(Photo courtesy of Walnut Street Labs)
Communities of interest, rather than those of place, begin at the intersections of relationships.
So if you wanted to find a convenient place to mark an X on the map of this generation of Delaware tech to show where it all began, you could do worse than putting it where Wes Garnett and Steve Roettger left steady full-time work to start something on their own.
“We decided to leave that job and needed to find something to do. Being young guys, people assumed we knew about technology, and we ran with it,” Garnett said.
In 2010, he and Roettger cofounded the coIN Loft, Delaware’s first coworking space. In recent years, he’s been building Kurbi, a health IT startup that’s on a short list of serious tech startups in the First State.
That’s why it’s hard for some in the community to believe that later this month, Garnett will pack up and move to Madison, Wis., a brainy college town further along in establishing its tech founder community.
His leaving is instructive — he’s going for access to customers (like electronic medical records giant Epic), future talent and, it turns out, for personal reasons (his wife, his sister and nephew are all moving with him, though he’s leading the charge). For all of those reasons, Garnett said, if he stayed in Delaware he wouldn’t be doing what’s best for him, his business or for the fledging startup community he still wants to champion.
“He’s done so much to change the local startup landscape as we know it, that imagining Delaware without Wes is next to impossible and definitely makes me sad on a personal level,” said Mona Parikh. As the founding managing director of the state-backed Start It Up Delaware initiative, she took over the mantle from Garnett and Roettger in running coIN Loft and serving as a primary voice for young tech entrepreneurs in the state — a role she’s now serving at Wilmington design agency Archer Group since a recent change of her own.
"I feel like I'm leaving right when Delaware is turning a corner."
Don’t misinterpret. Technology was made and ventures were started in Delaware long before Garnett showed up. Biomedical campus Delaware Technology Park was founded in 1993, digital marketing firm Trellist dates to 1995, investor conference Early Stage East launched in 1998 and Archer opened in 2003.
He isn’t the origin of tech entrepreneurship here, but Garnett may well be the origin of Delaware’s second wave — the Web 2.0 one that is so defined by social sharing, open-source culture and collaboration.
“I used to have to explain what TechCrunch was,” said Garnett. Now he can tell someone he’s working on a startup, and they ask what he’s working on. “That progress is immense.”
But what happens is as these communities grow, more people join and the role of an early leader changes — from tireless actor to convenient symbol. Garnett, a distracted entrepreneur by nature (he’s called himself an F-student), hasn’t had a day-to-day role at coIN since Parikh and SIUD took it over.
But others worry.
“Wes leaving means we’re failing as a community,” said John Kirk, the cofounder of Cnverg, a touchscreen company that formed at coIN Loft. Kirk is currently splitting his time between Wilmington and Philadelphia, where Cnverg is a part of DreamIt Ventures. “Wes is a true leader in this community, and the fact that we can’t retain him or offer him the environment he needs to succeed is a tragedy.”
Kirk said he’s nervous for losing Garnett as a Delaware booster — though Garnett himself says he’ll alway see himself as “a guy from Delaware.” (Below, watch a video of Garnett after speaking at West Chester, Pa., coworking space Walnut St. Labs.)
Now, with Roettger, and a pair of others, he’s building Kurbi — software that helps people with chronic conditions follow healthy daily routines. The company already has paying clients and has developed its software with giants like NYU and Christiana Care. From the Kurbi team, only Garnett is leaving for now. He’ll lead design and business acquisition, while Roettger will continue to develop the product. Garnett said he could see Kurbi grow in Madison, but he won’t disrupt the lives of the rest of his team until it’s necessary.
So for now, this story is just one person leaving. But Garnett tells stories. There are corollaries to be made between Wilmington and Madison, too.
Though Madison has three times the number of people as Wilmington, they’re both small cities that could be called satellites of nearby larger ones. Madison is quaint, faintly suburban and dominated by a major research university. Wilmington has a glassy skyline of credit card companies and law firms but has been beleaguered by the crime and education problems familiar to residents of other post-industrial communities.
Whether those struggles have continued to drive flight from Wilmington is unclear, but Garnett is the latest in what might appear to be a trend: Dupont recently deciding to flee downtown, Wilmington University whiffing on an opportunity to throw down roots in the city and Brad Wason, another coIN colleague, heading west for Zappos.
But Garnett doesn’t want to be a symbol. It seems he’s pained by his awareness that in the great, grand scheme, he hasn’t done much.
“If I want a startup community, then I need to build a startup,” he said.
He’s worried that “Delaware nice” will keep him from developing into the entrepreneur he wants to be. In the competitive health IT space, he said he’s doing what’s best for Kurbi, but that doesn’t mean his path is the right path for everyone. For one, all entrepreneurs need balance about their hometown — you can’t get stuck thinking local, but a change in location won’t make a bad product into a good one.
“If nobody bought it here, why would someone buy it elsewhere?” he said. But making a change is something Garnett says he has to do, something he’s struggled with for two years.
“I thought this would be a sign to the community that we aren’t being successful,” he said. “I don’t want people to get discouraged that someone who represents the tech community is leaving. I wouldn’t call it leaving, I would call it a re-planting.”
So where does that leave those here in Delaware, building companies, developing technologies and generally agitating for a community of future makers? Garnett isn’t the first homegrown star to leave. He won’t be the last.
If great communities begin with relationships, they must last by choice, not contract. The civic weight of a leader leaving his home ought to have limits.
What Delaware gets for Garnett’s leaving is an ambassador. One who aims to do great work elsewhere, with friends and a cofounder remaining here. He never called his leaving “a forever thing,” but even if it were to be, we must be proud.
“Whatever Wilmington is going to be, I know that we’ve had progress, and I know that will continue to progress. Now [we just need better] public perception of what we do, because I know there are still people in their basements who think they’re the only ones doing what they’re doing,” said Garnett. “I feel like I’m leaving right when Delaware is turning a corner.”
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