“Watch out, world. The Chicago startup scene is exploding.” – Shane Reiser, former Chief Operating Officer of Startup Weekend

According to Built in Chicago, a new digital startup launched every 44 hours in 2012 in the Windy City. This is pretty indicative of how fast Chicago’s startup ecosystem is growing. Despite the speedy pace, though, one should resist automatic comparisons to Silicon Valley; the scene in Chicago is stamped with a distinctive Midwest vibe, and has its own soulful approach to growing and sustaining a tech-driven innovation economy.

Essential to this economy is Chicago’s thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurs, mentors, business leaders, boosters, and investors. This is where Startup Weekend comes in: a 54-hour event where entrepreneurs, designers, developers, marketers, mentors, managers, and startup enthusiasts come together to launch new companies. Startup Weekend serves as one of the ecosystem’s most important catalysts for growth and maturation.

Why and how? With a little help from Shane (whom I will be quoting a few times throughout the remainder of this article), let me highlight some of the reasons why Chicago needs Startup Weekend.

“Chicago hit the tipping point. All Startup Weekends in Chicago from here on out will be top notch.”

Here’s the traditional pattern for most startup creation stories: meet → network → connect → build → win. In most cases, it takes months to go from the first stage of the process (meeting someone) to the final stage (building with someone). That’s not the case at Startup Weekends. The process that typically takes months—sometimes years—gets fast-forwarded and takes merely hours.

Doesn’t this sound incredibly powerful? It’s no wonder why the last Startup Weekend in Chicago was such a hit. Close to 135 participants with a wide variety of skill sets spent sleepless hours in the same venue—not just meeting, greeting, or networking, but building something. As Shane would say, we’ve hit the tipping point. 

And while we do want to bring together as many people as possible, we also want to do so in the most impactful way. So, whenever the question was raised, “What did participants take away from this event?,” a number of answers came to mind:

  • They learned new skills
  • They met a great new group of people they can now get together with when starting their next project
  • They gained new insights about projects and ideas from peers and mentors
  • New perspectives can now be applied to the challenges and problems they might face at their day jobs
  • In some cases, people even went home with their next startup set in place

“Amazing representation by developers. The best turnout in Chicago yet.”

The best thing I’ve observed from startup events in Chicago in general—and Startup Weekends in particular—is the substantial growth in talent. Some are now staying here, some are moving here. Certainly, a lot of talent is being cultivated via mentorship with local successors. This isn’t to mention the burning sensation people have to learn new tech skills through training programs like The Starter League, Mobile Makers Academy, and—coming soon to Chicago—Dev Bootcamp.

Personally, I was blown away by the participants’ high-caliber talent at the last Startup Weekend in Chicago. The quality of teams, ideas, and execution is heightening. It was the first Startup Weekend (out of seven total) where there was more technical talent than non-technical talent. 

“The community really came together: all the right companies were sponsors, all the right people were coaches. There was really good community support.”

Startup Weekend is a major catalyst for startup communities. We want to create as many collisions with people as possible. The more collisions, the better. That is, after all, how great communities are built: moments of collision and serendipity.

By its very nature, Startup Weekend is the best way to make that happen. Not only does it create new community; it also curates pre-existing communities. Chicago is a big city, and there are a number of mini-startup ecosystems within it. The River North tech scene is the one you likely hear the most about, but it is by no means the only tech community in the city. The West Loop has been producing great tech companies for years. Take a walk through Logan Square and you’ll find some of the most creative designers Chicago has ever produced. Visit the universities on the south side—University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)—and you’ll be blown away by what these young guys are building at their hack nights. The tech talent in this city is everywhere. And Startup Weekend is the culmination of all these communities under one roof.

“1871 is the best co-working space I’ve seen in the world. Right up there with General Assembly.”

Our last event took place at a 50,000-square-foot co-working facility called 1871. The space is located in the massive Merchandise Mart on Near North Side, and designed specifically for digital startups. A venue like 1871 galvanizes several of the tech scenes our city has to offer, and it also brings people together to work on things like never before. That’s because it grants easy access to mentorship opportunities, programming, educational resources, and, of course, other entrepreneurial minds. This leads to more relationships. And more relationships lead to more opportunities.

So, come out and build some of your own at the next Startup Weekend Chicago, taking place on April 19-21, 2013. To learn more about Startup Weekend Chicago, reach out to me at You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.