Back from Wichita, where a young startup community is trying to grow

Last week I drove southwest to our Kansan neighbors in Wichita to experience the ICT Unconference and learn about a community just outside Silicon Prairie News' typical reach. It was fascinating to see the different sets of players and topics. Strengths and weaknesses were much different than the three regions we cover…

 

Last week I drove southwest to our neighbors in Wichita to experience the ICT Unconference and learn about a community just outside Silicon Prairie News’ typical reach.

It was fascinating to see the different sets of players and topics. Strengths and weaknesses were much different than the three regions we cover day to day. High-growth tech hasn’t been a focus, but it’s growing and was top of mind in almost all of the sessions. There are big corporate presences—Spirit Airlines, Cargill, Koch Industries—but they haven’t gotten involved in the way Sprint, DST or Principal has. It’s a city with lots of potential, and one trying to figure it all out.

To get some local input, I asked two of the community’s leaders to answer a few questions about the event and Wichita as a whole. For as young as the startup community is, it’s interesting to hear they have a lot of the same issues we talk about here—read below. If you think you can help or get connected in any way, reach out to either of them.

Silicon Prairie News: How are you involved in Wichita’s startup community?

Kenton Hansen (right): I am an entrepreneur in Wichita. I run the Labor Party, Wichita’s co-working space. I am a Startup Weekend organizer (next event is May 30). I have my own startup called Books & Whatnot. I enjoy connecting people in the area. I’ve been told I’m a “leader” in the community, but that’s not my goal. I just see areas to improve and act on them.

Seth Etter: I started the DevICT web development user group in Wichita about a year and a half ago, which has grown into what we have today. We host monthly presentations on development topics and organize other one-off events such as hackathons. I’ve also attended the second Startup Weekend here in town and plan to attend the rest moving forward. Outside of that I mostly just attempt to attend and be a part of any of the startup-related functions here in town. I also am a part of a startup that came out of Startup Weekend called Vamonos. Overall, I’m just doing what I can to contribute and help guide the local tech/startup community to its full potential.

SPN: What’s the current state of the Wichita tech entrepreneurship community? What are some of the exciting things happening and what has a ways to go?

Hansen: Wichita has enough desire. Our community supporters are eager to make technology a staple of our economy, and not just tech connected to aviation. I think our biggest hurdle has been the independence of the tech population. People felt alone, and would take any opportunity to leave despite the benefits they appreciated about out city and our geography. That’s changing. For three years, I’ve been pushing, and we really have momentum. There’s always going to be a drain; big cities call, some answer. However, I know of innovations that are coming that will change the bandwidth of newcomers to our community.

Etter (left): It seems like just about everything is growing around here. Several things began around the same time and have since grown and collided, such as The Labor Party, DevICT, Startup Weekend, etc. All of this on top of the local community (individuals and businesses) getting on board to support the startup community has really given us a good deal of momentum. While I am less knowledgeable about what’s happening in the entrepreneurship world, I can attest to the growth the community has seen. The Unconference alone brought quite a few new members to DevICT and our numbers are continually growing. As our numbers grow, we plan to do more and more for the community, possibly even bringing a full-fledged development conference right here to Wichita.

SPN: What knowledge and organizational gaps exist in Wichita?

Hansen: We have far too few developers, both actual coders and organizational support. This city is rife with entrepreneurial ideas, but those businesses turn to contact labor and out-of-town development to build. We have a fair amount of capital, but the connection to the tech community is lacking right now. That’s something else that’s changing, but I think it requires knowledge and comfort with what’s happening in tech.

Etter: Proper development education could definitely be improved. It’s difficult for traditional education to keep up with the fast-paced and constantly changing tech industry, so DevICT tries to do everything it can to provide exposure to and resources for learning modern web development practices. As for startup and entrepreneurship organizations, I can’t say for sure what gaps exist. It seems as if there a lot of organizations locally that are here to help startups, but they might not be coordinating with one another effectively yet. To me it seems there is a division of resources and a duplication of effort. However, talks at the Unconference and elsewhere seem to suggest this is an issue being actively worked on.

SPN: Which conversations took you by surprise at the Unconference?

Etter: Being able to speak with the city representative about local government data sets was surprising. From the way he talked it seems as if they have been ready to open this data up for use by the community for at least some time now. DevICT has discussed using government data sets to have a sort of “civic hackathon.” We would use one of the provided data sets to create some kind of web application that could be beneficial to the community.

SPN: What conversations have you carried forward?

Hansen: The conversation about what’s needed in the ecosystem is the most interesting thing to me. I see several projects forming to supplement growth and fill holes where there is currently a need. 

 

Credits: Photo from ICT Unconference Twitter.

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