The Columbus Chamber of Commerce held its annual meeting Thursday morning at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. The theme of the 2016 event was Pivot – something the Chamber has done much of itself over the last few months.
A champion for businesses large and small, the Chamber introduced its new President & CEO Don DePerro, former President and Publisher of Columbus Business First.
“To say I’m thrilled about this opportunity is a clear understatement,” DePerro said. “There’s so much to admire about our wonderful Columbus business community – the entrepreneurial history, the openness to new ideas, the diversification, the persistent growth and success. I recognize the Chamber as the hub for all of this and I can’t wait to take the lead on March 1.”
The organization also said goodbye to its current Chairman of the Board John McEwan and welcomed new chairman Jeff Sopp as well as several other new board members.
The Chamber has made changes to continue to serve the business community in the best way possible throughout its 132-year history, but as the organization moves forward through recent shifts, “We are laser-focused to help businesses grow and thrive,” McEwan said.
Throughout the years, one thing has stayed true, “We create impactful business connections,” McEwan said. “Some of which have resulted in millions of dollars worth of business growth that instead of being outsourced, stay right here in our region. Those dollars have fueled economic growth, created more jobs and ensured that our region will continue to be a more vibrant place to live and work.”
On a national level, Columbus is earning a name not only as a great place to do business, but an affordable place to live with a strong educational base, world-class amenities and a welcoming community.
“It becomes the perfect formula for an economic explosion,” Sopp says. “In the past 12 months at the Columbus Chamber we have seen an influx in startups, social entrepreneurs and young professional business owners joining our organization.”
Nine out of 10 members of the Chamber are small businesses.
Keynote speaker, native Californian and venture capitalist Mark Kvamme recognized that Columbus had that something special when he came to the city five years ago. Knowing nothing about the Columbus, he expected to stay for six months for a position.
“What I found here was something really, really special,” Kvamme said. “It didn’t take too long. Within the first couple of weeks I found wonderful entrepreneurs, a great, caring business community…I saw a group of people and a group of businesses that truly cared about the place they lived in and the things that they did.”
He saw a community, especially of young entrepreneurs, that wanted to take risks, that wanted to try things. But a common refrain remained – many people didn’t understand. Risk was seen as a scarlet letter versus a badge of honor as it is in Silicon Valley.
“You have to go out and try big things to have big, big rewards,” Kvamme said.
Columbus has all the pieces to help entrepreneurs build great businesses, save one thing.
“You need a culture of risk,” Kvamme continued. “We need more risk takers.”
He explained that risk is a two-sided equation. Columbus needs the entrepreneurs willing to push boundaries, and the community to back them up and say that risk is ok.
“Failure is a good thing, because if you don’t fail, you don’t learn,” Kvammae said.
He further reiterated what makes Columbus attractive for businesses. One is a young population with an influx of students from institutions like OSU, Columbus State and CCAD. Those young 20-somethings are the ones willing and able to take the risk.
Columbus’ established companies bring a talented pool of individuals that can be valuable assets to startups, whether as potential employees or through offering support. That business community wants to see startups succeed.
“They are there to help,” Kvamme said.
CEOs of some of the city’s biggest companies are accessible. Kvamme shared the story of Les Wexner speaking with an entrepreneur to convince her to move her three person-company to Columbus.
“That doesn’t happen in Silicon Valley,” Kvamme said.
Another big perk? Location, location, location.
“A one-day car drive from Columbus, you hit 60 percent of the GDP of the U.S.” Kvamme said.
It’s up to Columbus’ businesses to come together and tell this story, to talk about what makes it the best city in the world to do business.
Kvamme brought Alex Frommeyer, co-founder and CEO of Beam Dental, a Drive Capital portfolio company, on stage to discuss what it will really take to build the entrepreneurial fervor in Columbus.
One thing the city needs is a big win.
“We need to have another very large company grow very rapidly,” Kvamme said.
It’s a virtuous cycle. A business sees a company found and grow very rapidly in a timeframe like five years compared to a career. A company like that often spurs several more businesses, and it encourages other entrepreneurs to take risks.
Business advisor that don’t tell a startup what to do are also a key component. Kvamme describes it as helping a business see around the corner, but at the end of the day understanding who is actually running the company.
“What works today, works today,” Kvamme says.
What he did 15 or 20 years ago won’t work now, but the younger CEOs startups and venture capital firms see, they know what works now.
Frommeyer and Kvamme wrapped up by addressing an oft-heard issue with the Columbus startup scene.
“We do need more capital here,” Kvamme said.
He wants to see more competitors, more funds. What’s not right for one fund may be a good fit for another.
“We need to build that,” Kvamme says. “Fifty-one percent of the venture capital in the United States is spent in the three area codes of the peninsula in San Francisco. The Midwest is the fifth largest country in the world…it has less than six percent of all venture capital in the United States.”
Columbus needs to tell its story about why it’s a great place to do business to attract that capital.
For more information on the Columbus Chamber’s services, visit Columbus.org.