MAX LYNCH

Thoughts from the co-founder of Drifty and co-creator of Ionic

Recently, I’ve become utterly obsessed with shooting Film. Earlier this year, I acquired my dad’s old Minolta SRT 100 as my family was cleaning out some old things, a 50mm Rokkor f2.0 lens, and a long-since expired Kodak Gold 400 roll half-shot and still in the camera. In the span of 6 months I’ve gone on to shoot, develop, and scan over 50 rolls.

camera

The camera. I guess putting your license number on your camera was a thing?

Film is one of those hard things for people to understand in the digital age. It’s essentially buying storage to store a fixed, and very limited number of “files” (images, in this case). On top of that, the storage medium has to be handled delicately and then processed with various chemicals before it can be worked with. After that, the images are generally scanned (perhaps the slowest part of the process) and then printed digitally or touched up with Photoshop (unless you’re working in a darkroom to make traditional prints).

Compare that to the digital workflow: take photo, optionally apply a filter. It’s easy to see why digital people just don’t understand film.

I grew up just as digital was starting to emerge, so I still remember when family and friends shot film because buying a digital camera meant purchasing a sub-par device for too much money. Film was just better and ruled as the photography economy of scale.

The weird thing about the pre-digital film era was that many people were shooting with crappy auto film cameras. Kinda like most people shoot with crappy smartphone cameras today. My dad’s Minolta SRT 100 from 1970 was superior in almost every single way to any camera my family owned until someone in the family bought a Canon DSLR in the mid 2000’s.

In that sense, using an old, manual film camera like the Minolta felt like I was rediscovering a lost art. Being fully manual, the camera expected me to understand the tradeoffs between Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO, and also how to configure each one for additional creative control. I had some experience with this with my Canon DSLR but given the priority modes on a modern DSLR, it was rare I had to really think about it. Not to mention the challenge of having a fixed ISO for a given roll! Having to learn how to master a manual camera has made me a much better photographer.

On top of the manual approach, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discovering and understanding the various film available today. When I first picked up the Minolta and searched for film, I expected that the entire industry was dead and that I just had a nice antique on my hands. What I found pleasantly surprised me: not only was new film being made in 2016, but modern film was some of the best film around. Additionally, new companies were trying to “bring film back” by either repackaging existing films, or investing in new film stocks. With the Kickstarter era and the major film enthusiast community, I’m confident film will be here for a long time regardless of whether the major brands fade.

So far, I’ve shot Kodak Portra 400, Kodak Ektar 100, Gold 100/200/400, Kodak Tri-x 400, Ilford HP5, Ilford Delta 3200 and 100, Fujifilm Fujicolor/Superia/Provia, Lomography color 800 and 100, Lomography Lady Gray 400, and Fomapan 100. Of all those choices, I’ve settled on Portra 400 as my absolute favorite for color negative, Ilford HP5+ for black and white, and Provia for slide (though I have a Velvia roll waiting to be shot).

Here are some samples of each:

portra

Kodak Portra 400. All-around great film, though it's not super saturated and thus not amazing for landscapes

hp5

Fujifilm Superia 400. A cheap and widely available film. I love the colors sometimes, though I've had limited success with very sunny shooting.

hp5

Ilford HP5 plus. A wonderful B&W film that can be processed up to 3200 if desired.

hp5

Fujifilm Provia 100 (E-6 Slide film). The colors pop with surreal depth. One of my favorites but for the price tag.

If you had to pick one film stock to buy today, I absolutely recommend Portra 400. It’s affordable (5 rolls for $35), the colors are unmatched, it’s pretty fast, and it has one of the largest latitudes of color film meaning it looks good underexposed and overexposed (within reason). A close second would be Superia. For black and white, Ilford HP5+ can be easily processed as if it was shot at 800, 1600, or 3200 ISO making it incredibly flexible. If you are able to do E-6 processing cheaply, then Provia is a no-brainer and is absolutely gorgeous if slightly difficult to nail the exposure with.

