work, rather than why they can’t.”