The Speak Easy Wants to Help Startups Engage with Wider Ecosystem

As startup fever continues to make inroads to Middle America, a number of entities have popped up to help nurture Indiana’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, including accelerators, angel investors, and co-working spaces.

The nonprofit Speak Easy in Indianapolis has elements of all of those things, but it mostly wants to be the place where startup founders can socialize (adult beverages optional), brainstorm, collaborate and commiserate.

Executive director Danielle McDowell described Speak Easy as a “Moose Lodge for tech geeks”—a place where startup founders can work in proximity to each other, where industry and corporate leaders can get a taste of what young innovators are working on, and where the entrepreneurial community gathers for events.

“Our founders were all involved in the startup scene,” she explained. “They had been out to the coasts, where they saw the concept of creating a space for serendipitous collisions, so they decided to open one here. The idea was to remove the barriers to entry for getting a business off the ground.”

Although the idea behind Speak Easy may have germinated on the coasts, the organization has a decidedly low-key, Midwestern approach. According to its website, Speak Easy is a “pragmatic, ego-free” environment where people can pursue their dreams, and “an organic source of help and partnership, without being too sales-y.” It’s essentially a place for those who want to strike out on their own without necessarily having to toil in solitude.

Its approximately 375 members pay $75 per month or $750 per year, which helps pay for the experience managers McDowell oversees. She has experience overseeing teams; in 2013, she co-founded Loxa Beauty, an online seller of hair extensions that was acquired by a subsidiary of industry giant Sally Beauty.

“The experience manager’s job is to deliver resources—everything from keeping the coffee hot and the kegs full to helping members make community connections, whether it’s funding or access to legal services,” McDowell said.

Speak Easy also supports itself through corporate sponsors and donors, and by renting out the space, which is located in the city’s Broad Ripple Village, for events. (McDowell said it’s also a popular venue for weddings and offsite corporate events.)

McDowell said even though Speak Easy emphasizes fun and social connections, that doesn’t mean serious work doesn’t also happen within its walls. According to its own data, 180 startups have launched out of Speak Easy so far, including TinderBox.

Next month, the organization will open a new downtown location in the former Morrison Opera House building, which has its own history, at one point having served as ExactTarget’s first office. Butler University, Nextech, and the Bruce A. Bodner Company are partnering on the development of the new space.

“If you look at startup founders, there’s lots of driving to get to meetings with partners and investors,” McDowell said. “We wanted strong representation across the city for those connection points.”

McDowell believes this is a unique time for Indianapolis and its startup community. The number of local exits has been increasing, she said. One of the most eye-catching examples was ExactTarget, a cloud marketing platform acquired by Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) in 2013 for $2.5 billion, which she said created a new class of millionaires overnight.

“The exits created a huge tech knowledge base and a lot of wealth, which have been driving startup activities since,” she added. “There are lots of opportunities now to draw people back to Indianapolis with good, high-paying jobs.”

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