February 27, 2003. My wife, 18-month-old daughter and I got off a flight at Des Moines airport, having decided to move here after a lengthy and complicated analysis that could fill a book. We were greeted by relatives (mine) at the airport holding a sign saying "Welcome to Iowa! We think you are freakin nuts, but welcome!" We emerged from the airport into a historic blizzard, and our new life in Iowa.
We've lived here for ten years as of today. My first observation is "Damn, that went really fast!"
Family first. We moved here not for any professional opportunities, but as a place to raise our children. We have not been disappointed (well, not extremely so) with our decision on those grounds. The children are happy and reasonably well formed given their genetic disadvantage of being 50% of my gene pool.
My second observation is "We were really unhappy here until we stopped living like Californians in Iowa and lived like Iowans in Iowa".
For our first five years here, I used to say that I paid property taxes in Iowa but lived on a plane. We had very little interaction with the outside world other than my wine group and occasional social events with fellow Des Moines Metro Opera board members. Beginning in 2008 when I left Cisco and started interacting with the local business community, we greatly expanded the quantity and diversity of people we knew. In doing so, we were able to see how others lived here.
During that time, we were fortunate enough to meet local farmers, like the incomparable Larry Cleverly, who taught us to eat fresh, local foods (we were flying in most of our food from California until then). We were introduced to the amazing arts organizations in Central Iowa by new friends we were making like Bruce Hughes and Randy Hamilton and many many more. We began to put down roots, which I had fallen out of practice of doing, having moved 13 times in 18 years. Ah, the siren song of domesticity.
Beginning in 2008, I met close to 2000 people in the subsequent 36 months (give or take). I anticipated this, given my experiences of going to five different schools in five years during my childhood, and set up a sort of database to track everyone I met. Thank goodness I did, or else I'd be completely worthless. Meeting that many people in a short period of time is a surefire way to fry out your memory neurons. Think of the last time you took a new job and had to meet a whole bunch of people all at once (not to mention learning the new office politics). Yeah, three years straight of that.
My third observation is "Wow, this is a really small state."
Not only objectively by population, but socially. Granted, there are distinct cliques everywhere, be they the "Sand Hill Gang" of graybeard venture capitalists or the "Indian Mafia" of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs from the subcontinent. Central Iowa has cliques, cabals and courtiers in each sector and inter-clique intrigue that would rival Versailles in it's heyday. First it was fascinating to perceive, then amusing to watch, then frustrating as hell as when I finally realized that I was/am watching a dance of tectonic plates. They make agitate and scheme and plot against one another, but actually they have established some sort of equilibrium with very little real friction. I wonder if this is a reflection of the consolidated industry base in Iowa (Agriculture, Manufacturing, Bioscience, Insurance, Banking) that isn't prone to churn.
A close corollary to this is that the historic small-town feel of Iowa, which is so rich and endearing, is not gradually giving way to a less territorial statewide focus. Perhaps it's just the compensation plans of city or regional economic development folks, but there seems to be very little energy behind working together statewide on any given effort. Instead, they are sacrificing what is best for growing and sustaining Iowa as a whole in the longterm for what is a tactical, short-term win for their small city/region. This sort of parochialism didn't work out too well for the Greek city-states if my reading of history is any guide. If it's left unchecked, it will leave Iowa as a speed-bump in the 21st Century global economy as these hamlets fight one another over ever-dwindling scraps of industry.
My fourth observation is "For a small state, we certainly have more than our fair share of groups and organizations."
I don't know if it's my professional position at the intersection of a number of arts, social, and business interests, but I think I meet a new non-profit almost weekly. Does that seem high to anyone else? It certainly does to me. I imagine the large corporations who are solicited for donations by the multitude of non-profits must feel like so many pin-cushions.
I have nothing against non-profits in general, but too many of anything will over-hunt any environment. There seems to be a non-profit for every cause or idea, and my personal opinion is that 3/4 of them are unnecessary and unsustainable.
In my time in Iowa, I've been fortunate enough to be a member of the Des Moines Wine Group (the longest running oenophile group in Iowa with a fifty year history of rotating membership), a board member of the Des Moines Metro Opera (a locally-unappreciated but nationally lauded gem of an arts organization), board chair of the Des Moines Social Club (a local social imperative if there ever was one), steering committee member of Capital Crossroads, member of the Governor's STEM advisory council, co-founder of StartupIowa, board member of the Technology Association of Iowa, and many more community efforts. Civitas in extremis. I love each of these organizations and efforts, but you have to constantly guard against becoming a professional board member sitting in meetings and denying society of your most-productive energies.
