Monday, July 25, 2011

TechWeek: A big step forward for Chicago's startup community

TechWeek, a week-long group of conferences, meetups and social events for the Midwestern startup community, is going on in Chicago. midVentures, a consulting firm and conference organizer based in Chicago and San Francisco, organized TechWeek. The actual TechWeek Conference began last Friday and ends tonight, but additional partner events will take place through Thursday, July 28th.

The first-day crowd was far beyond midVentures' expectations--more than 1,500 paid attendees, with five times as many people registering at the door as the organizers expected. The demand was so great that they ran out of badges on Friday and had to rush to print more in time for Saturday morning. The event was held at Chicago's landmark Merchandise Mart, the biggest building in the world when it opened in 1930, and still a very impressive structure. The Merchandise Mart has its own El (elevated train) station, food court and retail shops, as well as the hundreds of private merchandise showrooms for which it's known. It also has three floors of meeting and event space, and TechWeek took over one of the three floors.

The speakers that midVentures lined up were first-rate, and in the sessions I attended, there were very few sales pitches--the emphasis was on practical knowledge for developers and businesspeople. Here's a list of some of the better-known speakers:
  • Aneesh Chopra, Chief Technical Officer of the United States
  • Jason Fried, Co-Founder and President, 37Signals
  • Gian Fulgoni, CEO, Comscore
  • Jeff Lawson, Co-Founder & CEO, Twilio
  • Dave McClure, Founding Partner, 500Startups
  • Craig Newmark, Founder, Craigslist.org
  • Dominique Raccah, CEO/Publisher, Sourcebooks
  • Hiten Shaw, Founder and CEO, KISSmetrics
There were a number of local investors making keynote speeches and on panels; perhaps the best-known, at least locally, was J.B. Pritzker, Managing Partner of the Pritzker Group, founder of New World Ventures and a member of the family that owns Hyatt Hotels and TransUnion.  However, with the exception of Dave McClure, there wasn't much participation from the Silicon Valley angel and VC community, nor was there much interest from the New York or Boston investment communities. That has to change in a big way for Chicago to become a first-tier startup community.

One of the things that I noticed in the sessions I attended was that there were far more businesspeople than developers at the event, and most of the businesspeople had little or no idea how to find technical talent or a technical co-founder. An event to help match business and technical co-founders would have made a lot of sense, but it didn't make it onto this year's schedule.

There was clearly enough interest in this year's event to make a 2012 version a certainty, and there are a few things that I'd suggest to the organizers for next year:
  • The Merchandise Mart is a great location, but the sight lines in the two largest meeting spaces were awful. The stages were blocked by pillars from many places in the rooms. It would be better to have the presentations in better spaces within the Merchandise Mart, or if that's not possible, in conventional hotel conference rooms.
  • Rather than scheduling the midVenturesLAUNCH event in parallel with the final day of the TechWeek Conference, LAUNCH should be held on its own day, with no other events going on. The TechWeek events that I watched on Monday via streaming video were very poorly attended, due to LAUNCH going on at the same time.
  • There needs to be more presence from Silicon Valley, New York and Boston investors.
TechWeek was a very encouraging event for Chicago- and Midwest-based entrepreneurs, and I hope that it's a sign of much more to come.
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