by Chris Callen
This piece is part of our ongoing conversation around Focus Forward, Wichita's future, and the role we each play. Inspired by the discussion, Team member Chris Callen -- CEO of the much-recognized local startup Grit -- originally contributed this piece to his Medium page; it is being re-posted here with his permission.
We have lost the battle. Worse yet, we are still fighting the fight long after our opponents have left the battlefield. Wichita must face a harsh reality or it is on the brink of no return.
Humor me with a metaphor for a moment. Imagine if our city had been hit with a virus, but rather than our population, it was our economy that was infected…and then we waited 30 years to go to the doctor. The harsh reality I refer to is that not everyone is going to make it. In Chung’s words, “the market has decided very clearly” and Wichita is losing. The difficult decision comes to the forefront when we have to ask ourselves, “what aspects of our economy have the hope of survival, and who is too far gone?” (Yes, very morbid stuff, I know.)
Rather than regurgitate much of the same **gasp** moments that have been flowing the past week, I would like to provide my thoughts on how to move forward. I am not a fan of the “doom-and-gloom” comments about the data. It is data, gloom is YOUR emotional reaction. Statistics can be manipulated, but James Chung would not have the thriving company he has if that were the case. To deny statistics is to yell into the wind, demanding it cease. And for those concerned about overreaction, I can justify this as compensating for the years of under-reaction.
****DISCLAIMER****I am no expert. I am not even close to being the most informed on these subjects. These are my personal opinions and do not reflect any other organization’s or individual’s perspective. These are my 10 recommendations moving forward.****
1. Wichita is no longer the Air Capital of the World.
We have a rich history in advanced manufacturing, particularly in relation to aerospace. I firmly believe that Wichita, and the individuals that worked on those historic manufacturing floors, were massively influential in obtaining Victory in Europe. There is little doubt in my mind. That being said, not only is Wichita vastly different, but the entire world around Wichita is different. The macroeconomic market for aerospace has been completely remade since then, numerous times, and Wichita has not aged well. Kansas as a whole was recently ranked not as the first, not the second, but the fourth most competitive state for aerospace. (Cue people complaining about statistical bias.)
The biggest thing for Wichita is aerospace, but Wichita is NOT the biggest thing for aerospace. Any “capital” derives its power in that every other city in the region recognizes it as such. I have no illusions of how massive aerospace is to the Wichita community and economy, but it cannot be our only focus -- or, in my opinion, even our primary focus.
To put an image on this, Wichita reminds me of Uncle Rico reminiscing on his old football days. To continue to make the claim of our dominance in a field we have long been losing in is not only unsafe when it comes to setting our priorities, but is in a way insulting to the legacy of our city.
By the way, if we are/were the Air Capital, how on earth did we miss out on UAVs (drones)?
2. Wichita needs to adjust to the national shift of industries.
The national economy has almost completely adjusted to professional, financial, or technology based services as a focus. Wichita needs to do the same. And taking a cue from Uncle Rico, we not only need to match the current trends but need to lead-the-passer a bit in order to have real impact. Massive investment of energy and resources should be devoted to emerging technologies. By this, I am referring to technologies that have only been in commercial existence for a number of years. Selfishly, I would list these as 3D printing, robotics, mixed reality, and artificial intelligence, including machine learning and computer vision. These are the areas that Wichita can compete. A brand-new playing field is inherently a level playing field.
3. Create new, not grow old.
Wichita’s history is built on entrepreneurs, and so will be its future. I could go all day on this topic, but no matter your perspective, your well-being is at risk in our how well our entrepreneurs are able to perform. “The largest employer of Wichita 10 years from now has not been incorporated yet” should be our mindset. Whether or not that ends up being true, thinking this way drastically reshapes conversations and should constantly be used as a jumping off point.
4. Tear down Century II.
This is a ridiculous conversation. It doesn’t work. It does not function for its primary uses. If CII were an automobile, it would be up on blocks without wheels or doors, while people sat in the driver’s seat declaring “the horn still works!” I don’t care who inspired who to do what way back when. Today, it is inspiring everyone to do absolutely nothing. For those that declare it an icon, it has become an icon for mediocrity. Wichita deserves better. Major cities have their “skyline” reshaped every year. It is the most tangible aspect of this conversation, and due to that, its future has been amplified beyond the conversation about a building.
