In Oklahoma City, Entrepreneurs Aim to Create the Next Cool Startup Scene
By Anna Hensel, Inc.com
For U.S. cities looking to become the next big tech hub, it’s not enough to just recruit eager entrepreneurs. Cities also have to attract the employees (coders, designers, salespeople) who can keep the startup afloat.
A fine example of one place with the right idea is Oklahoma’s very own capital city. Over the past few years, Oklahoma City has been restless to prove it can attract the nation’s top startup talent.
“If you look at innovation across the world today, it’s becoming more location-focused than ever,” says Scott Meacham, president and CEO of i2E, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit that provides both educational resources and seed funding to startups. Launched in 1997, i2E has worked with over 580 businesses in the state.
In October, Google invited Oklahoma City to “explore bringing Google Fiber,” the tech giant’s lightning-fast fiber optic Internet service to the city. In a press release, Google cited the city title as “the #1 city to launch a new business.”
Here are 4 reasons Oklahoma City is catching the attention of Google and many other ambitious tech entrepreneurs:
1. A strong research community.
With two major biomedical research institutions (Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center), Oklahoma City has been an important launching pad for many life science startups.
Meacham estimates that 40 percent of i2E’s portfolio consists of companies in the life sciences. Moleculera Labs, which has raised $6.18 million since it launching in 2011, and Cytovance Biologics, Inc., a pharmaceutical contract manufacturer which was acquired by a Chinese company in August for $206 million, are among the city’s success stories.
“There’s been a pretty strong push by the state to invest in innovation,” says Danny Maloney, the CEO and co-founder visual marketing platform Tailwind. Maloney is a former AOL and Google executive, who moved from New York City to Oklahoma City just over three years ago to start Tailwind.
2. The ability to hire talent quickly and cheaply (without compromising on quality).
The city’s research community churns out many forward-thinking entrepreneurs, making it a great location to recruit.
Oklahoma City is also home to two Fortune 500 companies, Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy, in addition to many other large companies in the oil, energy, and software industries. This means many startup job candidates have a bonus of several years of corporate experience on their resume.
While Tailwind’s co-founder Alex Topiler is based in New York, Maloney knew that keeping Tailwind’s headquarters — and a good portion of the company’s staff — would keep costs down. Take, for example, the average salary for a software developer in Oklahoma City, which is $65,771 (that’s well below the national average of $86,226, according to recent data from Glassdoor).
“We were able to hire more team members faster, because of the fact that a dollar stretches further here,” says Maloney.
3. More Millennials are moving in–and upping the city’s appeal factor.
Earlier this year, USA Today College named Oklahoma City the third-best U.S. city for Millennials thanks to its low unemployment rate (the third-lowest in the nation).
What’s more, it ranks sixth among all U.S. cities for the percentage of 20-34 year-olds that make up its total population. Both Meacham and Maloney tout Oklahoma City’s increased “coolness” factor as a reason why more people — not just entrepreneurs — are moving in to Oklahoma City.
4. An improved quality of life.
In 1997, Oklahoma City created MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects), an initiative that focused on reviving the infrastructure of the city through new cultural, recreational, and entertainment facilities.
The goal of the project, which was reached in 2004, was to transform Oklahoma City into what then-mayor Mick Cornett called “a big league city.”
According to Meacham and Maloney, it’s certainly paid off.
In recent years, Oklahoma City has landed spots on the top 10 spots of many “quality of life” rankings. This year, Travel and Leisure ranked it as the No. 5 friendliest city in America, calling it “the least rude and least snobby” city in the nation. CityLab ranked it No. 4 on its list of the most affordable housing markets. And NerdWallet called it the No. 9 best city for job seekers for its low unemployment rate of 3.9 percent.
“In 2004, the thought leaders were writing, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to figure out a way to reverse brain drain.’ Today, people are wanting to move back to Oklahoma City. You’ve even got people who’ve never lived here before wanting come, too,” says Meacham.
Despite the city’s cool monikers, Oklahoma City still has a lot to prove in the startup scene. While the city saw success with online payroll provider Paycom (which went public in April of 2014), it still lags in the number of startups passing the $10 million valuation mark.
Oklahoma City startups also face challenges in raising capital beyond seed rounds. But if the area’s increasing interest from the general population is any indication, good things are on the way for local entrepreneurs.
“I’m seeing a lot more high-caliber, more experienced entrepreneurs in Oklahoma City than ever before,” says Meacham.