At the KC Crossroads of Silicon Prairie

Kansas-City-SkylineIn this blog, I am interviewing guest, Erik Wullschleger, local hero in the Kansas City tech scene. Erik is self-described mobile tech geek, corporate intrapreneur and KC Sherpa, committed to making KC the greatest city on earth for millennials. He is Director of LiveKC and Managing Partner for The Collective Funds, an early venture capital fund.

SR: What are your 3 top favorite mobile apps?

EW: I feel like I’ve become extremely utilitarian in my phone use lately. I love Feedly/Podcasts for keeping up to date, GroupMe for messaging with various groups of friends/recreational sports teams and reminders/calendar to keep me on track 🙂

SR: You once told me that you stumbled upon your passion for tech working in a retail store.  I never get tired of that story. Tell it again.

EW: I was working at a bar in college and came home one night to what seemed like an abnormally high bill from my cell phone provider (cellphones were a new thing in 2002 and the fees were crazy). I went into the Sprint Store steaming mad and the rep explained all of the charges. I still didn’t think it was fair and casually asked him if he had to pay all of these crazy fees on his bill. He replied that he didn’t have to pay for his phone and I asked him if they were hiring.

I started at the store the same day the very first camera phone launched in America followed quickly by bluetooth, blackberries, sms, mobile data and the smartphone. It was an era in technology where major advancements were made literally every couple months and easy to get caught up in the excitement.

SR: Would you describe career as a ladder or a jungle gym? Why?  

EW: I would guess everyone expects the ladder but the challenge is there’s really only one way to climb a ladder and I found out early in my career that I wanted to get to the top but not by someone else’s rules.

Maybe instead of a jungle gym I would describe my career path more as a massive McDonald’s Play Place. There isn’t just one place at the top there are a whole bunch of different towers and if you don’t like the tower you’re in, you can use the rope bridge to a different one or slide to the bottom on a fun twisty slide to play in the ball pit for a while and then try a new way.

I feel like the modern day career enables the people who want it the opportunity to dream up new ways of doing things and I embrace that with enthusiasm.

SR: What is LiveKC? And how is it changing the game?

EW: We’re a 2 year old organization founded by Cliff Illig (co-founder of Cerner and an owner of Sporting Kansas City). He recognized an image problem with Kansas City in the eyes of new Cerner recruits and found that a lot of other companies were having the same problem.

KC is the greatest city on the planet for the people who want to blaze their own path but it’s largely viewed by outsiders as “fly-over” country. LiveKC is here to change that perception by helping people find fun stuff to do, plug into local politics, find a cause they care about, etc…

At the end of the day an attractive city starts with people getting out there to experience the amazing people/places/things that make it unique. You can’t do that while sitting at home so we like to say we’re at war with your couch…whatever that takes!!

SR: You once said the worst advice you got was living in Silicon Valley. What did you mean?

EW: I think for context’s sake the worst advice I got was someone telling me I should move to Silicon Valley. I trusted them and started looking for jobs out there. I got to the end of my 4th in person interview with Google and headed back to the airport.

On my flight home I tore through this book by Clayton Christensen called “How Will You Measure Your Life.” The book was a total gut shot with some tough questions…I realized that while Silicon Valley would offer me some new options in my career what truly made me happy was the relationships and balance I have always had in the Midwest.

Upon return I also found out that a lot of what I thought only existed in Silicon Valley was happening on a smaller scale right here in KC so I dove in!

I’m not dissing Silicon Valley…it’s a great thing for a lot of people. For me, living in a city where I can spend my time building great relationships (not sitting in an hour long commute) and spending my free time & money with impactful causes not an overpriced apartment were the right thing for me.

SR: Define innovation in a 140 character tweet. 

EW: Solving a really old problem in a brand new way.

SR: What are the most innovative start-ups in KC, crushing it?

EW: I don’t know if “Crushing It” is something that translates well here in Kansas City. If you look at the major employers around town they were all startups built through long term sustainable growth and a lot of them still have the founding family dynasties involved in the day to day business.

There are a lot of companies to be excited about, from Blooom or Edge Up Sports on the technology front, J. Rieger or Torn Label bringing us tasty new beverages, or companies like Charlie Hustle, Rightfully Sewn and Niall pushing new boundaries in the world of fashion.

SR: It seems as if in order to produce a billion dollar company like Facebook you need to create the right tech ecosystem. What are the necessary ingredients of a vibrant tech ecosystem?

EW: I can tell you the one thing missing in Kanas City is organized capital for companies in their seed or early series stage. We are blessed to have amazing educational programs like e-scholars at UMKC or FastTrac at Kauffman Foundation and a host of incubators around town (including Sprint’s Accelerator). We also have a vast amount of wealth that spends a lot of their investable income on big private equity deals.

We’re missing the gap in between there…when a company exits an incubator and starts to generate revenue we don’t have a dedicated place they can go to raise growth capital. I’m working on that with a few other entrepreneurs in town…more to come.

SR: What is standing between KC and it becoming the next great city for tech start-ups? Other than amazing barbecue?

EW: KC’s deeply seeded hometown pride was never more apparent than the show of almost 1million people invading downtown on November 3rd for the World Champion Royals.

What if we could rally just a fraction of that support to begin the task of improving the KC school districts?

What would happen if just the people standing on the 2.3 mile long parade route decided to visit a new local restaurant or bar in the next month?

Can you imagine if 1/2 of that crowd crossed the invisible line that exists in our city to go listen to Jazz sometime over the course of the next year??

Being hometown proud has never been easier…aside from throwing on a blue cap there are so many ways to help grow this city and make it even better for everyone (not just tech startups). Get out there and experience something you’ve never done in KC…and bring a friend. The world will notice.

SR: I have taken notice…Love the attitude.  I look forward to seeing the fruits of your passion take KC to the next level.  Check out more on Erik via www.erikwullschleger.com/ and www.livekc.org.  

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