After I had my camera, and found some interesting film to try, I had to figure out where to get it developed. First, I checked Walgreens because I had gotten some digital prints there and heard they still did film development. It turns out that they still develop film today, but they don’t return negatives so I could only hope to get some prints back. The worker at the Photo lab at Walgreens recommended that I try the Camera Company in Madison and it turned out there was a location blocks away from where I work.

Today, I get all my film developed at the Camera Company in Madison. At first, I was dismayed at the price for developing with prints and/or scans. In an effort to find a more economical way to shoot film, I looked into developing my own B&W film at home and buying a film scanner. However, their prices for develop-only were much more reasonable ($3.99 for color, $4.99 for B&W, per roll) and so now I just have them develop the film. I then bought a film scanner (the Epson V600) and so I scan at home, skipping the print process altogether. While I’ve also developed a few B&W rolls at home, I’m happy having the lab do it and I’ve settled on this workflow being the optimal in terms of time and cost (for me, at least).

When I was given the camera, I initially didn’t know what to do with it and I had no reason to really use it over my DSLR. I randomly did some YouTube searching to find film people and see whether it was worth sinking time and money into. I happened upon Eduardo Pavez Goye and his awesome YouTube Channel. In particular, his Shoot Film series showed me how easy film was to shoot, and how spectacular and unique the results were. To say that he singularly inspired me to get into shooting film isn’t far from the truth. He also has some great videos on developing B&W film at home, and his process for developing and scanning film. If you want to get excited about shooting film and to see how others do it in 2016, take a look at his channel.

Why I Love Film

Now that I have a workflow for film shooting and some stocks that I prefer, I am starting to understand why I enjoy shooting film and why I believe I will make it a life-long habit.

First of all is the sense of nostalgia a film photo gives me. When I was just starting to develop my taste for photography, I realized that nostalgia is a major part of why I shoot photos, and that film just oozes nostalgia. Perhaps it’s the grain, perhaps it’s the colors, and perhaps it’s the bias for the kind of person that shoots film. Whatever it is, a great film photo moves me in ways that I can’t seem to replicate with digital without tons of film-style editing. I am most drawn to film shooters on Flickr and I aspire to use the medium like they do.

I also enjoy the workflow, and this really is the deciding factor for those sticking with or eschewing film. I enjoy picking between film stocks that all seem to have various unique physical properties. I enjoy the limit to how many photos I can shoot on a roll. I enjoy dropping the film off at a lab. I enjoy spending hours scanning and touching up film. I enjoy the final product and I enjoy the work I put into making it.

Film feels like the first kind of traditional “art” passion I’ve ever had. Digital never felt like that to me, and I never had to spend much time with my digital photos beyond filtering through the thousands of duplicates I rattled off. Digital photography is certainly an artful medium, but I personally don’t see myself as an artist with my digital photography.

To be fair, I still thoroughly enjoy digital, but I see it as a tool for those moments when resolution and pixel perfection are a must. For example, you can bet that I’ll be shooting the first moments of my son’s birth with my digital Fujifilm! What I found with film, though, was a pretty shocking realization that technical details like megapixels really don’t matter in photography apart from supporting large format prints. I had to come up with a new framework for understanding the quality of a photo, and film fit perfectly within that.

Beyond nostalgia and workflow, I love the colors of film and the qualities of the bokeh effect. The colors are what I always want my digital photos to look like, but which I cannot really reproduce in Lightroom or VSCO. The bokeh is just wonderful, likely accentuated by the grain structure of most films, and film was just made for it. In my head all my photos, digital or otherwise, want to look like film!

hp5

The bokeh on film is just so damn creamy!

Finally, I just love the surprise of film. I recently developed a roll that was four months old, and as I scanned it I had the biggest smile on my face seeing old moments for the first time. Each roll holds memories that I’ve since lost, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Whenever I travel, I bring both my digital Fujifilm XE2S and my Minolta SRT 100. I found that I always seem to end up just using the Minolta the whole time. I think that says a lot about shooting film. It’s just more fun.

