What I learned in Youngstown

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I’m kind of a parochial guy; Warren was always home and I never spent much time in Youngstown. I still have to look at a map every time I visit, but I quickly accepted when Jim Cossler, the CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator invited me over for a tour. So last Thursday, after a quick peek at Google Maps, I drove over to West Federal Street in the pouring rain to have a look.

The YBI provides free rent, utilities, furniture, broadband and a variety of other support to start-ups that are accepted into the program. YBI is built on the initially dubious premise that Youngstown is the perfect place to incubate world-class software companies. As strange as the idea seems on the surface, I already knew from things I’d read in national business publications that the YBI has had success and I was curious to know how.

Once Cossler explained a few things it made a lot of sense. Like any successful venture they have a discipline that guides everything they do. The YBI helps companies get started but they must at least be at the “revenue stage.” They work only with companies creating business-to-business software; the consumer world is too mercurial. “B2B software companies succeed quickly or they fail quickly, location is not important, and they are very low cost to start,” Cossler explained.

They have also learned to live by the old adage, when life gives you lemons make lemonade. The downtown real estate market had collapsed in Youngstown, so they made that a selling advantage to software developers. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars per square foot in San Francisco they can pay $8-10 in Youngstown. I spent a lot of time during my working career in software companies all over the world and the YBI offices are as hip and nice as any.

There is a lot more that could be said about YBI, but this is Warren Expressed, not Fortune or Business Week. As YBI’s story relates to Warren, the thing I found most interesting is that they found a way to use what Cossler calls the “Youngstown diaspora” to their advantage.

They searched the database of Linked-In (the professional person’s Facebook) to find people who attended YSU and who currently work for a group of major software and technology companies – people YBI thought could be helpful to their clients. They then began a thoughtful campaign to recruit those people to the YBI cause. Cossler told me:

“Each of those people had a soft spot in their heart for their old home town. Many only left because they had to do so for professional reasons; most of them still have family and friends here; they wanted to see Youngstown make a come-back and many were willing to help us make it happen.”

How many of you know someone who left Warren and became successful and how can we tap that power to fuel a renaissance in this town?

And there is a powerful lesson in the story of YBI: Success can happen here.

Posted Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 under Vision, Warren strategic plan.

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