By Sean Lane, 2012 Venture for America Fellow
I heard someone say recently, "An idea that can change the course of a company can come from anywhere." It wasn't until days later that I realized how broad of an impact such a mindset could create. One idea can alter the course of a company, a company can transform an industry, an industry can impact a nation. And the entire string of events can be traced back to a singular idea.
As a member of the inaugural class of Venture for America, I have grown to appreciate the enormous potential one idea can carry. Eighteen months ago, VFA was a team of two people with a mission to revitalize American cities and communities through entrepreneurship, and I was a senior at Boston College with plans for a career in advertising. Today, VFA is a national non-profit organization with its first class of 40 Fellows placed in five different cities across the country, and I am a quarter of the way through my two-year VFA fellowship, working for a Providence-based start-up called Swipely.
Since being accepted into VFA last March, I have had the unique opportunity of watching the organization evolve while also playing a role in its development. VFA not only places recent graduates at start-ups in low-cost cities, but the organization itself has also adopted a similar start-up mentality. The Fellows and the staff embrace a culture in which they welcome new ideas, test different strategies, and ultimately make informed decisions, all with the goal of growing the organization and creating more jobs.
The same can be said at Swipely. Founded by Angus Davis in 2009, Swipely is the simple way for local merchants to accept payments, understand customers, and grow revenue. Davis, a Rhode Island native, returned to his home state to start Swipely after enormous successes on the west coast at both Netscape (where he was hired as the company's youngest employee in 1996) and Tellme (a company he co-founded that was acquired by Microsoft in 2007 for nearly $1 billion). In bringing a slice of Silicon Valley back to the Ocean State, Davis didn't just aim to build a successful company; he aspired to create a product that helped other companies succeed as well. Consequently, as Swipely grows and creates more jobs, the company's tools are powering hundreds of millions of dollars in sales for local merchants across the country.
Entrepreneurs like Davis aren't the rule, but rather the exception. Tied for the highest state unemployment rate in the nation, Rhode Island would not be at the top of any tech start-up's list of ideal locales. Swipely, though, raised the largest software Series A in the state's history and recently became the first Rhode Island company ever to be named to Forbes' 100 List of "America's Most Promising Companies." Surely, Davis could have built this company in Silicon Valley--arguably with easier access to funding and talent--but instead he opted to subscribe to the idea that, with the right team, a transformative company really can come from anywhere.
With over forty employees and counting, Swipely is not the only Providence-based company bucking the stereotypical start-up trends. Other technology companies including Andera, Teespring, and Nabsys, along with accelerator Betaspring, are transforming a city once known for jewelry and textile manufacturing into an innovation hub--all while attracting top talent to Rhode Island.
Companies like these are the catalysts necessary to inspire future entrepreneurs to start their own companies in places like Providence, or Detroit, or New Orleans. We shouldn't discriminate ideas based on where they come from, who thinks of them, or how much VC money is behind them. An idea developed in Silicon Valley isn't inherently more valuable than one produced in Providence's Jewelry District. The next big idea can come from anywhere, even the smallest state.
Sean Lane is a Partner Success Manager at Swipely in Providence, a member of Venture for America's Class of 2012, and an alumni of Boston College. To support top recent grads like Sean who are interested in gaining hands-on experience at businesses in cities that typically struggle to attract talent, please support Venture for America as part of the JobRaising Challenge today.