Business Matters is a series of brief conversations to check-in with corporate, civic, and community stakeholders to gauge the health and progress of our local entrepreneurial ecosystems across Central Illinois. Where are we at today? Are we making progress? How can we support startups and innovation? This is one of many conversations to discover more about the current challenges, hidden opportunities and future possibilities.


Jake Hamann

CEO, OneFire

Co-Founder, Startup Peoria

What was the driving force behind creating Startup Peoria?
I was introduced to Brad Feld’s book, Startup Communities over three years ago and was asked if I had seen what’s going on in these other cities. Through other efforts we identified that we were still far behind the curve, and at the time, OneFire was growing quickly, and we knew that it could help tap into talent and build our potential workforce going forward.

Ultimately, we wanted to find out who those people were that were interested in tech, startups, making Peoria better and seeing where they are.

What are the highlights and critical moments of the entrepreneurial and startup movement over the past 3 years?
For me, it was the actual formation of Startup Peoria. Solidifying it as a formal organization after growing it from the grassroots movement it began as, and then determining what we needed for it to succeed in its mission.

Some important dates on my timeline:

  • Startup Peoria launched – February 2013
  • 1 Millions Cups started – October 2013
  • Startup Weekend held – November 2013
  • Start With The Why event – February 2014
  • Startup Peoria organized – April 2014
  • The Nest opened – June 2014
  • KeyStart first pitch competition – May 2015

An often unnoticed, but important side note is the continued involvement with Startup America and the acknowledgement that there is activity happening in Peoria which is a big positive. When Peoria gets mentioned by Scott Case on stage at events, it’s kind of a big deal! Haha

Slowly but surely, Chicago has started to take notice of our activities and companies that are starting up. Having Peoria featured in Chicago Inno was a sense of validation and exciting to see at the same time.

I’d say merging Startup Peoria under the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council umbrella and knowing that this “movement” was built up to the point that there was enough buy-in from their board and community stakeholders to take it on as an initiative was a significant milestone. At the same token, it would’ve been great to get a broader community support earlier on to aid in helping create a deeper entrepreneurial ecosystem quicker.

Do you see any issues, gaps, or improvements that the Peoria-area entrepreneurial ecosystem needs to address?

Support.

(Public support) meaningful engagement [as Brad Feld points out]. A city government can’t lead it, but can support, promote, and help fund it. There needs to be more  two-way communication from many different directions and a general sentiment from local institutions that just isn’t there yet. There’s not enough, “What can we do to help?” asked within the community.

Funding.

We can continue to build the community, host events and it only goes so far. The people are going to have to go elsewhere to find it.

Education.

Informing the investment community on what startups are all about, the make up of the local ecosystem, and associated risk.

Which would you focus on first?
It’s a chicken and egg scenario with funding and startups. People aren’t moving to this region because of access to capital, awareness of the startup community, and promoting the assets of the ecosystem.

But it all starts with education. We don’t want to keep talking to the same audience, so we need to continue to educate and grow the awareness of the entrepreneurial community to a broader range. In doing so, what we ask of the local leaders is that you have to actively participate, listen and get involved.

What’s your vision for Peoria’s entrepreneurial, startup, and small business future?
Over the next five years, it would be reassuring to have a handful of companies that have successful exits. That in the truest sense, is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. To have those businesses rewarded financially creates a ripple effect back into the community. With that then comes seeing a certain mentality and entrepreneurial thinking permeate into the culture.

Ultimately, for me, it’s having Peoria being known for a startup culture, not being afraid to take risk, and becoming more than a one company town is how we set ourselves up for future long-term success.

What do you find most exciting about the current Peoria entrepreneurial scene?
I find the fact that some of the programs of Startup Peoria have become self-sustaining and can survive without so much hands-on attention now.

Another strong indicator of a good ecosystem is that it isn’t about one person, and that you when the time comes, you can hand the baton off to someone else and it still be in good care. It’s been really encouraging that other people have stepped up as leaders and take on different things.

Finally, the fact we can now name over a dozen businesses that have been launched in the region as a result of Startup Peoria is cool. As opposed to five years ago, there’s also a calendar of events with multiple things going on each month. Many new connections that have been made, and we’ve been able to point people in the right direction which is sometimes the hardest part. It’s the small things that have gone a long way to impact local entrepreneurs.