Two minutes after I walk in, I see Galen and shake his hand. He tells me that as he and Ryan were coming up the stairs, they were remarking how wild it was that 150 people were going to show up at the Catapult holiday party. Just a year prior, they couldn’t have imagined it.
That was a conversation I had last night with Galen Mason, one of the co-founders of Catapult Chicago, a startup space that opened earlier this year. Later in the evening, I heard virtually the same thing from Ryan Leavitt and Vishal Shah, two of the other co-founders of Catapult (Chris Cain and Kris Chinosorn round out the founding team). Needless to say, they were a proud bunch and had a right to be.
In the spring of 2011, Ryan and Vishal paid me a visit when I was still at DePaul’s Coleman Center. We were introduced through a friend of Ryan’s whom I had mentored a few years prior. The two young entrepreneurs had an idea that they wanted feedback on.
There was plenty of office space in Chicago, they said, but nothing specifically for tech startups by tech startups. As two guys who launched their own companies in recent years, each had his own office but craved for the camaraderie, interaction, and energy of being around peers. They envisioned a space downtown that could hold a fair number of startups but they knew such tenants couldn’t afford – or wouldn’t pay – downtown real estate rents. So the only way this could happen was by having the space donated by a large firm which had an excess of it.
They didn’t want to create an incubator per se, and didn’t want a conventional co-working space that mimicked a coffeeshop with constant traffic. Instead, what they envisioned was a space that housed startups for short-term periods and, specifically, companies that already had some traction and were led by what they called “really smart entrepreneurs.” They had heard rumors of a large tech space being planned by some of Chicago’s civic and entrepreneurial leaders (what turned out to be 1871) but weren’t discouraged to pursue their idea.
Fast forward a couple months. I’m in a conference room at Foley & Lardner, where I meet Galen Mason and Chris Cain for the first time (both Foley attorneys). I learn that Foley’s executive team is considering the prospect of providing some of their excess space to Ryan, Vishal, and Kris for their idea.
I’m wondering what a law firm of Foley’s size is even doing having this conversation. After all, law firms – especially big ones – aren’t exactly known for being innovative or progressive. But Galen has this voice of cautious optimism as he talks about the level of interest among his peers and seniors at the firm. He doesn’t know for sure that they’ll grant the space but feels good about their chances.
Fast forward a couple more months. I get word from Ryan that Foley has indeed committed to sponsoring space for the creation of Catapult Chicago. He invites me to see the digs one day in fall of 2011 – approximately 12,000 square feet of office space that then had a handful of attorneys and a bunch of wood furniture you’d expect to see at a law firm.
Another couple months go by, and it’s now early 2012. Ryan’s startup, Deal Umpire; Vishal’s startup, VLinks Media; and Kris’ startup, MentorMob occupy the space. Ryan tells me that they’re talking to a number of other startups in the Chicago area to find the best mix of companies to invite into Catapult. Paperwork has been filed to organize Catapult as a non-profit organization.
Around April 2012, Ryan tells me that Catapult’s offices are now filled. They’ve purchased colorful furniture to add vibrancy to the space, secured a handful of financial and in-kind corporate sponsors, and begun making connections with various members of Chicago’s startup community. Up to that point, Ryan and Vishal were effectively working a second job managing the creation and operation of Catapult. But now, with revenues from the rent being paid by the startups, they have an operating budget and are planning to hire someone to run the space.
In July, soon after their grand opening party, they announce April Lane – my former colleague at the Coleman Center – as Catapult’s Executive Director. They’ve also brought on several more startups to work in the shared space. When I visit that month, the place is quietly buzzing with hard-at-work people, open-door conversation, and closed-door hacking.
Catapult Chicago is a unique place. The companies that occupy it are peer-selected. Most of the office tenants are further along the startup curve, having demonstrated early revenue traction and/or having raised at least a seed round if not a Series A one. Many of the founders are in their 30s and have families. Most have a complete founding team, supported by at least several employees, interns and/or contractors. And it was effectively bootstrapped.
The place also has a cool diversity. There are companies that focus on education, fashion, data, hospital equipment, fishing gifts, footwear, hospitality jobs, and more. There are a lot of B2B startups and several B2C ones. There are alumni of Excelerate Labs and TechStars. There are companies that have raised outside capital from Chicago investors and from those on the coasts. There are first-time entrepreneurs and serial entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who have failed and entrepreneurs who have sold companies.
I wrote this post because I want the story to be told while it’s still fresh in my mind. As someone who is a fervent advocate of entrepreneurship and a member of Chicago’s startup community, I’m in awe of what’s taken place at 321 N. Clark St. What started out as a few young entrepreneurs with a vision and an unlikely partner has become a key fixture of Chicago’s startup ecosystem in just one year.
Catapult occupies its own place in Chicago’s tech community, a complement to 1871, TechNexus, Technori Pitch, etc. It has its own personality, identity, and goals. And it leaves important lessons for anyone in the business community.
For entrepreneurs, just do it. Shoot for the moon, share your ideas and plans, focus on small wins, and don’t give up.
For the corporate sector, get involved. Be creative, take a small risk, get out of your comfort zone, and learn why startups are important to your business.