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‘We just need to be better storytellers’: Tomorrow Tour on Philly’s startup future

We ought to take a pair of approaches to strengthening the resolve and results of the Philadelphia entrepreneurship community.

Refine the message of our regional distinctions, and maintain a highly collaborative pipeline for supporting any business worth a damn. That’s what we heard during the first stop of the Tomorrow Tour, a multi-city event and reporting series we’re hosting along with Comcast NBCUniversal. We kicked things off last week in Philadelphia at the University City Science Center with a pair of events — an afternoon conversation with a cross-section of different community leaders and then an at-capacity public evening discussion. The goal of the tour is to hear how communities have similar and distinct approaches to supporting their local founders.

“We just need to be better storytellers,” said Brock Weatherup, the local founder, angel investor and new head of Philly Startup Leaders. Boston champions its brainy reputation, even with similar college graduate retention rates as Philadelphia.

Weatherup was part of an evening panel discussion charged with exploring just how Philadelphia fits into national entrepreneurship trends. The tone of the night was of near-exasperation. Panelists collectively seemed to say not just, “Let’s stop disparaging Philly’s strengths,” but pushed beyond to, “Let’s stop even talking about those who disparage Philly’s strengths.”

“There’s plenty of reason to be here,” said Jon Gosier, the Atlanta native who came to Philadelphia for the DreamIt Ventures accelerator program and never left, with stints in West Africa along the way. He’s invested in entrepreneurs and sought funding from investors around the country and world. He cited reasons to live in Philadelphia the same reason a savvy tourist might choose to visit — it’s beautiful, tasty, walkable and livable.

“There are a lot more Johnny Brendas than there are TGI Fridays,” Rick Nucci, the CEO of Guru and founder ofDell-acquired Boomi, said earlier in the day’s programming.

When Apu Gupta, CEO and cofounder of fast-growing image analytics startup Curalate, gets asked “Why Philly?” as he was in an on-stage interview, he answers “Why not?” Their point is there is culture to attract people and it’s people who build better businesses.

So, sure, it’s important to consolidate around regional strengths — no one doubts the importance of a marketing campaign around the commercialized sciences or consensus around health IT (and some want social entrepreneurship there, too). But the work many are doing in connecting and strengthening an array of young businesses is important too, they said.

That includes the regular events that foster connections, like Philly New Tech Meetup and Philly Tech Week, and the matchmaking and resource sharing fostered by Philly Startup Leaders, said Nucci. It should also mean being customers for each other’s products, said edtech startup SmartyPAL founder Prasanna Krishnan, as early feedback is vital.

Let’s do the work and get the message out, pleaded Sara Merriman, who does work on business attraction and retention for the city’s Department of Commerce. It was a similar point made earlier in the day by Danielle Cohn, now director of entrepreneurial engagement at Comcast, but a longtime executive with the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau who has spent considerable time on regional marketing.

While the evening brought nearly 200 people to the Quorum space for beer and chatter, with founders likeMonetate’s David Brussin and Artisan CEO Bob Moul in the room, the afternoon was something of a working group.

There, the group aimed at, among other things, helping to produce a stronger, updated version of this infographic to welcome new community members. It’s an act that will take place at all the Tomorrow Tour stops, with the hopes of sharing what’s similar and distinct.

So what can make a poor city like Philadelphia’s business community grow? Throughout the day, issues of tax reform and clustering and marketing all came up. But perhaps the loudest shout was to know our strengths and don’t apologize for them. Part of it is geography.

Having that distinction is valuable, but any economic development policy conversation in this city lingers on the idea that there’s something worth valuing about our well-rounded economy.

The trick is that right now, every city worth its place on a map has an emerging entrepreneurship community with a tech class to boot. So collaboration might be the only logical answer to competition, a broader goal to understand during the Tomorrow Tour.

We asked Mayor Jim Kenney to stop by, and obligingly he did, sharing his still-developing tech stump speech and speaking passionately about the tech scene’s intersection with a public school system for which he speaks passionately about feeling responsible. (City Councilman Allan Domb, whom we hosted for a Philly Tech Week City Council roundtable last year, also attended the event.)

With a new administration and interest among policymakers in this community’s economic development potential, now’s another good time for a game plan.

“We have to do more for more residents of this city,” said Archna Sahay, the Director of Entrepreneurial Investment at the city’s Department of Commerce.

Before the evening programming kicked off, a handful of local firms were showing off their work, including wearable tech startup ROAR for Good, edtech games from SmartyPAL and web accessibility consulting fromEvoXLabs.

Find other coverage of the event from Al Dia and Philly Mag.

Media Contact:

Kristen Fitch

Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing