When Dave Sanders started working for himself as a tech consultant in 2005, it was your typical work-from-home experience. He spent most of his time alone.
But when he started working from Founders coworking space in downtown Fort Wayne instead, the experience shifted his perspective on what work—and life—could be like in the Summit City. Dave Sanders
“Founders was a place where you walked in, and you immediately thought: ‘This is cool,’” Sanders reflects. “There were all sorts of people talking, and you could learn things from each other. We were all geeking out about the same things.”
It was this electric experience of connecting with a like-minded tribe of innovators that led Sanders to his current position as Founder and Board Chair of Start Fort Wayne.
Today, he is collaborating with individuals and organizations across the city to support local startup activity. But it didn’t start out that way.
Instead, it all began with a simple desire to bring people together around a passion for their community and the projects they wanted to launch there.
“I didn’t set out with a plan,” Sanders says. “It was more like: What’s the next thing we need to do? Then we’d go do that.”
Entrepreneurs and supporters collaborate at Atrium in downtown Fort Wayne.
When Founders closed in 2012, Sanders dabbled in running a coworking space of his own. This led him to create Start Fort Wayne in 2015 as a nonprofit community to put boots on the ground and bring projects to life.
The first project Start Fort Wayne launched was a modern coworking space downtown called Atrium where creatives and small business owners could collaborate. As Atrium began offering programs and events for entrepreneurs, it led Start Fort Wayne to host Fort Wayne’s first Startup Week in 2018.
Jon Rehwaldt, left, facilitates class sessions at Atrium.
Modeled after a movement of similar events around the world, the week-long celebration of entrepreneurial activity drew roughly 750 attendees and blazed the trail for what has become an annual event.
Startup Week 2019 is set for Oct. 14-18, and this year, Sanders says the spectacle is bigger and better. His volunteer organizing committee is growing beyond Start Fort Wayne, too. He hopes that, someday, Startup Week becomes a highly inclusive, community-owned event like Three Rivers Festival where anyone interested in entrepreneurship can come to get plugged in.
Input Fort Wayne sat down with Sanders to learn more about Startup Week 2019, and Fort Wayne’s growing startup culture.
IFW: This is the second year for Startup Week, and you had a successful first year. What will be different this year?
DS: Last year, Startup Week was more organic and free form. This year, it’s going to be much more like a conference. We set it up to be at one location (Cinema Center) most of the time, which means attendees can go to events and take a half-hour break between sessions instead of driving somewhere new.
It also allows us to have some soft spaces for people who want to hang out and socialize. Sometimes the best part of a conference is in the lobby, so we want to have opportunities for people to make connections.
Each day, we’ll also have what’s called a headline event happening at another location in the evening. For example, Monday is Opening Ceremonies at the Embassy Theatre with our keynote speaker and the mayor. Tuesday is a Greater Fort Wayne event at the Phoenix. Wednesday is Founders Spark night at the Philmore on Broadway. Thursday is OCEAN NEI at the Phoenix, and Friday will be our wrap party at Empyrean Events on the top of the city where we’ll talk about next year’s event.
An evening event at the Philmore on Broadway during Startup Week 2018.
IFW: Startup Weeks are happening in cities all over the world, and they’re largely about building up local ecosystems to support entrepreneurs. Tell us about the current state of that ecosystem in Fort Wayne.
DS: What I’ve been telling people is we’re in that early growth stage. I founded start Fort Wayne in 2015, so it’s almost been five years. In those five years, we’ve gone from about five or six organizations doing entrepreneurial support activities—we call them ESOs—to about 20-25 organizations.
So we’re seeing this explosion of services and people who are interested in helping entrepreneurs build their companies, and a lot of these new organizations are focused on very specific niches or parts of the entrepreneurial lifecycle. But we’re still at the early stages as an entrepreneurial ecosystem overall.
The point of events like Startup Week is to celebrate what’s been going on and to introduce our startup community to the broader community of Fort Wayne. Our bubble of people who are doing startup or entrepreneurial activity right now in a city the size of Fort Wayne is still relatively tiny. Our reach is probably about 5,000 people out of almost 300,000 people city-wide.
So Startup Week is helping us expand our audience, get more awareness, and bring more people into the fold of our startup community.
A day time workshop during Startup Week 2018.
IFW: Along with building the size of Fort Wayne’s entrepreneurial community, Startup Week is also about strengthening the bonds within our community. Tell us about that.
DS: Chris Heivly of Techstars talked about it when he came to Fort Wayne to assess our local startup ecosystem. He said, “You need to have entrepreneurial people and organizations coming together and connecting, but what’s important is that those links between people are really thick.”
In other words, people have to trust each other. It’s not just about knowing people; it’s about trusting them. That’s what these types of events help inspire. They build deeper relationships.
It’s also about collaboration. In the past year, we’re seeing a lot more ESOs in Fort Wayne, and they’re figuring out how to work together. Startup Week is a great example of that.
