December 7, 2023

A new employee recently said to me, “The Mill has so many different programs, and I don’t understand how they connect.” She’s probably not the only person who wonders what the method to our madness is! But there is definitely a method. You might even call it a recipe for building a healthy startup ecosystem. 
Fred Wilson, a New York venture capitalist who has invested in some of the biggest names in tech, has suggested there are four ingredients for building a healthy ecosystem. They are: talent, capital, training and cheerleading. 
Talent and capital are obvious. A thriving ecosystem needs smart people, and promising startups need money to grow quickly. To make the most of that talent and capital, an ecosystem also needs training. In a digital economy, everyone needs continuous upskilling and reskilling to take advantage of shifting opportunities. 
The final ingredient, cheerleading, is not just a feel-good piece. Cheerleading is leading. Effective cheerleaders have been successful in the startup world and willingly help others. They build confidence that we can reach our vision. They say, “Here’s what the future can look like. Yes, we know it’s difficult, and yes, there’s value in doing difficult things. Let’s keep going!” 
The Mill’s recipe for a healthy ecosystem also includes four instructions, which we borrowed from Brad Feld’s book “Startup Communities.” These are: let entrepreneurs lead, take a 20-year view of the future, engage the entire entrepreneurial “stack,” and continually get fresh blood in the system. 
First, what does it mean to let entrepreneurs lead? It means the most passionate, experienced and actively engaged members of the ecosystem should set its course. Universities and governments play critical supporting roles, and we deeply value our partnerships with them. But when it turns to helping new founders launch, run, grow and exit startups, we turn to expert founders. That’s why The Mill’s board of directors contains representatives from all sectors with a strategic emphasis on entrepreneurs. It’s also why the board hired an entrepreneur like me rather than a career nonprofit administrator to run The Mill. 
Next, taking a 20-year view from today means more than creating a long-term vision. It means looking forward literally from today, to continually update our vision of the future. The digital economy does not stand still. 
Third, we need to engage the entire entrepreneurial stack. We can’t focus only on startups, or only on software developers. We need to engage graphic designers, executives, students, consultants, small businesses — everybody. An ecosystem is a connected network, not a silo of techies. 
Finally, healthy ecosystems get a continuous flow of fresh blood. The great thing about a college town is that we get 14,000 new residents every year. We only have to retain a few to improve the trajectory of our startup ecosystem. And if we’re engaging the full stack, of course, some of our existing residents and businesses will also become founders. 
The Mill’s mission is to launch and accelerate startups, and our vision is to become the center of entrepreneurship for Indiana — not southern Indiana, but all of Indiana. Our programs build out different parts of our ecosystem, according to this recipe. 
Bloomington Remote is one of our talent ingredients. We’re recruiting highly skilled remote workers to move to Indiana and cowork at The Mill. Cowork is not just a way we generate revenue for operations. Coworking builds community. It engages the full stack, brings talented people together and creates a fertile soil for innovation. 
Flywheel Fund provides capital for our startups. Three years ago, it was difficult to raise $250,000 or $500,000. Today, it’s straightforward, especially with the mentoring support of Cy Megnin, Elevate Ventures’ entrepreneur-in-residence for our region. Between Flywheel Fund, Elevate Ventures and our friends at the IU Angel Network, founders have three great resources. 
Code/IT Academy provides training, to reskill folks for tech careers and feed that talent pool. Our many pre-accelerator programs train new founders in startup skills. We offer tailored entrepreneurial training and education for our members, for Indiana University faculty and staff, for Crane, for women, and for other folks underrepresented in the startup world. 
Our K-12 programming provides entrepreneurial training with a 20-year view. It will be many years before kids in our programs with MCCSC, RBB, and the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs of Bloomington grow up. Only some will start a business, but all of them are developing grit and problem-solving skills. How do you overcome obstacles? How do you persuade people? What does it mean to be resourceful? Our talent pool needs these skills, and so do these future citizens. 
Crossroads, our pitch competition, aims to fulfill our vision of becoming the center of entrepreneurship in Indiana. Crossroads provides a stream of fresh blood and fresh ideas. We find promising startups from across the state, showcase their success and connect them with opportunity, mentors and capital — in turn showcasing our ecosystem’s rich offerings. 
Years ago, when the city of Bloomington decided to finance the multi-million-dollar renovation of our historic building, Mayor John Hamilton said to me, “Pat, if this is just a coworking space in five years, we have failed.” Bloomington already had Cowork Btown, a fantastic cowork community. What we needed was to bring Bloomington into the new economy. 
And so that’s what we’re trying to do at The Mill, through a mix of talent, capital, training and cheerleading. We’re led by entrepreneurs, we take a 20-year vision, we try to engage the entire entrepreneurial stack and we continually bring in fresh blood. Join us! You belong at The Mill. 
Pat East is executive director of The Mill, an entrepreneurship center whose mission is to launch and accelerate startups and whose vision is to become Indiana’s center of gravity for entrepreneurship. 


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