If you’re reading this and even mildly intrigued by film, I recommend finding an old, used manual film camera. There are so many good ones on ebay right now! Grab some Portra or HP5 and shoot a few rolls. Sit on them a bit to let them build up meaning, go get them developed and scanned, and clean up dust in Photoshop. If you love the results, you might have just found a new obsession.

Keep shooting!


A few weeks ago I acquired my first mirrorless camera, a Fujifilm X-E2S with the Fujinon 35mm F2 R WR lens.

X-E2S and Fujinon XF35mm F2 R WR shown in their svelte glory.

Previously, I used a lower-end Canon DSLR and my iPhone for most of my photography, so I was in need of an upgrade. I researched my options: bulky professional DSLRs with tons of features I didn’t need, and Leica’s with a price tag I couldn’t afford. By chance, I stumbled on the Fujifilm X line, and was immediately smitten with the aesthetic: classic rangefinder-esque with modern conveniences. Just what I was looking for.

After a few weeks of use, I have some initial reactions on the camera. First, the JPEG image quality is incredible with a “magic” that’s hard to describe. The EVF and LCD have tons of premium features like leveling, focus peaking, face detection, and more. The camera feels solid yet light, film era meets modern day.

My dogs caught plotting.

One of the wonderful secrets of the X series, and other mirrorless cameras like it, is how easily they support old film lenses. With a simple glass-free adapter, classic Minolta Rokkor, Canon, Pentax, Nikkor, and such lenses can be given new life in the digital age.

Yes, these lenses are going to be manual-only, but with modern features like Focus Peaking that highlight the in-focus area in the viewfinder, manual becomes much more practical. I bought a few old Rokkor lenses on ebay based on Rokkor Files reviews (50mm f/1.4, 58mm f/1.4, 45mm f/2, 28mm f/2.8, and a 135mm f/2.8) for ~$240 with shipping. Five quality lenses for less than the price of one Fujinon 35mm.

A daring twist. Fotasy MD to X Mount Adapter with 58mm f/1.4 Rokkor lens.

You’ll notice I bought three lenses in the ~50mm focal length, which seems redundant. One of the fun parts about finding and researching old lenses is hearing about the history of each lens type. I found that, in many cases, one focal length line could be dramatically better in construction and performance than another depending on the volume produced, manufacturing process, and era of the lens. I tried a few in the ~50mm focal length based on those reviews, with the expectation that I’d use each one for different purposes. Plus, it’s hard to say no to a $20 fast and quality lens in any focal length.

Back to the camera. On a Fujifilm with Fujinon lenses aperture and shutter speed are configured through analog dials on the lens. The most common state is aperture priority where the shutter speed is automatically chosen by the camera and the aperture can be changed by the user. Most Fujinon lenses have an aperture ring that you rotate through f-stops, or lock in “auto” mode to push the camera into shutter priority mode (or full auto if both engaged). The shutter speed is configured through a classic dial. Both features hark back to film days and force the user to get involved in the photo-making process.

Fujifilm X-E2S with Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 manual zoom lens

The aperture dial is yet another reason old film lenses work so well on this camera. Unlike Canon lenses where so much of the lens is controlled by the body, Fujifilm X cameras expect aperture and manual focus to be lens-controlled. For example, my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens has to be attached to a Canon (or compatible) body to control both the aperture and the focus, which makes it pretty much useless on any other camera. Since old film lenses are lens controlled, they work amazingly well on an X body.

I found the dial approach to be quick and painless once I got used to it, and appreciate that the settings stay put better than fully digital approaches like most DSLRs. One major feature I find myself using all the time is the exposure compensation dial. Having this dial so accessible makes it simple to quickly over or (more commonly) under-expose a shot. On my canon that option was hidden through an awkward Q sub-menu. I do wish I had an ISO dial as well but the Q menu will have to suffice.

