Nobody wants to be the first or the last person at a party. And it goes the same for local tech startup sectors.
So you can tense up a room when you ask a panel of young entrepreneurs if they ever think about leaving a still fledgling core like Delaware’s. You might get chest-thumping enthusiasm. Or you might just scare away anyone who is thinking about joining their ranks.
Take two prominent symbols of Delaware’s youthful startup set: Mac Nagaswami, the well-coiffed Carvertise cofounder, and Rory Laitila, the gentle-voiced one-man developer behind itr8group.
Nagaswami is fatalistic about his Delaware-bound destiny: “We will have to move beyond here,” he said, though he pledged to always have a footprint of his large-scale outdoor advertising business. But he and his cofounder Greg Star will have to move to bigger markets as they sell their quirky advertising products. Why the certainty of departure by this University of Delaware graduate, if he’s built a network, raised money and even become profitable in Delaware?
“We have an advertising business and we want to grow, and those big customers are in New York and Los Angeles. Wilmington is a satellite of a satellite,” he said. He estimated Wilmington’s advertising market was perhaps one-thirtieth of Philadelphia’s, and Philadelphia might be one fiftieth of New York’s.
It was a hard dose of real talk to an audience of 50 business professionals — plenty of DuPont expats —listening inside Theatre N as part of a Beacon Delaware event on entrepreneurship. The prompt came from moderator Mona Parikh, the quick-talking “recovering lawyer” who has been called the “mother bear” of Wilmington’s youngish tech business cohort.
"We will have to move beyond here."
Consider how different Nagaswami’s path is than that of Laitila, who builds software for others and could do it from very nearly anywhere in the world.
Of his being the poster boy of downtown Wilmington living, he said: “I am in this for the long haul.”
But that doesn’t mean Laitila has thought about leaving.
“For any entrepreneur, where you are is a question both for the company and for me as an individual,” Laitila said. He’s lived in downtown Wilmington for the last two years, a rare spark of a college-educated, highly skilled technologist in a city eager for a narrative change. He takes public transit and walks Market Street at night (shocking!) and has seen change in even just two years. The streets aren’t quite as empty as they were even just when he first moved, he said.
“I do think we hit above our weight,” Laitila said of tiny Wilmington, with its credit card sector and incorporation reputation.
But Wilmington remains a tiny city for big dreams.
Look at Dover native Robert Herrera. In 2015, the former WeWork architect barnstormed the Delaware business community when returned home and partnered up with Wilmington real estate tycoon Chris Buccini to launch The Mill, the state’s largest and boldest coworking offering to date.
Even Herrera, who came home to build his own family, has thought about leaving — he’s gotten fresh offers from big architecture firms in New York.
“I do miss the anonymity of a place like that,” he said. Yet between the Mill and his partnership in WhyFly, the fixed wireless company, his business, like his family, is entirely rooted here.
By contrast, Nagaswami’s business draws him elsewhere. That sounds like fellow recent Wharton grad Rita Chang, the founder of Thimble, a platform to match fashion designers and consumers that came out of a Startup Weekend, a popular global franchise of product launching events. Chang, tall and bubbly, says she intends to move to New York to be nearer to the fashion industry, though she has no immediate timeline to do so.
"I am in this for the long haul."
“The world is a big place,” said Nagaswami. “And I need to go where I need to go” to give my company the best chance at success.
Delaware boosters might shudder at such geographical agnosticism — from two promising recent UD grads no less.
Surely you can’t create the density of a startup cluster if your most prominent early leaders are leaving. Big magnet innovation hubs are booming, and there are fears that most other places, like Wilmington, will lose out. And though Nagaswami and Chang say they cherish their Delaware roots, no economic development strategy is built much on well wishes and childhood memories.
Perhaps there is hope still in people like Wes Garnett, one of the earliest figureheads of Wilmington’s fledgling tech startup community. His leaving in 2015 his native Delaware for the college town of Madison, Wis., sent ripples through his peer group, but he said it wasn’t necessarily “a forever thing.” He could come back to Delaware with a stronger network.
Delaware must also build to last, and artificially retaining Nagaswami and Chang, if their businesses are drawn elsewhere won’t do the trick. Rather, we might remember that we choose to live not just in a place, but in a place at a certain time in its history. Wilmington in 2017 might be the best place in the world for Nagaswami and cofounder Star to grow Carvertise, but perhaps not for long. Conversely, maybe this place and time is just where Laitila and Herrera can best thrive.
The rest of us ought to focus on making the best environment we can for as many businesses to succeed as we can. Delaware, like the rest of the country, is badly in need of it.
As Herrera, the charismatic architect turned real estate entrepreneur with a wistful eye for anonymity, said it: “Focus on what we have and do the best we can with that.”