Steve Case got the kind of introduction you could only get in this city, this week.
“A welcome to the pope of entrepreneurship,” deadpanned Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a roomful of business casual guests laughing along.
“Oh, sorry, a different event, different event.”
The America Online co-founder made a stop Tuesday in the city as part of his “Rise of the Rest” tour, a multistate road trip that highlights innovation and entrepreneurship outside of the traditional technology strongholds.
“This is our 16th city,” said Case, clearly comfortable by now on his blue coach bus. “We are trying to showcase great entrepreneurs building great companies, and some of these places that don’t get the attention that Silicon Valley gets or New York gets. And so far, we’ve already seen great companies in Philly. We think the startup scene in Philly has great promise.”
Each city Case visits has different reasons for not yet being on par with Silicon Valley. In the Delaware Valley, there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome, from the quality of public schools to tax policy to the lack of big investors.
“I think these things take time, they take the community rallying around the entrepreneurs,” he said. “It takes some companies having the kind of breakout success that people around the country notice, that attracts more talent, attracts more capital. It is a classic kind of ‘momentum begets momentum’ kind of thing.”
During the day, Case stopped his bus outside some companies that have already gained traction. That includes RJMetrics, a software company in Center City. Their office has all the trappings of a startup, including a pingpong table and gong to celebrate big sales. (Case played both, with little prompting.)
Co-founder Jake Stein says entrepreneurs shouldn’t dwell on the region’s startup shortcomings. The focus should be on the business model, because if that’s solid, the money will come.
“We’ve raised $22 million right here in Philadelphia,” Stein said. “Most of it is from venture investors that are on the West Coast, some of it is [from] New York. A couple people right here in Philly as well.
“I think the honest truth is that building the best companies in the world can raise money, no matter where they are. So the focus should be on building an amazing company, and then you can find investors who want to work with you.”
Still, it isn’t easy making it in smaller tech towns. Three-quarters of all venture capital funding in America last year went to businesses in just three states: California, New York and Massachusetts.
Case wants to level that playing field, and not just geographically, but also by changing the face of innovation.
He put some money behind that concept during the last stop of his visit, an event at the National Constitution Center. Eight businesses were given five minutes to pitch their ideas, with a $100,000 investment on the line.
Scholly, an 18-month-old app that streamlines the search for college scholarships, nabbed the big check. Founder Christopher Gray accepted the award, and thanked not just Case for the money, but also the community for its support.
“Philly does that better than any city, really providing an opportunity to everyone, whether you are a woman, whether you are black, LGBT or whoever, and it’s powerful and it is exciting to be here,” Gray told the crowd. “And I’m hoping that Scholly can help more students in Philadelphia and across the nation, so thank you.”
Gray and his startup are right out of the “Rise of the Rest” playbook, illustrating the simple belief that good ideas can come from anyone, and valuable companies can start anywhere.