Auto ISO modes with a pre-configured upper bounds and minimum shutter speed are a great way to quickly move between low and normal lighting situations without fiddling through options. I can let the camera jump to 6400 ISO if absolutely necessary but maintain a 1/60 shutter speed minimum, for example. A more optimal shot could be taken, perhaps, but not without a pause to change options.

The rear. Tried to capture the focus peaking (zoom in to see red through the center).

A few nice features I use constantly are the Wi-Fi and Film Simulation modes. With the Wi-Fi setting, photos can be quickly transferred to a smartphone without going through a slow SD-card import process. The Film Simulation modes simulate classic Fuji film, based on their years of creating film products, and do a great job adding sophistication to shots without looking like an over-the-top instagram filter.

Beyond features, I love the size and feel of the camera body. I wanted something small enough to carry with me most places, yet large enough to still feel like a classic camera. I initially tried the X70 which was wonderful in all the ways the Fujifilm X cameras are, but I felt the form factor was too small and I missed the viewfinder. No such issues here.

On the topic of the 35mm F2 R WR, it’s one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used, with snappy auto focus and pleasing bokeh. It’s a very light lens that looks great on the X-E2S, and I take it everywhere I go.

In general, the X-E2S, and other Fujifilm X cameras like it, bring back the film aesthetic and magic to digital photography. I’m not a professional photographer, but I consider taking increasingly better photos to be a life passion. The X-E2S lets me push forward in a way that feels natural and authentic, while still appealing to my inner nerd.

I’m incredibly happy with my choice and recommend anyone new to mirrorless or wanting a smaller alternative to a DSLR check out the Fujifilm X line (and the X-E2S).


Most people know I’m a huge fan of bootstrapping. I find the model intriguing because by many measures bootstrapping is considered folly by the larger startup ecosystem, primarily from the VC world that doesn’t benefit from a cap table that doesn’t have their name on it. And yet there have been some huge successes from following that model. It defies the conventional wisdom, and I love that.

To me, bootstrapping represents a possible future of startups for many people, because capital costs have dropped sufficiently such that companies can create great value for little cost. Many founders will choose this route because it maximizes many things they care about (independence, control, ownership, etc.) while minimizing things they don’t care about (growth at all costs, loss of control, focus on exits, etc.).

The “Lab”

But I’m starting to think there might be an even better startup model out there for certain types of founders. One which maximizes parts of the startup experience they value, and minimizes the rest. This format is called the “lab.”

Kevin Rose is pretty much the poster child for this new startup format. His two companies Milk and now North are essentially “startup labs”: they are focusing on building new apps and social products to see what takes off. If something works, it’s assumed the team will focus on that or will spin off the product into a separate company with a new team to grow and scale the product.

While Kevin’s team has only shipped one failed app, I’m sure they learned a ton about how to make the system work.

Another interesting example is the Samwer brothers’ Rocket Internet. Billed as the “world’s largest incubator,” they have found success cloning successful startups and tailoring them for a non-US userbase. While I don’t like their approach, they’ve shown the model can be wildly successful.

One fascinating difference between a lab and a bootstrapped startup is while bootstrappers keep everything they make (including the responsibilities of the products they create), the “lab” does not, almost as a rule.

For many technical founders, the goal isn’t to work on one thing forever. Rather, it’s to create lots of new products and have a diversity of problem spaces they attack. These founders find scaling a business a lot less interesting than starting up new ones, but when they raise VC money they are left with the choice of focusing only on this one space for the next 5-10 years (and moving from product into executive management), or leaving and doing something else (and probably losing a good chunk of potential upside).

And even if they pick the long road of building and scaling a working business, with standard VC financing rounds and assuming the probable case that your startup isn’t a black swan or “unicorn”, founder take-home might be the same whether you work 10 years, raise 5 rounds, and sell for $200M vs working a few years, raising little capital, and selling for $20M.

