Jodi’s Journal: Silicon Valley investor’s take on the Sioux Falls startup scene

By Jodi Schwan

What do New York City, Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley have in common?

Paul Singh, a Silicon Valley investor, posed that question last week while in Sioux Falls.

It’s not, as someone guessed, that they’re expensive places to live.

Give up?

“Nobody’s from there,” Singh said.

In many cases, people build businesses or start careers and then move to one of those mega-centers in the hope of advancement or large investments.

“We haven’t written checks in the last three years to anybody in Silicon Valley or New York, not because we hate those cities but because the data shows everybody starts somewhere else,” Singh said.

“Ambition and talent are equally distributed across the globe. Capital is not.”

So Singh, who describes himself as among the first venture capitalists to invest in most early stage companies, has been traveling the country meeting entrepreneurs in search of capital.

He spent the past week in Sioux Falls, getting a comprehensive look at everything from New Tech High School to medical research and the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.

Paul Singh on a bus tour of Sioux Falls.

I spent part of his first day with a group taking Singh and his tour co-founder Dana Duncan on a bus tour of Sioux Falls. Whenever I go on one of these, I’m struck by what a well-rounded and diverse story Sioux Falls has to tell visitors.

We found ourselves surrounded by new projects under construction, downtown redevelopment underway and growth in every direction. It’s fun watching newcomers sit up and take notice at places such as the Sanford Children’s Hospital, Avera Prairie Center and Cherapa Place.

Singh then met students at New Tech High, which he said amazed him.

“I’m thinking, like, these kids are more well-spoken than some of the college interns we hire,” he said.

He walked through the Governor’s Giant Vision competition, held this week at the Sioux Falls Convention Center, where he learned about startups statewide.

“There were two companies where I said we should talk next week about getting involved in some way,” he said.

Singh expected he would find at least one company that met his criteria for investment in Sioux Falls. It has happened in most of the dozens of cities he and Duncan have visited so far.

He might be announcing investments in local companies within the coming weeks.

But regardless, he plans to be back.

“My hope is we’ll figure out investments, but we want to be built into Zeal’s calendar to keep talking to entrepreneurs and stay more involved,” he said. “The nice thing about Sioux Falls, from an investment standpoint, is since it’s the biggest city in the region I can come here and see most everybody within a 300-mile radius.”

It will be exciting to see where his investments lead him here, but equally encouraging for me was witnessing the response to Singh’s visit.

At each stop I saw, the venue was packed. More than a dozen business leaders spent an entire afternoon touring the city. The rooms at MetaBank were filled with employees. At Zeal, it was standing room only as entrepreneurs lined up for a chance to bat ideas around with the investors.

Paul Singh, right, mingles at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.

What Singh shared in those presentations was equally enlightening.

“When you look back at this decade, you’ll see venture capitalists adapting to entrepreneurs and not the other way around,” he said.

He also shared that half of the companies he has invested in during his tour were founded by women, and that his investments don’t have to be traditional tech companies. They can be any business that uses the Internet to offer a product or service.

And he said, multiple times, investors would be interested in working with South Dakota companies. They just struggle to find them and to know who to trust in an unfamiliar place.

There are things we can do as a community to make at least part of this easier, from better online startup directories to ways we might be able to identify tech companies’ offices — Singh shared that in one community every tech company downtown has a red light in the window.

But certainly, building personal connections as Sioux Falls did with Singh is what would go the farthest.

As a community, we should thank Will Bushee, who leads Code Bootcamp and who put up $5,000 himself to secure a week with Singh before asking for corporate sponsorships.

“I don’t think people should be surprised if they see us two or three or four times a year,” Singh said. “We’re always driving through.”

Jodi’s Journal: Silicon Valley investor’s take on the Sioux Falls startup scene

Traveling investor Paul Singh stopped in Sioux Falls last week. Here’s what he thought.

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