P.S. For those of you that say it does everything it is supposed to, please list the past 5 convention centers and/or concert halls you have been to so that I can try to understand what the hell you are talking about.
5. Engage the Riverfront.
Another crazy easy one. It is not only our BEST geographic asset but our ONLY geographic asset. Not just paddle boats: bars, restaurants, yoga studios, flash mobs, I don’t care.
6. Entrepreneurs: Dream Bigger. Like a lot.
If you are building a typical service company, this message is not for you. Best of luck on your endeavor and Wichita has the appropriate support systems in place to help you. In order to create real value, we have to bring dollars from outside the area into the area. It is that simple. In this day and age, this means you MUST create a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) solution. Anything else is doomed to fail at scale, which means you will be overwhelmed by a product that does operate as a SaaS.
Believe that you can build a world-class solution and iterate until you do it. Don’t be frustrated with local investors; they have learning to do just as we do. But so many entrepreneurs locally don’t know what they are doing when it comes to fundraising. I personally hold AT LEAST two VC calls a week and I’m not even raising a round right now. I am talking to four times as many firms as I will need to fill out my round. Expect a VC relationship to take 6 months of conversation prior to your first transaction. Start early so they can see your promises and projections become reality. Nothing builds trust quicker. Relationships are everything in investing, so don’t expect the “Shark Tank” pitch and immediate term sheet.
Also, traction = revenue. Nothing else. Not press. Not funding. Revenue. Nothing else deserves your attention.
7. Investors: Stop being so antsy with “non-traditional” companies.
Software companies are risks, but then again so are any other type of business. You are not betting on someone having a great idea. You are not even betting on them being able to sell. You are betting on them being able to figure it out. Entrepreneurs in the area also have a ways to go, but they will learn the quickest by doing -- not by sitting on the sidelines. Put them into the game; enable them to fail fast and recover.
Also, never invest because you feel obligated to help locals. Invest because you want to make a ton of money and you found a horse worth betting on. Unlike that terrible metaphor, however, you have an obligation to assist that entrepreneur through the grind to the finish line. Finally, spread the wealth. You wouldn’t walk up to the roulette table and put $10,000 on 26 Black. Distribute your investments so that you not only create an ecosystem of creative destruction and resurgence, but also reduce your risk.
The recent Chung report showed just over $5M in Wichita venture investment in the past two years….that’s compared to Des Moines at over $150M. How is this even possible? Substitute wheat for corn and we are pretty much the same city. We must do better.
8. Not every location needs to be family friendly.
Wichita is a great city to raise a family. Our number one quality, by far. That being said. If you want your house to appreciate, your companies to grow... you need young, single people to enjoy the city, as well. You can have 99% of the city. That’s fine. But there should be places that are either uncomfortable or straight-up disallowed to bring children to. I shouldn’t have to choose between a 5-year old's birthday party one table over and a 11:30 p.m. club. I visited one of my new favorite breweries this past weekend and literally had gravel thrown at me by someone’s kid. Parenting aside, leave room for the “rest of us” in the city.
9. Cut it out with the “Kansas-nice”.
I am sure this write-up thoroughly pissed off many of my friends and contacts and that is absolutely fine. Too often, I hear the positive reaction to someone’s idea, thought, perspective, then the “truth” coming out as gossip when the person leaves the room. We are supposed to disagree -- that is what makes us a community. What CANNOT happen is those disagreements become unspoken rifts that disallow us to progress as a city. We need to fight more. We need to argue our viewpoints to those outside of our echo chambers.
10. Lean on one other.
There is no way one individual will personally deliver Wichita out of this crisis. It will take a village: a village of dissenting opinions, of rivals, people of all ages, races, genders. Get out of your country club. Get out of your usual bar crawl hotspots. Get out of your institutions. Connect with someone who disagrees with you. Find someone with a skillset completely opposite of your own and build a partnership.
It is not time to call it. The city is not dead. There are signs of life. But simply sitting back, staring as Wichita is gasping for breath, hoping for recovery, is inane and irresponsible.
I personally have a business to build, a team to protect, and a fiduciary responsibility to my investors. I cannot stay in Wichita in its current state forever, but if that departure point comes, I will know that I did everything in my power to better my city’s chances. If you can’t say the same, I encourage you to stand up and start moving. If you are unwilling to contribute to forward progress, please: sit down and shut up. Those are the two options.