Why Chicago is the Best Place to Start a Digital Startup


In this, my first attempt at an Inc. Well blog post on entrepreneurship, I wanted to share why I believe Chicago is the best place to launch a digital startup. Many people have contributed to building the incredible startup ecosystem Chicago has developed over the last decade. There’s no doubt we’ve had many successes along the way, but to increase our pace for building successful companies, we need to bring all of our assets together.

What specifically do I mean by assets? First off, it probably goes without saying that we need passionate entrepreneurs to come up with ideas to start companies that solve business problems and hopefully change the world. Now more than ever, Chicago has many serial entrepreneurs leading the way -- folks who’ve been successful before and have the desire to do it again. Investors love these entrepreneurs because they’ve learned from past experiences and already know the challenges of building a company.

And speaking of investors, they are my second asset. Chicago has an excellent group of venture capital firms that are complemented by a growing angel investor community -- either through angel groups or with independent angels. We are also seeing venture money flowing into Chicago from the coasts more than ever before.

But none of these companies can grow without talent and we all know that good talent is hard to find. Chicago has some of the best business and technical universities in the world who are educating young professionals and preparing them to join our early-stage startups.

Next, startups need customers and partners – and we have them here with a massive cluster of Fortune 500 corporations in our state and nearby. In fact, 31 Fortune 500 companies have headquarters in the state of Illinois. And don’t forget about state, county, and city government officials voicing their support for the startup community and putting a spotlight on why creating new businesses is so important to our economic development.

Also incredibly important in the ecosystem is the network of community organizations that bring all the pieces together. Over the last couple of years, many folks have stepped up to play leadership roles.

And last but not least, a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem needs places where they can come together and share their experiences and knowledge. This past spring, the CEC and a number of partners opened 1871, a 50,000-square foot center in the Merchandise Mart. 1871 is a co-working center where digital startups can work alongside one another and have access to resources to help support their high-growth companies through the early stage.

Add to all of these necessary assets one of Chicago’s previous entrepreneurial successes: Groupon, and its rapid growth over the last couple of years, showing the world we can build first-class startup companies in a short period of time right here, in this city.

I hope to write a regular post for Inc. Well going forward that shares my experiences and observations in and around Chicago’s growing startup community. This is an exciting time! We have an amazing opportunity in front of us -- to become the best place in the country, if not the world, to start a company.

Kevin Willer is the president and CEO of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and 1871.

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