We’ve got 20-some organizations involved—either giving money or presenting or helping organize events. It’s a community that’s coming together, and that’s a trend I think we’ve seen in just the past year in Fort Wayne. People are starting to stop thinking competitively and start thinking cooperatively, which is what needs to happen for us all to be successful.
You saw something similar in Fort Wayne’s creative community about 7-8 years ago, and I think the same thing is happening now in the entrepreneurial community. We’re just a few years behind.
IFW: Tell us about your audience for Startup Week. Is it just for early-stage companies, or can seasoned entrepreneurs attend?
DS: The way we’ve got the schedule set up this year is we’ve grouped things by topics. So there are some events geared toward people who are just getting started. Then there are events for more established companies.
Overall, I think it applies to anyone who is already running a business or who is thinking about running a business.
The evening events are more geared toward an even broader audience than that. We want anyone who is interested in the local startup community, in general, to attend.
Last year's keynote conversation at Startup Week.
IFW: Your keynote speaker is Steven Reading, who co-founded the company Dogster (later Catster) and has done consulting work in startup communities around the world. Tell us more about him.
DS: Steven has spent a lot of time consulting with big companies in different regions internationally about building up startup communities and how to connect with those communities. So his talk will be about his experience taking a more practical approach on how to build a startup community and how to make an impact in your company or region.
Then, after he speaks, we’re planning to have a local panel where we’ll figure out how to translate that into what we can do next in Fort Wayne.
IFW: What are some of the opportunities you see in Fort Wayne’s startup ecosystem?
DS: Having big projects like Electric Works on the horizon is important to our startup ecosystem because it gives us a powerful point of focus. As we’re trying to attract startups and talent to our region, it gives us something unique we can market to them that most cities don’t have.
I think we also have to focus on our key industries here. As a startup community, we need to be thinking about not just: How do we get a bunch of people here doing startups? But: How can we track and grow the best small companies and startups that fit really well in our region?
How are we going to be able to support med-tech startups that could cooperate with Parkview and the orthopedic industry? Or how are we going to support the e-commerce companies that could work alongside a company like Vera Bradley or Sweetwater?
We have six or seven core industries in our region, and if we can focus on those, then we have a competitive advantage.
As a region, we’re competing against the entire world now, so why not capitalize on what we’re already doing well?
IFW: This year’s events at Startup Week seem to have an intentional focus on inclusion, specifically including women and minority entrepreneurs. Tell us about the thinking behind that.
DS: We’ve seen in other cities—especially larger cities like San Francisco and Seattle—where you have this great big tech boom, but it only applies to the people in that boom. For everybody else, rents go up, people have to move, and it really disrupts a lot of lives.
So one of the benefits of Fort Wayne coming in later to game of building our entrepreneurial ecosystem is that we’ve seen what other cities are doing—and what they’re doing wrong. Now we can figure out how to be more inclusive with women and people of color. We can figure out how to build up programs from the beginning, so we’re inclusive across the board from the start.
Along with skin color and gender, our startup community in Fort Wayne is also diverse in business type. When we host events, we see entrepreneurs of all types coming out. We have restaurant owners and designers and people interested in tech companies all in the same space.
I believe that is because Fort Wayne’s ESOs are very diverse, and they are all going to people they know and bringing them in. That’s something I want to make sure that we don’t lose as we grow.
When communities grow, they inevitably start segmenting, but I want to make sure we’ve always got things that will be inclusive to everyone. That’s a benefit Fort Wayne has that other cities don’t have. Places like Seattle have to spending billions of dollars trying to figure out how to make those things happen now that they’ve ruined it, so we already have that as an advantage, and we want to keep it that way.
That means spreading resources around the entire city, inviting everyone and making sure everyone feels welcome. It means having founders and entrepreneurs from all different backgrounds in the city.
IFW: What are your other hopes for the future of Fort Wayne’s startup ecosystem?
DS: As a culture, we definitely want to see more startup companies—people who are coming in with new ideas, and maybe have two or three founders to start. Then within five years, they’re hiring hundreds of people.
A lot of that is growing the people here who have ideas, and also providing a culture and environment that is going to attract others.
For example, if we have a student who is graduating from Purdue’s West Lafayette campus who has a great idea for a business—or maybe is already working on a business—we want them to consider Fort Wayne as a great place to come and get the resources they need.
Part of it is having places like Electric Works to work out of, places like the Landing to live out of, and all the bars and cultural amenities we have here. The other part of it is, we want them to be excited because there’s a lot of other people like them who are working on these things in Fort Wayne.
That’s what Startup Week does. It starts to pull that culture together. Culture is one of those things that’s really soft and squishy; you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it. You walk into a place, and you think: This is cool.
That’s what Startup Week is trying to showcase. We want people to think: This is cool; let’s continue to grow this, and we’ve actually got a future here.