My fifth observation is "Iowans need non-over-the-counter medication for their low self-esteem problem."
Seriously, what the hell? Read or watch the local news. Look at the social feeds. Any time there is external recognition of something great going on in Iowa everyone nearly holds a parade. Our very own StartupIowa was at the White House earlier this month to celebrate our rapid progress, and StartupCity was one of many featured in, of all things, a Delta airlines magazine article. The very same people who had discounted (and sometimes actively sabotaged) these same efforts were quick to heap public praise on our (newly externally validated) accomplishments. This is why Mike Draper's anti-self-effacing t-shirts at Raygun are so damn funny, because they make light of this natural insecurity.
You live in the breadbasket of the world, have great local arts, sports and culture, lead a number of indexes for quality of life and cost of living, but somehow you still manage to walk around like a whipped cur. Cheer the fuck up, people.
My sixth and final observation is "The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and thriving in the Midwest."
Since '08, I began working with the Midwestern startup community. First we identified each other, then began to deliberately and systematically put in infrastructure to support our efforts. We've been fortunate enough to be able to accomplish much in the last five years, and I was reminded this morning at 1 Million Cups Des Moines how many new people, their perspectives and energy have been added in the last year alone. The community will have it's ups and downs, it's successes and failures, but I believe it will continue to thrive and grow regionally. And entrepreneurs have to think regionally, not about just their city, county or MSA. This may be what saves us.
Given the six observations above, my outlook for the next ten years is guarded optimism.
If we can have a peaceful but quick transition from territorial parochialism to a broader statewide approach, Iowa will remain relevant in the 21st Century. This will require a fundamental change on how the 2000+ economic development professionals in the state are compensated, because they believe it's a zero sum game and that they only gain by taking from one another. I've tried to avoid being pulled in to this quicksand, but building StartupCity Des Moines evidently pegged Tej and I as 'unpaid economic development wonks' and we have to constantly push back against those that would drag us deeper into the sand. Trust that a deliberate unified effort of three million people will yield far greater results than thirty efforts of so many 100k MSAs.
The lack of churn (Iowa is last in the nation for new business 'starts' and closures) in our industrial base should keep everyone who cares about this state awake at night. All it takes is softening in one of the major sectors, like another year of drought (simultaneously impacting the agg, bio, and manufacturing sectors) or continued economic recession (impacting insurance and banking) and the state will go down on one knee. To misuse the economic concept of concentration ratios, we are too heavily concentrated on too few co-dependent industries to sustain a punch like those above. If we don't diversify our portfolio of industries, we're leaving ourselves open to the inevitable haymakers that history regularly dishes out.
Iowa, or more appropriately Iowans, need to work out their issues with self-esteem and stop measuring themselves against others yardsticks. You never hear Los Angeles say "Hey, but we have more water than Austin!" or Silicon Valley say "But New York gets snow!" They are making their own way and measuring themselves by their own past performance, not by others. This was my startup epiphany of the last three years, which is that Iowa entrepreneurs who focus on combining the strengths of the local industry, workforce, and educational institutions are going to be what keeps Iowa standing. The future is biotechnologies and advanced manufacturing, powered by information technology. No futurist will argue that sentence. Iowa has deep roots in those areas, and by combining these strengths to create entirely new sectors of the international economy, we will redefine Iowa and make it the center of the 21st Century economy.
This is the lilium inter spenius, lily among the thorns, of the concentration ratio I mention above. You take the raw material of these sectors and use those as the foundation for entirely new innovations, companies and wealth. You make your own way.
The tectonic players and infinite quantity of non-profits and economic development efforts will continue to clog the arteries of progress as they've always done. Ignore them for the most part, but aggressively prevent them from getting between real innovation and these sectors as gatekeepers. By participating in their actions you are exacerbating the territorialism above and slowing everything down to a non-competitive pace. It's simply not sustainable in the long term global marketplace. Instead seek out new and noteworthy uniquely-Midwestern innovations, like the young man I spoke with from Missouri who had created a 3D printer that printed pork.
Now I just need to determine if my 44 years of experience have any role to play in the next ten years in Iowa. Perhaps that's fodder for another post.