By Jeremy Quittner
What’s the best thing about starting a business in Indianapolis? It’s not Chicago. And the worst thing about it? It’s not Chicago.
That’s how one Inc. 5000 business owner summed up his experience owning and running a fast-growth business in the Hoosier state’s biggest metropolis, according to a report released Thursday by the Kauffman Foundation.
The foundation regularly examines mid-tier cities around the nation as part of a series of studies of entrepreneurial ecosystems and ways to support small businesses in different regional economies.
Kauffman conducted its research by interviewing 17 fast-growth companies that have appeared on the Inc. 5000 between 2007 and 2012. Executives commented anonymously, representing a wide range of sectors including health care, IT, software, telecommunications, and consumer products and services. (Currently, 29 businesses from Indianapolis populate the Inc. 5000 for 2015.)
While Indianapolis has all the advantages of a small town, it lacks many of the benefits associated with big city living, including greater access to capital and broad networks of large companies that can act as suppliers.
Indianapolis ranks in the top 20 large cities for businesses to locate, according to various studies and polls, yet its entrepreneurs don’t give it an overwhelming thumbs-up, Kauffman says. Indeed, for everything that’s great about the Midwestern metropolis, there’s something else that entrepreneurs don’t necessarily warm to.
Here’s what fast-growth companies do like about Indianapolis:
1. A low cost of living and high quality of life, which can both be useful in attracting newly graduated workers trying to pay off student loans.
2. An easier regulatory environment and tax credits make it a business-friendly city.
3. A strong Midwestern work ethic that does not encourage hopping from job to job, as is common on the coasts.
Here’s what they don’t like:
1. Despite access to local colleges and universities, it’s hard to recruit top talent, particularly for in-demand jobs like IT and software development. The allure of places like Silicon Valley is often hard to beat.
2. The social conservatism of the Midwest may be a turn-off to many workers, particularly those drawn to jobs in more liberal bastions, including San Francisco and Boston.
3. The local supply of talent may not be sufficient to support fast-growth hiring needs, and it’s hard to attract outsiders to Indianapolis.
4. Local access to finance is limited.
Indianapolis certainly has its roster of well-known and well-regarded companies. Eli Lilly, founder of the eponymous pharmaceutical company, set up shop there in 1876. More recently, CRM company Salesforce has developed a big presence in the city, as has Inc. 5000 company Angie’s List.
What makes these and other fast-growth companies so unusual is their ability to sell across multiple regions, as well as to tap into far-flung networks for resources. That may be what keeps them in Indianapolis.
The majority of company founders in the study bootstrapped initial operations with their own funds, the Kauffman study reports, and many have returned to Indianapolis only after spending years developing professional skills and contacts outside of the region, which they leverage.
Here’s how one entrepreneur describes the dynamic:
“This is the truth, it sounds bad, but at the end of the day, I’ve never met a small business that can help another small business. You got two beggars trying to help each other. So that always ends up becoming an adversarial relationship ultimately. Right? Because the market is only this big, so you are competing. So for the most part, we haven’t overly jumped in, in that way of probably partnership with other Indianapolis-based companies. We only really partner with the large firms.”
On balance, however, others said the overall environment in Indianapolis is a good one. Here’s how yet another Inc. entrepreneur talks about the state of affairs:
“The general climate, the culture, the values, the work ethic, the kind of employees you tend to attract, the ethics, the honesty, straightforwardness, all of those kinds of adjectives pretty much apply here, and we don’t always find that in other parts of the country or other parts of the world.”