Chicago Detours approaches the city not just as a history museum, but as a living organism to be experienced in the present, and the future, too. The city is abuzz with talk of Chicago as a hot place for technology start-ups. Mayor Emmanuel announced the “Apps for Metro Chicago” competition a month ago, and obviously Groupon has put us on the map in a big way. And this past weekend’s arrival of Tech Week, a conference held in the Merchandise Mart and put on by midVENTURES, a tech-centered organization for entrepreneurial talent, is a true indicator of the potential Chicago has in this industry.
Having lived in San Francisco for 6 years, I just figured the tech community here was rather small, since I don’t see much of it, and was surprised by the turnout for Tech Week. Apparently 1,500 showed up on the first day, so many more than predicted that they had to hand-write badges. And why is a founder of a tour company going to Tech Week? Two reasons: 1. At Chicago Detours we are very curious about the realm of mobile apps and 2. I looked at the incredible list of speakers and topics, and saw that they would be relevant to just about any business owner.
Of course, we aren’t any Silicon Valley yet (and we know our area of the Midwest has no valleys), but one thing that struck me was how strong the presence of Chicago was here. Jeff Carter of Hyde Park Angels wrote how when their organization started in 2007, it was an “entrepreneurial desert.” Today we’ve got an impressive combo of incubators like Excelerate Labs and Sandbox; successful start-ups like Fee Fighters and GiveForward; and awesome web development firms like Doejo or Studio of the Month. Hell no I wouldn’t ever compare Chicago to Silicon Valley. Chicago is Chicago, and while there’s plenty of potential for investment here I’m certain that we’ll retain a down-to-earth character. I doubt Chicago investors will consider some of the “out there” ideas that emerge in the Valley, which are sometimes the next Facebook, other times the next Kozmo.com. Is that fair to say that Chicago might be more conservative there? And our city has the benefit of diversified industries, many that will be clamoring for guidance with internet and mobile technologies.
As would be expected, the conference was dominated by men. Entrepreneur Penelope Trunk, who I am now a super fan of (and I’m not a fan of anyone!), suggested that women entrepreneurs are – to soften the language – “screwed.” No filter was applied to her subsequent comment about getting one of the guys at Tech Week since they make a lot of money, reel them in, and then get them to fund your business. Damn – where was she a year ago before I started my business? I’ve got a boyfriend with no money and a business that keeps me too busy to properly seek funding!
The social dynamic was interesting, too. I got in an elevator with a guy who was headed up to the conference and said, “Ready for more excitement?” I was half kidding by saying it, but really 100% sincere in feeling that way. I mean, these things are full of stimulation and new ideas and new people. And he looked at me with a big smile and absolutely no sense of recognition and said, “What’s so exciting?” And it was really awkward that he apparently thought I was hitting on him, and perhaps also had no clue that it’s exciting to learn things. Then before the presentations, where you would normally start talking to people, everyone was just plugging away on their laptops, iPads and mobile phones. So I didn’t really meet too many people.
Things I learned: it might be a good idea to hold off on getting a mobile site since those might die out, there’s a cool new app for finding your favorite dishes – it’s called Food Genius, viral marketing can sometimes amount to nothing, the Merchandise Mart has micro-climates, angel investors and VCs are incredibly patient when listening to all our pitches that we sincerely believe are the best ideas in the world (both good and bad), and games pervade just about everything we do (including weight loss, Facebook, etc, humans love competition!)
A primary theme at the conference: the more we isolate each other via these new technologies, the more we want them to bring us together. Take Forecast – it helps you track where your friends are meeting up later in the day so that serendipity can happen with a little nudge. We’re trying to wrap our minds around the potential for user-based apps in the travel sphere, but for now we are going about the ultimate disruption: group tours of Chicago where cool people actually come together with a fun and smart tour guide to explore stories and spots locals don’t even know, and interact with images and videos on shared iPads. Yes, we have iPads, but we have actual human beings, too. Our style of tourism is in part a reaction to the obsession with independent travel, gadgets, and an over-saturation of travel information. Until we find a way to develop an app that seamlessly integrates into the travel experience, or until we develop clones or cyborgs, we’re going to stick to real human beings for now.
— Amanda Scotese, Founder and Director