So there’s been some talk internally about Catapult’s 3 year anniversary. There’s excitement and pride. But as a co-founder I primarily feel more of a need (anxiety?) about what still needs to be done. Maybe I’m a glass is half empty person but I like to think good founders are constantly looking to improve their product to achieve their objective so, though it is tiring, I take a measure of comfort from this anxiety. Regardless, anniversaries are good for pausing to look back on what and how you’ve done something and to think about what’s to come and how you think you need to be prepared. So, here are a few of my thoughts.
What have we done?
Technically, I don’t think we’ve done anything substantial or lasting yet (incidentally, all of Catapult’s founders agree on this point). Envision a grounder to get a man on first. It’s not a home run or any guarantee you’ll win the game. But you’re IN the game. Though you’re not sure you can win yet, and you know you have to focus to win – hence my anxiety – you have a start. We want to win.
Our playbook does seem to be working. Catapult companies (a relatively small group!) have collectively raised nearly $60,000,000 in funding over the past three years and employ nearly 400 people. And the pace of those metrics is accelerating. In three years, seventeen companies have held an office at Catapult – all but two are still operating (a remarkable 88% rate). Our service provider sponsors are building good relationships with promising businesses that provide them with fun, cutting edge, and profitable engagements, which are only growing. These successes aren’t so much a testament to Catapult but to the founders, employees, investors and advisors of the companies and the service provider sponsors that Catapult does its best to bring together in a “no BS” way. Kudos.
How have we done it?
We are fond of saying that Catapult is itself a startup. We started with a suspicion that there was both a need for serious founders to connect and a need for enhanced and meaningful service provider involvement and support – and that those things, when organized well without fanfare, would unlock value. We were fortunate to have the right team at the right time and to have friends and advisors willing to help us (thank you to that ever growing group, you know who you are). The Catapult founders themselves were personally interested in trying – in fact felt compelled to try and were willing to make personal sacrifices to do so. We also believed that success begets success, that in our market, the “average joe” executive/investor/customer needed hard proof that the words “tech startup” aren’t synonymous with “dreamy knuckleheads”, and that service providers could add massive value but that those who were interested in trying had to show some return to the old guys. So with these preconceptions we set about building our product – our MVP – that we thought would advance our mission.
As a side note, when I think back about our product and its relation to our overall objective (see below re that lofty goal) I’m reminded of the startup mantra “if you want to scale, first do things that don’t scale.” Catapult has grown by focusing on the most important things and letting the scale happen. We still try to focus small. These baby steps are reflected in our mission and values – founders first, business traction/peer selection, and community enhancement. So while we have a bigger mission we’ve quickly moved toward it by focusing on a small group of folks that has already demonstrated their dedication to what they are doing and then, using that very traction to pull from the market – as best we can, by showing a return! – the absolute best resources and support we can muster to push the whole ball of wax ever farther. Catapult.
What’s the ultimate goal?
While Catapult has some great stats, we are cognizant that these metrics are just easy references because they are clear facts easily quantified and tracked. They are akin to the distance between home and first base being 90 feet – we like knowing that we’ve run exactly 90 feet but it’s neither here nor there in terms of how we play. Catapult is after a much broader objective.
For me, Catapult’s big picture objective is to effectuate cultural change and empowerment in a new economic arena. I believe this will create opportunities – personal and professional – and make our market a better place. Fun!
Catapult believes that digital technology businesses are here to stay and that they will be a meaningful part of the Midwest’s economic and social fabric. Catapult believes that innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t like regions of Bordeaux. Though we wouldn’t purport to make Bordeaux – and we watch to see how those luminaries have succeeded – rather we believe that we are sitting on a powder keg of our own great wines that will be uniquely made but it’s locked/untapped with our market’s current mindset. Our objective is convincing a new (and some might say skeptical and conservative) market that there’s “opportunity in them there hills” AND, perhaps most importantly, showing them how to meaningfully and profitably unlock it with us.
Our ultimate success is less directly measured – more fluid founder information and idea sharing, investor overlap/expansion of smart investors, rapid yet thoughtful funding of (even wilder) ideas that have merit, and the greatest success, I believe, would be successfully connecting our market’s traditional resources – existing companies, businesses and potential investors – to this new economy in ways that they know is real and profitable. When these things exist there will have been at least some cultural change that Catapult will hopefully have helped bring about.
And, when will that be? I like the Second City analogy. Have you ever realized how many great comedies of the last 30 years involved graduates of Second City? If in the future we can trace influencers, operators and investors in the technology industry of the Midwest (and beyond?) back to Catapult in some way then we will have succeeded.
What does Catapult need to do now?
In short, more of what we’ve been doing, yet with adjustments and improvements to our MVP. As I write I can think of startups that should be funded, employees with ideas that seem too dreamy to pursue in our market, or large existing industries – on which our economic health depends – facing real challenges to their business model yet that aren’t engaging enough. Don’t get me wrong – change is happening. But hopefully these barriers will fall even further as our alums scale and demonstrate success, as our market investors harvest returns, and as our service providers do even better business in this area. And, maybe someday we’ll Catapult another city – but that, we think, requires a track record.
It’s an exciting time. Lots of work to do. You should think about getting involved in a “no BS” way. We’re betting that will pay off for you.