There is no better time than now to start a consumer-facing website in Chicago.
All of us who own or work for Internet-based businesses are blessed to be living in groovy times. This is especially true if you’re in Chicago.
While Groupon – with its multi-billion dollar valuation and ascent as “the fastest growing company ever” – deservedly gets all the headlines, the pioneering daily site is not the only story in town. Chicago is emerging as a viable and distinct alternative to Silicon Valley, Boston and other tech industry epicenters for entrepreneurs starting web and mobile media companies.
Venture capitalists are finally starting to pay attention to Chicago. In recent weeks, online restaurant delivery service grubHub.com and social media software developer Sprout Social have raised tens of millions of dollars from world class investors. Online brokerage OptionsXpress, founded a decade ago, recently sold to Charles Schwab for a billion dollars.
There is no ceiling to what is possible.
So what can you do about it? Here are three things to consider when starting an Internet-based company in Chicago.
1) Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today
For too long in Chicago, entrepreneurs looking to start a web company waited until investment money or a lucrative customer to emerge before launching a website. Buzzed by the ludicrous success of dot-com high-fliers, people devoted more time to business plans and what their vision could ultimately become than they did to getting a site up and running.
When the bubble burst, those who were left standing operated serious websites with real customers. In the intervening years, costs to develop, maintain and market (especially through social media channels) a site have decreased exponentially. So you can afford to get your site up and running right away, gauge feedback from your constituents, and innovate from there.
2) Community membership has its privileges
Just as you are building a website, you are also creating a business. You’re not alone. There are several outstanding organizations for business networking and education in Chicago that can help you land a customer and share best practices with others in the space. The Illinois Technology Association, The Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, and TECHcocktail are all great resources.
If you are looking for more of an entrepreneurial boot camp, Excelerate Labs is a great place to learn from those who have done it before and to pitch your idea to investors. While applications for the 2011 year are closed, Excelerate still offers multiple public events throughout the year that are worth attending. For more specific matters like learning about search engine marketing or meeting mobile application developers, you can find dozens of regularly scheduled Meetups in the Chicago area.
If online social networking is more of your thing, become a member of Built in Chicago. With a mission of “promoting digital innovation in the world’s greatest city”, Built in Chicago has thousands of member profiles, aggregated news and forums, and more than 50 targeted interest groups. For original technology news, Technori and (shameless plug) the Chicago Sun-Times “Tech Matters” column are also valuable resources.
3) Technological innovation moves at lightning speed
A wise man once told me that continual and perpetual education is the key to success. This is especially true for anyone involved in a web-based operation. The business landscape can change at a moment’s notice and seemingly each day we are introduced to new tools and marketing platforms that can help us run our sites more efficiently and profitably.
Five years ago, Facebook was restricted to those who had a dot-edu email address. It now has more than 600 million active users. In 2008, mobile applications were far from mainstream. Today, there are more than 500,000 apps available for the iPhone, iPad and Android-based devices. Less than two years ago, Groupon was just starting to get some traction marketing deals to its Chicago-based email list. Today, the company is at the epicenter of the multi-billion dollar “deal of the day” industry.
While your business may not become the next Facebook, Apple or Groupon, you can draw more than inspiration from those and lesser-known companies. There are a lot of great tools you can use to plug into your business right away. You can create a Facebook Group, develop and iPhone or Android app, or become a Groupon affiliate to expand your business.
Now is the time to press go. What are you waiting for?
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