Upside

A Lab has a different ownership structure and upside opportunities are a bit murkier. At first glance, the two sweet spots for Labs to make as much money as possible is to build a product quickly, see rapid adoption, and sell it to someone else or spin it out to a new team to scale it up (while retaining some equity ownership over it). Since the lab team is intentionally small, the upside on even a small sale can be large.

In the case of a spin-out, perhaps this new team can raise VC and scale the product, with the lab taking some liquidity.

The problem is that both acquirers and investors usually want the team often more than the product. Labs are going to have to figure out how to retain the independence of the product team while enabling the sale or growth of the products they create.

A new future

In the face of so few startup choices, the Lab represents something new. It’s the joy of creating new products, the lack of responsibility VC-scale requires, the self-sufficiency of bootstrapping, the ability to keep great teams together, but the ability to grow and scale and retain upside on things that work (along with sharing in the impact of your creation).

I think there is a crucial caveat to the Lab model: you have to have an incredible product team. A developer/designer/marketing duo or triplet is probably best. I don’t think it will work with a ragtag team.

This is probably why we see so few Lab startups. It turns out that combo is pretty rare. I have a hunch it can be engineered but we will have to wait and see.

For now I’m eagerly watching this new model evolve, because it represents something exciting to me: the ability to rapidly change the world in as many problem spaces as possible, while still being able to find financial success.

Teams that pull this off will find themselves working on more interesting problems, for less investment in time, and with potentially greater upside for the individuals creating the first versions of the product.

And as a strange side-effect, VCs might find more interesting companies to put money into as more products solving more problems built by teams that know how to make things people want enter the market.


I notice far too many startups that just plain get Twitter wrong. They spam, they follow way too many people, and they don’t produce interesting content.

It’s a tragedy because if done well, Twitter can be one of the best sources for free, high quality and viral traffic for your new product.

While Twitter isn’t right for every startup, depending on the target market it can be a huge advantage for new startups just getting off the ground. Here are some things to avoid, and some things to focus on:

##1. Don’t spam

Don’t tweet random accounts telling them about your product. Certainly don’t tweet celebrities or tweet at random people following a certain trending topic that has nothing to do with your business.

I’ve seen too many startups do this. It makes you look desperate, but worst of all it pisses off the organic follows you’ve already gotten as it fills their stream with your spam!

##2. Mind the dot

When tweeting at someone, use a “.” before if you want others to see it. If you just do @maxlynch hey Max! Check out my new product only those who follow both you and I will see that. Change it to .@maxlynch to avoid that.

But, minding #1, don’t just tweet me random crap unless you think I’ll really like it :)

##3. Don’t mass follow

A lot of people do “mass follows” in attempt to get follows back. It doesn’t really work and there is a limit to how many you can follow anyways.

##4. Don’t buy follows

Buying follows seems like an easy way to increase your importance. But you’ll have no engagement on any of your content and you will actually lose followers over time. It’s dishonest and lame, but might impress someone who is too stupid or careless to check into the validity of your audience.

##5. Create unique content

The best way to get followers and grow a popular twitter account is by blogging unique content and getting important people to see it and retweet it. Often that means just mentioning other accounts. I think this is totally okay to do and can work well, but might not the first time. An example:

This is an Ionic community member that consistently creates quality content. Because he mentions us each time, we often retweet his stuff and he’s happy with the additional traffic and is growing his own audience.

##6. Do encourage follows externally

If you are able to do like Nic does above and generate quality content that drives traffic, make sure you are encouraging those visitors to follow. An example from Ionic is our mailing list signup thank you page. Every visitor that signs up for our mailing list is encouraged to share, follow, and star us:

##7. Be patient

The @ionicframework account has grown from 0 followers to 12,000 at the time of this writing, in a year.

Some days it feels like growth has completely stopped. Other days we gain hundreds of followers overnight.

