Field notes about the Columbus startup ecosystem from a student, founder, and community organizer.
I noticed a pattern when I first moved to Columbus: most of the people I met weren’t from Columbus. They were from Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, California, and nearly everywhere else. And wherever they came from, they were here to stay.
It wasn’t a coincidence — people, and businesses, have been moving to this city at an ever-growing pace, and for good reason. Columbus, the Midwest’s hippest city, has developed a reputation for innovation, livability, and affordable sophistication.
But beyond the breweries, parks, and startups, there’s something less tangible that really sets Columbus apart. For each of the unique stories accompanying those who have decided to come here and stay, I’ve noticed a couple common threads that reflect the spirit of Columbus.
The best way to describe it is that Columbus is a really big little city. It has all the inclusive, close-knit scrappiness of a small community with the resources, scope, pace, and open-mindedness of a proper metropolis. People come here for the opportunity and stay because of the community.
I’m one of those stories: I arrived as a student at Ohio State, started Helm along the way, and stayed because of a community that builds things like Can’t Stop Columbus. As a Wisconsin native, I chose to study industrial design at the Ohio State University. The draw came as much from the university as the city that surrounded it — Columbus seemed vibrant and energetic. It felt like an opportunity, especially since I had ambitions to start a company.
Even as Columbus has grown at a breakneck pace, the long-term opportunity seems to grow even further. As I move on from school and have the choice to go anywhere, I’ve decided to stay here and build my business, a people analytics startup called Helm, for one reason: Columbus’s unmatched sense of selfless, scrappy, inclusive community. It’s genuinely special.
As an Ohio State student, it didn’t take long to join the startup community around Columbus. Off the bat, I attended a startup weekend and co-founded Ohio State’s own startup event, LaunchpadOSU. Columbus-area founders and professionals enthusiastically helped mentor the event. Speakers shared expertise at Business Builders club, and I pitched Helm at the Best of Student Startups competition, also judged by local founders. At Ohio State, the sense of community came on strong.
The Helm team in the 2019 Hult Prize, a global UN-sponsored startup competition.
Columbus, I’ve learned, is a radically collaborative place. Living and working here, you get the sense that everyone’s in it together. As a young company, my team has leaned heavily on the startup community to learn and grow. Helm, a software-as-a-service tool that helps leaders better understand how their teams work together, recently completed beta with a crop of culture-focused Columbus companies. We spent all of last summer learning from Columbus HR and people operations folks who shared with us their time and expertise to develop the most effective product.
I’ve joined vibrant online communities like TechLife Columbus, attended Code for Columbus meetups and hackathons like HackOHI/O. I’ve had coffee at Stauf’s and Fox in the Snow with incredibly smart Columbus leaders from all kinds of companies and organizations. In short, I’ve walked through a lot of open doors that are always going to remain open.
Why the open doors? Because this community is intent on working together to give the coasts a run for their money. It’s a story you hear often around here - transplants, boomerangs, and expats from California and New York who come here — or come back — to build. At first, people were drawn to Columbus’s affordability and stability; cost of living in Columbus is 10% below the national average. Now, it’s simply because of this community’s ability to make things happen.
Helm’s beta launch in February 2020
Take, for example, two Columbus venture capital firms: Drive Capital and Heartland Ventures. Drive was founded by two California transplants from Sequoia Capital who saw a huge opportunity in the Midwest, and has since led investments in Root Insurance (IPO'd last year), Duolingo, Olive, and so many more. Heartland has a different approach, connecting coastal startups to new markets in the Midwest.
The best way to understand this community’s inclination toward collaboration is with one of my craziest personal stories: the Can’t Stop Columbus volunteer movement. It started as a Tweet, grew to thousands of volunteers that delivered countless high-impact projects, and continues to this day. The whole city took part.
At the beginning of lockdown, Jordan Davis, the director of Smart Columbus, sent a Tweet that proposed community action. The Helm team, including myself, stayed up all night writing a proposal, creating a Slack channel, and calling everyone we knew in the Columbus tech scene. A version of our product helped form the base for new projects. By the next morning, everyone knew about it. Fueled by a collective anxiety over COVID, hundreds joined the Slack channel and asked how they could help. And companies from all around Columbus dedicated resources, time, and expertise to solving the flurry of unprecedented problems that started arising around the community.
People I’d never met stayed up late with me working through problems, coding websites, writing copy, and getting the word out. No one came with ulterior motives; everyone was truly there to help. CEOs, students, consultants, marketers, engineers - professionals from everywhere took it on as a full-time job as the reality of COVID set in.
The team at the very beginning of the Can’t Stop Columbus movement
And we’ve kept at it. All in, the movement’s projects have helped deliver 12,000 face shields, 22,000 meals, and 700 curbside concerts. We generated over $191,000 for local small businesses, and helped over 1,400 people register to vote. And we’re still going strong — we celebrated our first birthday this March.
Can’t Stop Columbus helped me realize how this city and its community truly operates. It’s scrappy, not stodgy. It takes action and perseveres. It’s inclusive and accessible. It’s humble, perhaps to a fault. And it gets things done — together.
Interested in being a part of the vibrant Columbus startup community? Explore and apply for open jobs at top Columbus startups like Root, Finite State, Branch Insurance and more.
About Kai McKinney: As co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Helm, a Columbus-based team management startup, I think a lot about how teams work, build community, and work to transform hybrid team management. Also, my love for good music, travel, and old cars knows no bounds.
About Helm: Helm equips groundbreaking, fast-moving teams to continually keep track of their progress, stay aligned where it’s needed, and take action to improve. Put simply, we help leaders better understand how their team is working together in real-time so they can focus on leading the team forward.