After so many years of this myth that nothing’s going on in the Midwest, the secret’s out, and people are finally taking notice of the Heartland.
With the rise of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major companies like Facebook and Twitter are making remote work mainstream. We’ve seen companies like Stitch Fix announce they’re laying off people in California to hire talent located in more affordable places, and I doubt this trend will stop with them. We’re seeing people moving out of expensive cities and living where they want.
Enter the Midwest. Affordable, friendly, “Midwest Nice” . . . This could be our big moment.
But as more coastal giants move into the Heartland, people are wondering how small Midwest tech startups can compete with Facebook and Twitter when it comes to talent. It’s a good question to ask, but honestly, Midwest startups have been asking themselves this for years. They’ve been building up their innovation hubs and creating vibrant, living company cultures rooted in values.
So the better question to ask is this: how can those tech giants compete with the Midwest startups? Because here’s the secret: we’ve been hard at work for years, making this the place people want to live and building great companies that people want to—and are better off—working at.
From IT Culture to Innovation Hub
Okay, so the Midwest wasn’t always a tech hub. We know that. And I admit it. I was one of those people who moved out West after graduation, thinking there wasn’t much for me in Ohio. Because at the time, there wasn’t.
When I was graduating from OSU, we were heading into the Great Recession, and I thought I needed to find a “real” job. So I went to law school only to discover that I really didn’t want to be a lawyer. So I got back into coding, something I had taught myself in high school. When I finally left law school for a tech job, I realized there wasn’t much in Ohio for me.
The problem for the Midwest at the time was its IT culture. There were mostly big enterprise companies and plenty of jobs in IT, working with hardware, helpdesk issues, and often archaic technologies. And there weren’t many startups innovating new tech products. Needless to say, it wasn’t super exciting. So I left my home in Ohio for the West Coast.
Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland were all cool cities to be in, and I loved experiencing the booming startup scenes there. I never expected to come back to Columbus, but the West Coast had its problems, too.
We hear about them a lot, right? Virtually unaffordable housing, high cost of living, no space to spread out and raise a family. It was taking young people longer to reach life milestones because they simply can’t afford it.
So when Drive Capital, one of the most prominent Midwest VC firms, approached me with an opportunity to come back to the Midwest, I jumped on it. Yes, the idea of a yard and dogs, being close to friends and family, and the laid-back Midwest lifestyle was appealing. But what was even more appealing were the companies taking shape in the region—the opportunity to get to do the same level of work I was doing out West right here in Columbus. And to me, that was everything.
A Chance to Shine
Of course, affordability is huge in the Midwest. It’s one of the main reasons why remote companies are looking to source talent here right now. Cost of living is affordable, unlike in the Bay Area and other coastal cities where high salaries hardly even cover rent.
Affordability aside, the Midwest also offers a huge reward for people willing to take a bit of a risk when it comes to working at a Midwest tech startup.
One of the reasons young developers move out West is because, a) “that’s where the startups are,” and b) there’s a community around that. It’s a competitive environment, so a strong, supportive community has emerged. Mentors, meetups, a safety net. You can coffee chat your way to anything, there are so many people willing to meet up and network, and if you wanted a new opportunity you’d be able to find one the next day.
But that also makes it incredibly hard to stand out.
Quite a few people on my team come from the West Coast. And the sad truth is that many of them probably wouldn’t have even been a blip on the San Francisco talent radar—not because they’re not talented but because there are thousands of people “like them.”
But you come to the Midwest and you really get a chance to shine. You have the room to stretch your legs. You can come into these small startups and use a variety of skills you might have outside of your job description. Got amazing code and some pretty good HR chops? Small startups love people like that, and it’s a great way for talented people to work hands on in the founding stages of an early startup. It’s a rewarding place to launch and grow your career.
When people like this are given these opportunities here, they can really shine —whereas out West, these same people might get lost at either a bigger startup or just a massive sea of startups.
However, as coastal companies shift their focus to the Midwest, that startup sea is now growing here too, posing an interesting challenge for startups. But, as I mentioned before, Midwest startups already have the upper hand.
Bigger ocean, bigger sharks
With more companies looking inland for talent, the ocean is getting bigger—but so are the sharks. Scary, right? But maybe not so much.