Looking at a graph of our followers over time, we are growing better than linearlly, so each new engaged follower helps expand the network and increase the rate of growth in follows.

Best of luck!


I’m currently sitting in SFO waiting for a flight back home to Madison, and whenever I’m here I always find myself juxtaposing this place with Madison and the midwest in general. Today I thought it would be fun to reflect on what being in Madison has meant for our company, both the good and the bad, along with ways the Midwest is changing when it comes to startups.

In the process, I want to dispell (or not!) several myths about starting a startup in the midwest, as well as touch on some challenges and opportunities I believe startups have in the midwest, though through the lens of doing it in Madison (so some of this doesn’t apply to other midwest cities like MSP or Chicago, but most of it does).

As a quick background, I stuck around Madison after graduating from the UW Computer Sciences department in 2010. I found a great job building MMORPG games right in town and learned a ton. But I also knew I wanted to start my own company. My best friend and I left that job and started what became Drifty in Madison in 2012.

Today Drifty is growing quickly, and our Ionic Framework is one of the top 75 most popular open source projects in the world, with over 170,000 apps created since February 2014 from developers all around the world.

This is an insight to our experience growing that company in Madison, WI.

Myth #1: There is no money here

This one is 100% false. The more accurate statement is there is little to no money here for companies that aren’t ready for it, or from firms that shouldn’t be investing in startups as they can’t handle the risk.

When it comes to early stage, I can name many VC/seed firms, including Arthur Ventures (our investors, one is Chairman of the Board at Atlassian), 4490, Chicago Ventures, Hyde Park Venture Partners, Venture Investors, AmFam Ventures, Gener8tor, TechStars, Drive Capital (started by ex-Sequoia VCs), Lightbank (ever heard of Groupon?), and several more I know I’m missing.

Having spoken to everyone on this list, I am constantly impressed by how well they “get it,” and I have many people on this list to thank for helping us fundraise and build our network. I hope I can give back to them in some way in the future.

Beyond the midwest firms, we are starting to see coastal firms like Great Oaks focusing on the midwest (with investments in Madison firms like EatStreet and Fetch Rewards), and even top-tier firms like Benchmark are investing in the midwest.

The reality is there just aren’t as many companies here period, and even fewer that are ready for VC dollars, so sometimes it seems like you are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to fundraising here. But I actually think the VC ecosystem in the Midwest is capable of supporting many more companies than we currently have, so you can stand out a bit more.

These days traction trumps everything, and if you are a good company that fits the VC mold you can have your pick of investors no matter where you are located.

Myth #2: Fundraising takes much longer here

This is also false, though can vary depending on who you work with and the stage you are at.

When we raised our $1M seed round from Arthur Ventures it was done from initial meeting to cash-in-the-bank in under a month. I think only the fundraising fervor on Y Combinator’s demo day could beat that!

There are ways to speed up a round, too. We did a YC Safe Note which is like a convertible note without the debt part. While the verdict is still out on notes, for us it worked well and many coastal firms have experience with this type of financing. I give props to Arthur Ventures for being open to it even though it’s very new in the Midwest.

Doing a priced round might slow things down and cost more money, but Mark Suster doesn’t agree and he knows lifetimes more about it than I do so take this with a grain of salt.

I think the key takeaway here is to learn how to fundraise well. It’s something I’m learning every single day, but there is a big difference between making fundraising your full time job and just dipping your toes in. Be aware that hating fundraising is actually a really good thing, and you should give into that hate by Getting It Done.

Unfortunately, I see too many Madison startups focusing only on raising local money, and not really making it a full time job. In Wisconsin proper there just aren’t a ton of options and the ones that are here will move very slowly. It’s simple to expand the search to the surrounding areas and the coasts though it will eat up (probably the CEO’s) time, so get it done and move on.

