A Thank You Letter

posted by Seth Kravitz on May 19, 2016 - 10:09am

If you haven't heard, I'm moving into a passive role at Technori after six years and a wonderful person, Scott Kitun, is taking my place as the CEO and the face of Technori. You can read about it in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Inno. You can reach Scott at kitun@technori.com.
Looking back at Technori and my arrival in Chicago in 2007, a flood of memories overwhelms me. So much has happened in less than a decade, it's easy to forget half the details. Some of them don't even seem real and I think, "When did I have time to do that???"

We all know where Chicago's startup scene stands today. But not long ago, the scene was unrecognizable by today's standard. The progress has been so rapid, and history is rewritten so quickly, that I think it's important we all take a step back and reminisce for a moment about how far we have come.

When I arrived in Chicago in 2007 the stench of old startup failures was still somehow permeating the scene. It had been seven years since the bubble popped and the local failure of now infamous startup, Divine interVentures, took with it hundreds of millions of Chicago investor capital. Yet it seemed as if no one had moved on from that moment. Stuck in time, local business people and the press would bring those failures up, almost as a reflex, to rebut anyone acting overly excited about the future of Chicago tech. 

“Technology startup” was a dirty word, with many people eager to wash your mouth out for uttering it.

You would think a city that invented three technologies that have reshaped the course of human history would be a little more enthusiastic. The skyscraper, the first controlled nuclear reaction, and the cell phone should be enough to clearly demonstrate that Chicago can lead in tech, but you would never have known that speaking to anyone here.

When I would bring up that I ran a technology startup, the look on the person's face would shift toward one of concern, and they would normally follow up with, "Well, let me know if I can make some introductions to help you." Except they weren't referring to intros for my startup, they meant, intros to get a job. They believed that "startup" was code for "I'm unemployed" and like most Midwestern people, they felt it was their duty to help. 

While it would temporarily annoy me, I also thought it was amazing. Chicagoans want to help. They go out of their way to do so. 

In those moments, I saw something greater. That deeply ingrained desire to help, if pointed at a broader goal of building a startup community, could be powerful. 

The greatest commodity in the Midwest isn't mined out of the ground or grown in fields. Our greatest asset is our relentless desire to be useful. It seems to be ingrained in the DNA of every Midwesterner upon birth. 

That's the part I fell in love with about Chicago. I had found my place. 

When I first started getting involved in the startup community, Redbox, kCura, GrubHub, Centro, Cleversafe, Norvax (now GoHealth), and so many others were very quietly building and keeping their heads down. I would meet tech founder after founder who was building a $10M, $50M, even $100M a year business, yet they couldn't name three other tech founders in the city that they knew of. When you see that happening over and over, you realize there is a real "community" issue to be tackled. 

The raw potential for this city to sprout a sustainable tech economy was evident, but everyone was siloed off from one another. No momentum was being built. These founders weren’t sharing their know-how and ramping up off of the collective wisdom that a true startup community brings.

Luckily, I wasn't the only person who saw that. In 2009, the Illinois Technology Association, The CEC, and the coworking space TechNexus were the center point of the community. Univ. of Chicago, IIT, DePaul, and Northwestern had sprouted their own entrepreneurship centers. Then there was a Cambrian explosion of community-related operations that would launch in 2010, including Technori, BuiltInChicago, Techweek, and Excelerate Labs (Techstars). 

(A little piece of trivia. The original Technori founding team was Val Chulamorkodt, Kevin Lucius, Mark Bertrand,  Zack Gilbert, and me.)

The community building efforts continued to expand through 2011 and by the beginning of 2012, it was time for a slight change in focus. To start the year, I wrote an open letter called "A Million Cups" that stated, “A true community is built upon a million cups of coffee (or pints of beer). A million meaningful interactions between people in which all sides walk away feeling they were heard, learned something, and built a meaningful bridge.” Apparently that resonated, as the Kauffman Foundation contacted me and let me know they loved it so much they were going to launch a new program, called what else but, 1 Million Cups. 

I wanted to set a tone in that piece that no community can ever get comfortable and must be constantly evolving. 

Much changed for Technori between 2012 and today. We grew and shrank and grew again. We launched new events, killed off old ones, and tried to constantly evolve. We grew our showcase event into the 3rd largest monthly startup event in the country and took it to five cities. We hosted over 140 Technori Unwind events (which were secret, so don't worry if you didn't know about them). We hosted full day workshops, a crazy ambitious seven-day long startup competition called SPARK, we wrote over 300 long-form editorial pieces and had 27,000+ attendees at our various events. 

Today, Chicago is quickly racing into the top 10 list of nearly every startup related category a city can find itself in. It has become the startup community that so many of us knew was possible back then. Even with all of this progress, the community still has such a long way to go. In that same vein of my "A Million Cups" article, the community must continue to evolve. 

One of the lines I wrote in that essay was, "You Cannot Live on the Momentum of the Past". That has been on my mind a lot in the past year. I felt like I was getting comfortable. I felt like I leaned too heavily on what used to work. I felt like past momentum would somehow still carry me over increasingly larger hills. That's not how startups work. When you see that happening, you know it's time for a change. I began to look for the person who would replace me. 

A vibrant startup community like Chicago needs fresh energy, fresh blood, and fresh ideas. That means a continuously cycling group of new leaders and faces that bring with them raw unbridled hope and optimism. 

In 2016, that means it's time for me to pass the reins to someone else. Someone who I trust to take Technori to greater heights and always do what is in the best interests of this community. Scott is that fresh blood that Technori needs and I can hear the raw excitement in his voice whenever he talks about the future of Chicago. He is ready. 

Please give Scott a warm welcome. He can be reached atkitun@technori.com. He openly welcomes any new ideas, so now is the time to get involved!

I appreciate all the kindness and warmth this community has shown to Technori and myself over the years. It has been an honor and so much fun. 

I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

- Seth Kravitz

PS - As for me, I have some things in the works. Very good things. It's the most excited I have been in a long time. Follow me over at @sethkravitz to keep up and you can still forever email me at seth@technori.com for anything startup-related. 

PPS - Also, a very special thanks to all the people who made Technori possible these past six years. Never would have been possible without you! (**I'm so sorry if I accidently leave anyone out!)