Why The Best Startup Talent Is From The ‘Silicon Prairie’ Midwest

When you’re running a business, you need reliable employees who show up when they’re needed and put in their time.

I once flew to Los Angeles to meet with a builder and check out several properties. Instead of rolling out the red carpet the salespeople were missing in action. They were, literally, not there!

When I mentioned this to the manager, he didn’t seem upset about it. He explained that a lot of really good surf had just come in, so he figured all his salespeople were out surfing. I was taken aback.

In the Midwest, people wouldn’t play hooky when they were supposed to be working.

“When you’re running a business, you need reliable employees who show up when they’re needed and put in their time.”

When you’re running a business, you need reliable employees who show up when they’re needed and put in their time. You can look for these people all over the U.S., but the hardest workers—I’ve found—are in the Midwest — specifically in the metro Detroit region. People have been through tough times here and—as a result—they put their heart and soul into everything they do.


Photo: © astrosystem
Photo: © astrosystem

The South is wonderful, but it can be a little slower. I like New York, but sometimes it’s a little meaner. The West Coast has great innovation, but people there tend to job-hop and chase the buck to the next big Silicon Valley startup. If you want strong startup employees, you should consider the “Silicon Prairie” of the Midwest for your base of operations.


Why Midwesterners Are Ideal Startup Employees

Midwesterners have an unparalleled work ethic that’s been drilled into them through generations of connection with their local community. However, when it comes to startup employees you need more than work ethic alone. You — and your employees — need to:


  • See the potential.

    Ideal startup employees need to be artists. They have to be able to see things before they exist and say what they can become. Detroit residents fit the bill because they look at their city and constantly think about how they can make it something great.

  • Keep after it.

    Startup employees also need to realize that simply having an idea doesn’t turn you into a billionaire. It’s about working on an idea for a long time with sustained effort, energy, and focus on a single goal. In the Midwest, there are those who’ve worked for Ford Motor Co. for three generations, and they know how keeping after something can lead to good things. Midwesterners aren’t afraid to work their way up from the bottom.

  • Give young’uns a chance.

    Intelligent young people tend to make great startup employees because they’re willing to take chances when solving problems. The solid educational system of the Midwest produces stellar, innovative employees. And because many would like to stay near their friends and family, you have a chance to snag them for your startup.


Finding Great Talent for Less

When it comes down to it, money has been a big motivating factor. I don’t think there’s anywhere else where we could hire people to start at $8 an hour and then be able to promote them into greater roles. We’ve found incredible talent and enjoyed a much lower overhead than we’d ever find in Silicon Valley.

For example, one of our tech employees just bought a house in the Detroit metro area for $50,000. His mortgage payment is $200 a month. He gets to be part of a really neat Detroit revival culture while making an impact. Try finding any kind of home in San Francisco for $200 a month — it’s never going to happen. When we recruit people here, saving money is a huge motivator.

Our employees also know they can do more here for the city than they ever could in New York or Chicago. They know they’ll just be one in a million there. Instead, they can choose to come to a place like Detroit, be part of something unique, and be known in the community.


The Midwesterner in Everyone

I realize that not every startup can pick up and move to Detroit. So, if you can’t access quality startup candidates from the Midwest, you’ll need to motivate your employees to adopt Midwestern traits.

The key to motivating people is to understand what they’re passionate about and driven to achieve. People have different timelines for their various goals. You might have some employees who are just trying to make it through the month, while others want to move up the corporate ladder. Learn what your employees want individually and you’ll have a much better chance of making an impact.


Photo: © Halfpoint
Photo: © Halfpoint


We’ve learned that the bulk of our employees are motivated by fun contests and outings. For one promotion, we gave away a live lobster to everyone who hit a certain sales quota. During another, we took employees who accurately projected client-housing numbers to test their accuracy on the shooting range. We’ve even bought a Cadillac for our top salesperson — providing him with the ultimate Midwestern success symbol.

Once you know your people, motivate them by creating something special and unique that fits with your culture and that your people will genuinely enjoy.

In the Midwest, you’ll find dedicated people who work hard for a cause, not a paycheck. In other areas of the country, it’s no big deal to slack off or daydream about a bigger payday. If you want people who work, put the time in, and do a lot more than just show up, you’ll get that in spades when you hire in the Midwest.


This article has been edited and condensed.

A speaker for home builders and one of Crain’s Detroit Business’ “Top 20 in Their 20s,” CEO Mike Kalis has led Marketplace Homes to being named American Business Awards’ Real Estate Company of the Year, one of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s “50 Companies to Watch,” and Inc.’s 189th fastest-growing company in 2012. Connect with @MikeKalis1 on Twitter.


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