It also helps a ton to build relationships with other founders and advisors who can make intros for you. Cold emailing a bunch of firms isn’t really going to work, and if you feel like that’s your only option perhaps you should be spending time building relationships first, or increasing your traction and visibility (“accelerators” are a good way to do that quickly).

If you want to pursue investment from the coasts and are actively fundraising, a common strategy I’ve seen and may or may not be actively engaging in is to do one week in SF, one week home. Line up a bunch of intros at first, jam meetings into a week, come back to reflect and do it again. Maybe I’ll write more about this later.

Myth #3: You miss out on everything

Depending on your market, it might feel like midwestern startups miss out on all the stuff going on in their market. For example, we are a developer company, and SF has a lot more developers there than here.

When I’ve been in Madison for long stretches of time without traveling, I get depressed. I feel like we are making a mistake being here and we are missing out on partnership opportunities, chances to evangelize our product, and relationships we could be building with investors.

But then I come to SF (which I’ve been doing more and more often) and meet with lots of customers, partners, friends, and investors, and I’m constantly surprised at how connected we’ve been to SF without living there. I left a partnership meeting this week wondering why our competitor just down the street in SF wasn’t even part of the discussion. People in SF are a lot more open to building relationships with people outside of SF than midwesterners realize.

I always come back happy that we aren’t based there but have invested in growing relationships there.

Our company has been fortunate to work with some of the biggest names in tech, like Google, Zend and Red Gate, and we have great relationships with companies like Salesforce, Heroku, and Adobe.

All from the comforts of our midwestern internet connection, and all by putting out great software people want to use and actively engaging outside of Madison.

Myth #4: People don’t want to live here

It’s true that many people fear the cold in the midwest. And I’ll be honest, when the trees are barren and the first snow turns hard as a rock and the temperatures are below 0 and you’re scraping ice off your windshield, I’d rather be anywhere than here.

But I’ve calmed down a bit about this because I realized most cities in American have negative seasonal changes and other natural factors. For example, the Texas heat isn’t really for me.

When you add in all the other great stuff, like beautiful parks and lakes, the abundance of fresh water, lack of pollution, relative density of major population centers (i.e. family nearby), quality of schools, and affordability, Madison and the midwest become pretty great places to live for a lot of people.

One of the advantages we have in Madison is that people with families want to live here, which might very well correlate with employees a bit further along in their career with more experience.

We’ve relocated people to Madison to work for us, and we are always amazed when potential hires from the bay area with ties to the midwest are eager to move back.

Myth #5: Startups don’t pay well here

This is a bit of a truth and a myth in one. It’s largely true that companies here have been cheap when it comes to compensation, but that’s due to a historical lack of competition and a lack of foresight.

With engineering-heavy teams, competition is global. People are working from the comforts of their home at well funded companies around the world. You have to compete with these companies whether you like it or not. I sometimes joke that Madison is like SF’s remote office by how many engineers here work remotely for companies there.

But there have also been some other positive changes in costs for building a startup. For example, few startups need to or should buy or host their own server hardware. That can dramatically cut costs and make you more flexible as you grow.

As such, I’m seeing compensation for engineers going up in Madison. I’d like to think Drifty is competitive not just locally but also around the country. It’s a source of pride for me and I want to continue to be a leader there.

Truth #1: Office space sucks in Madison

This is one I believe will hurt Madison’s startup growth over time, though I don’t hear it brought up very often.

Madison is a much smaller city than SF, and it did not have the same history of growth that brought all the beautiful old buildings to downtown SF (though Milwaukee and Chicago do have these great old buildings). If you ignore the sketchy earthquake threat these buildings face, you see a lot more room for startups that are increasingly based in urban areas to grow rather large teams.

We just moved into a new office in the heart of downtown Madison. And while we love it, it’s smaller than I’d like. Finding a space big enough that had any semblence of character was really hard. And being based on the far east or west side where there is a lot more space was not an option for us.

Of course, if you’re willing to do custom build-outs to fix all the whacky government and law firm design decisions, you can be more flexible, but that does not fix the square footage constraint.