Companies across the U.S. are moving to more fully remote structures and can now pull talent from all over the country. That means Facebook, Twitter, and Google can do the same. They’re probably not going to hire a bunch of recruiters in Columbus to steal all the candidates, but it’s making small Midwest startups wonder how they can attract talent when a skilled developer in Columbus is no longer limited to Columbus tech companies.
So what can we do? Well, if we want to compete with the giants, we have to shift our focus to talent retention. Companies have to be better at identifying talent, keeping them happy, and focus on retention work now more than ever.
By nature, though, this is something Midwest startups have been hard at work on for a lot longer than Facebook, Google, and other gigantic companies who have relied on their name for attracting talent. (And if retention is low, they simply hire new talent because, as we know, there isn’t a lack of that out in the Bay Area.) Small startups don’t have that luxury, so instead we focus on building cultures that foster learning, growth, while still remaining focused on modern technologies and innovations.
While the tech giants have the innovation culture down, they often don’t have the culture for retention. They could learn a thing or two from us smaller tech startups.
Focus on growth and learning
At Beam Dental in Columbus, Ohio, we’re always focused on learning, and it’s something that Beam has been passionate about since day one. Everyone on our product team comes in and gets the learning budget to be able to up their tech skills. And, moving forward, we’re really focusing on being more purposeful with helping employees use that learning budget.
Because cities like Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis are relatively new tech hubs, it can be harder to find candidates with years of hands-on experience in cutting-edge technologies. But experience in a certain coding language isn’t the only indicator for success. It’s important to suss out other leading indicators, like ability to learn fast, curiosity, self-motivation. Skills can be taught. Character and emotional intelligence cannot.
Plus, being able to help developers learn new skills and allow them to work with some of the new technologies is important not only for retention but also for the health of the company. You might be happy with your tech stack today, but you’ll probably want to change and innovate down the line and stay on top of the most advanced technologies. This possibility of change requires a team of individuals who are always eager to learn.
Revamp your interview process
This is also one of the reasons we don’t take into consideration computer science degrees. No matter how many of these big companies remove college degree requirements from the job description, it’s still hard to get into technology without a degree in computer science. There are a lot of really smart people being held out of the industry because they have to get over these interview processes that are very skewed towards the book knowledge you pick up in computer science classes and then regurgitate in interviews.
A good portion of our staff at Beam doesn’t have a computer science degree. I myself haven’t taken a single computer science class let alone have a degree in it. Instead, our interview process is very practical in nature, with a good balance between practical coding, problem-solving, and communication evaluations. We’ll give candidates an example of what work actually looks like to see if they can do it and if they like it. Those two things are super important to us in the hiring process.
This is also critical from a diversity perspective. When companies stop disregarding candidates who don’t have that computer science degree, so many people who are trying to change their careers, people who did not have access to college-level education or could not get into highly competitive computer science programs will have a chance to work at top tech startups. This improves diversity and adds to your living, breathing culture (instead of finding people who “fit” into it). If we require (or say we don’t but actually do) that college degree, we can’t reasonably sit there and say we care about diversity, inclusion, and equity because we’re putting up the biggest barrier we possibly could.
Instead, we heavily look at the culture elements a candidate can bring to the organization—areas in which they can make the team and company more intelligent, if they have life experiences that are different than what we currently have in the company. This tends to be a better evaluation of candidates than any whiteboard test.
Planting the seeds
Of course focusing on retention and providing an environment for learning and growth helps the company attract and hire amazing talent, but it also helps the Midwest region grow as a budding tech hub. People are taking notice of us right now, and what they’re seeing is something really extraordinary: amazingly talented people given the chance to shine at work, contribute to a growing innovation hub, and live in a place where they can have a great quality of life.
As the Midwest begins its shift away from an IT mindset to a product one, it’s important to note that we’re not going to be the next Silicon Valley. And we don’t want to be.
Instead, what we need is a wider distribution of startups across the Midwest and the whole nation. With this trend of going completely remote, the opportunity to lure talent to different regions is now. There’s so much diversity across the rest of the country, and if we’re ever going to be truly representative of all the people who live here, we have to have startup companies distributed across the country. Otherwise, it’s only going to be subject to the limited diversity of these existing hubs.
The Midwest is a great seed for that because we already have large cities with many great tech companies. There’s a lot of talented people here, many of whom could be doing a lot of good at technology startups in general but don’t want to move to these very expensive coastal cities. This new moment for the Midwest is the chance for these people to to get to work for really great, forward-thinking technology companies. Because yes, they are here. And so is the talent.