On the west side of Manhattan, within the brown brick walls of The Fellow Coworking, Andy Theimer maps out ideas on the whiteboards covering 60 percent of his 11-by-11 foot office. A blackout shade prevents sunlight from glaring on two large monitors perched atop sit-stand desks. In the corner, a small racing drone awaits a mid-day mental break.
Theimer is a serial entrepreneur who enjoys solving problems with technology. His current project, FeedOtter, helps marketers be more efficient by converting blog posts into email newsletters in seconds. The software uses RSS, a common web data feed, to eliminate tedious copying and pasting. Images are automatically resized so they look pleasing in every inbox, on every device.
Feed refers to the RSS feed, but otters?
“Who doesn’t like otters? It’s cute, it’s fun,” Theimer said with a laugh.
FeedOtter was just getting off the ground in 2016 when Theimer moved to Manhattan from Boulder, Colo. with his wife, Dr. Anna Marie Wytko who took a position at Kansas State University as a professor.
After arriving, Theimer quickly realized that building a tech company in Manhattan would be very different than his previous experience in Colorado. One of the biggest hurdles was finding local, like-minded friends. He spent hours searching LinkedIn for anyone in Manhattan with “founder” or “starting a software company” in their profile. The results were sparse. So, he defaulted to existing relationships, scheduling regular calls with friends and mentors in other states.
Theimer said that he’s not anti-social in new environments, but his love for productivity often keeps him secluded. He worked from home for a year and a half and relied on virtual consultants because a lean approach kept overhead costs down. Eventually, he decided it would be nice to be around people more often.
After renting a private office space at The Fellow Coworking, Theimer found a community of local entrepreneurs outside his niche. However, there were still only a handful of tech workers. By comparison, Theimer said that similar spaces in Colorado are filled with software companies.
Josh Hicks, owner of The Fellow, hopes that Theimer and other tech entrepreneurs can kickstart innovation in Manhattan. “Theimer has a lot to offer the Manhattan community. He has some of the most potent brain power that I see around town. It’s exciting to be around him, learn from him, glean from him. When someone like Andy lands here in Manhattan, he stands out as a shining star.”
Connecting Entrepreneurs with Mentors
How can Manhattan develop a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem that both attracts “shining stars” like Theimer and helps them flourish? It’s a question community leaders are exploring.
“There are very intentional efforts happening right now to build better infrastructure to support entrepreneurs,” said Trent Armbrust, economic development director for the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce. “This includes aligning public, private and university resources to make it easier for entrepreneurs to find available assistance.”
One critical component is access to mentoring and education. Twenty percent of small businesses fail in their first year, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Only 50 percent make it through year five. Having an experienced mentor during those early years is vital to success.
Dave Dreiling, a well-known Manhattan business owner, has built several companies with national footprints. He’s an advocate of mentoring and recently shared his thoughts during a conversation on the Manhattan, KS Area Entrepreneurs Facebook Group:
“When I started GTM, I quickly realized I was in over my head, and reached out to Dennis Mullen [Steel & Pipe] and a few others, and they helped me along the way. The past 10 to 15 years, I’ve mentored over a dozen MHK business owners that reached out [to] me in the same boat that I was in.”
He added, “Although I’m not against formalizing it, I’ve found that those with initiative, that are in pain and coachable, come find us on their own. And it’s rare to see someone that went through it and is now successful to not be willing to give back.”
However, for people like Theimer who are relatively new to town, it can be difficult to track down such leaders, even when they are looking for them. Armbrust said that several groups are discussing whether these mentoring relationships happen organically or whether there should be a formal structure in place.
Although the perfect environment for entrepreneurs can’t be created overnight, seeds of possibility are sprouting. Coworking spaces like The Fellow and grassroots gatherings like 1 Million Cups have emerged in the past four years. They speak to the community-wide desire to hear entrepreneurs’ stories and support one another.
Innovation is taking root on an individual level, too.
Bryce Johnston, a K-State graduate, had a strong community of friends during college. But when he moved back to Manhattan in 2016, he struggled to find and connect with people in the tech field. In response, he launched a monthly meetup for programmers. Many of the attendees came from out of town. The group met for a year and half before fizzling out due to scheduling conflicts.
Still determined to bring the tech community together, Johnston started a website called Manhattech (www.manhattech.com). It lists companies, events, jobs and co-working spaces throughout the region. His vision is that this online space will result in real-life friendships.
Johnston’s journey parallels Theimer’s in many ways. They both moved to Manhattan within months of each other and spent hours searching for a like-minded tech community. Johnston even worked at The Fellow for a season, but he switched to a different coworking location shortly before Theimer became a member.
After crossing paths multiple times but never meeting, Johnston and Theimer were introduced during the reporting of this article. For both entrepreneurs, this valuable connection depended on luck, but what if the Manhattan business community was more intentional about facilitating these connections? Coworking spaces are a part of that puzzle, but what are the other pieces remain elusive.
The experiences of Theimer and entrepreneurs like him suggest that significant opportunities for innovation and economic growth hinge on a healthier entrepreneurial ecosystem, and that ecosystem depends on a support structure that remains underdeveloped.
“At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about trying,” Theimer said. “Whether it’s a good idea or bad idea, you just have to do it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes something magical happens.”
Local Resources For People Who Want to Connect with Other Entrepreneurs
- Coworking Spaces: A community of business professionals from diverse industries working together in shared office space.
- The Fellow – www.thefellowmhk.com
- Iron Clad – www.ironcladcoworking.com
- Edge @ 1880 | http://ksiteonline.com/spaces/1880-kimball-avenue
- 1 Million Cups: A monthly event that brings together entrepreneurs and the Manhattan community over coffee and conversation. www.1millioncups.com/manhattan
- Facebook Group – Manhattan, KS Area Entrepreneurs: Discussions about entrepreneurship in the Manhattan area. www.facebook.com/groups/mhkentrepreneurs
- Manhattech Website: List of regional tech companies, events and meetups. www.manhattech.com
- Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce: Networking, advocacy and information to support business development in Manhattan www.manhattan.org/1
Melissa Harstine is a freelance writer who believes compelling stories can change lives. She writes personality-infused website copy, articles, bios and email newsletters for small businesses. Connect with her at kardiacommunications.com
Photography by: Doug Barrett