How we fix this in Madison is through legislation (or lack thereof in this case). With the space crunch on the isthmus combined with building height restrictions from the capitol, it seems the only way we will be able to expand the city is by increasing our sprawl. This is why I am passionate about abolishing the building height restriction.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the 3-year lease insistence. Good luck finding anything shorter than that beyond sublets and shared working spaces. I think that will change with increased startup activity and related turnover.

Truth #2: Office prices are great here

Let’s just say when I tell people how little we are paying for our new office that we did a custom build out on, my SF friends can’t believe it.

Relatively speaking, office space is dirt cheap in Madison. And I wonder what cultural impact the insane office prices in SF have on young startups that are forced to work out of shared space for a lot longer.

Truth #3: It’s lonely here

This is a tough problem, because running a startup is already hard enough that adding in the relative lack of peer support in Madison makes it even harder.

I think founders in the midwest have the benefit and curse of focus. It’s really easy to focus here because there aren’t that many external distractions, but the downside is you get stuck in your bubble and stop getting feedback or a chance to just rant with anyone outside of the company.

We also tend to work too much. When people say SF startups don’t have any work life balance, I laugh because I’ve found midwestern companies have even less work life balance (though I’d like to think Drifty is good here!). I think this is a combination of work ethic, lack of noise, and boredom in colder months.

But, like most things, this is something that can be fixed if it’s identified. You can force yourself to stop working to meet with another founder, you can form great relationships with other founders around the country (Twitter is great for that), or you can try to make more friends outside of work (this is something I’m trying to be better about).

I think it’s also important to spend time with founders that are at the same stage as you dealing with similar problems. If those people aren’t in your same city, you have to look elsewhere.

Truth #4: “Experience” is hard to find here

Sometimes you just need to hire people who have done it before, and that pain is felt particularly hard in the marketing, growth, sales, and operations side, especially for companies where the target market is not a traditional focus of local industry.

While Madison is wonderful for hiring great developers, the reality is Software-as-a-Service, developer tools, and consumer apps are new to the area. It’s hard to find a “Director of Growth” here, and that seems to be a common problem for companies in the midwest.

What I’m seeing other companies doing is expanding to the coasts and adding offices there. I think this is what we will also end up doing as we grow. But it’s not without its own challenges.

This will change over time as this generation of Madison companies trains the local talent pool and learns how to build companies in this Brave New Digital World.

Truth #5: Traveling sucks from Madison

MSN is the airport I depart out of the most. I refuse to drive to Milwaukee or Chicago to catch a flight, though I’m sometimes tempted.

It sucks not being able to fly to SF direct. It adds at least 2-3 hours on the flight if you count the layovers and the time on the tarmac. If you miss a connection getting back home that day can be impossible (turns out this day almost ended like that, got my connection with 10 minutes to spare!). Not to mention tickets from/to MSN to/from SFO are almost always at least $450+.

There is a monetary, time, and sanity cost to traveling to and from Madison.

MSN seriously needs to get an SFO direct.

Conclusion

Adding up all the challenges and the opportunities, I am more confident than ever that Drifty will grow at least our engineering and product teams in Madison. We benefit from the close connection to the university, and also the much more sane living costs that bring experienced people back to raise a family.

I’m starting to see Madison as a bit of a secret weapon for us: we can focus, we don’t have to compete nearly as hard for hiring, and we are still well connected to the rest of the world.

But as a Madison and midwest-based company, we have to play to our strengths. We are best served by building companies that don’t rely on specific geographical factors. We should become experts at tools like Twitter to reach people around the world for free. We need to become better at using technology to expand our ability to provide value around the world.

If we do that, we can turn Madison from just a great place to live into a great place to work and build the important companies of the future.

Note: all of this is a work in progress. I am constantly learning and updating my understanding of what it means to build a startup here. I will be writing more about this over time and feel free to email me with thoughts or comments.