St. Louis Startup Efforts Draw National Attention
The startup scene in St. Louis is grabbing more national attention as the calendar year begins.
"Popular Mechanics" has named it the best city in America for startups and the Princeton Review recently placed Washington University’s Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and St. Louis University’s Entrepreneurship Concentration in its list of the top 25 colleges for entrepreneurship undergraduates.
One of the most recent success stories in the sector is reaching out to the world from its downtown offices.
LockerDome has grown from 10,000 active users a month three years ago to more than 75 million today. It has attracted more than $18 million in capital so far and Chief Executive Officer Gabe Lozano says the company has turned down “significantly more than that.”
“You’re not going for the biggest number you can possibly put in your bank. This isn’t a PR move to raise money,” Lozano said.
He says being selective about capital allows the company to be as efficient as possible.
Lozano touts the company as essentially a social media platform that helps personalize the web, based on a user’s profile.
“And over that period of time that content you consume becomes more relevant. Then you start to discover content, even if you didn't know that you wanted until you touched it.”
Even though the company also has an office in New York City, which is closer to national media buyers, the plan is to keep the headquarters in St. Louis.
“There are an incredible number of smart people here that you can grab from a pool standpoint,” said Lozano.
“Plus a company like LockerDome doesn't have to compete against Google, Facebook, Apple where it's really a pricing war and you are trying to poach other people.”
Even with its success, the company has room to grow. Lozano said the company plans to add to its workforce of more than 30 this year.
LockerDome has also been through some growing pains. When officials decided to overhaul its website, many workers lived at the offices for weeks. At least one employee didn’t leave for roughly 80 days.
Luckily, the offices include bunks, showers and even some recreational options like basketball hoops.
Another startup hoping to eventually reach the LockerDome level is Wondermento. And it is off to a roaring start in 2015.
Chief Executive Officer Betsy Fore has been named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
“It's pretty mind-blowing. I'm absolutely thrilled. This is kind of, as far as 30 under 30 lists go, the highest honor and it's been incredible,” said Fore.
The company used the high-profile Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to launch its first product.
Wonderwoof is an app that lets users keep track of their dogs through a device that attaches to the animal’s collar.
The Vegas rollout went so well, Fore immediately set out on an impromptu tour of West Coast retailers.
“The talks were extremely positive and the retailers actually see a big need in the market for this.”
Wondermento was also among the first companies to receive $50,000 investments from St. Louis-based Prosper Women Entrepreneurs.
The company already has offices in London and Hong Kong, but plans to keep St. Louis as the center of its North American operation.
Wondermento established a presence in the region by winning funding from Arch Grants, an organization designed to attract startups to the region by offering equity free money and touting benefits that might not be available in more traditional hubs like Boston and San Francisco.
“We're friendly, we're capital efficient. One can bootstrap a business here and not starve to death,” said Executive Director Ginger Imster.
Even with the startup momentum, St. Louis is battling a negative national perception among some, especially after last year in Ferguson.
"I think it’s been sobering for folks transplanting to St. Louis and have not grown up here or lived here a long time to see the many conflicts that are very historically entrenched in St. Louis," said Imster.
But she is upbeat about the possibility of overcoming those issues.
“Entrepreneurs are disruptive. And I think when you look at an entrepreneurial community and if we can appropriately engage them with organizations that we know are doing great work in our community to advocate for and to contribute through policy, through better management equity and justice - I think that our entrepreneurs will rise to that invitation."
And she sees an opportunity for the region to standout in the competitive world of startup cities.
“To make, dare I say, St. Louis the Midwest capital of entrepreneurship. Then we should own it and make it happen."