Editor’s note: Zach Pettet is the Fintech Strategist at nbkc bank, with which Startland News has partnered on an upcoming Innovation Exchange event. Opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone.
Kansas City is the United States’ underground financial center.
Over the years, many financial juggernauts have been born and grown up in Kansas City. From H&R Block to DST Global to American Century, these firms have made hay over the past century.
But as investor Marc Andreessen said, software is eating the world. Not only is Kansas City ready for this shift towards technology, but our humble Midwestern city is at the forefront of fintech innovation.
After EyeVerify (now Zoloz) sold to Ant Financial for more than $100 million, I vividly remember Jeff Shackelford of Digital Sandbox stepping on stage at 1 Million Cups to rally the troops around Kansas City being a “fintech hub.” He wasn’t scheduled to present, he just asked for the mic and hopped on the stage. He outlined the public and private resources available for fintech companies in Kansas City and went on a rampage naming all the promising upstarts in the space. C2FO had established itself as one of the best-funded fintech leaders in the nation, blooom had just raised a Series B investment round, and a number of other firms were starting up.
At this point, I was working at blooom and I was a bit confused as to why Jeff really needed to say this to the crowd. It seemed clear to me — from my vantage point inside of a venture-backed startup — that we had a lot to be proud of as a city.
So why isn’t Kansas City nationally known for its fintech prowess?
Call it, “Kansas City nice.” Call us humble Midwesterners. Call us whatever you want, but I contend that we aren’t loud enough as a city about our successes. When we talk about large fintech exits in town, most folks bring up EyeVerify’s recent sale to Ant Financial, but there are others.
For example, eSmartloan.com started as a skunkworks project inside nbkc bank. Two entrepreneurs approached the bank in the early 2000s with an idea to do second mortgage home loans online. The entrepreneurs had floated the idea to a few local banks, but the perceived risk profile of “something new” was just too much for the established players to stomach. It didn’t fit inside the box that the bankers had deemed acceptable, so the idea was cast aside.
nbkc bank looked at the opportunity a bit differently and supported the firm. The bet paid off, as eSmartloan.com was profitable in its second month and ended up selling to Capital One for more than $145 million five years later.
Despite it being a wildly successful story, most of Kansas City has never heard of eSmartloan.com. Despite the talent and capital resources we have in Kansas City’s financial technology sector, we rarely hear the success stories. Startland has detailed our humble and kind nature as a city, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t occasionally stand proudly on a rooftop and scream, “This is Kansas City and we’re a big damn deal!” That’s right — exclaim it!
We’ve self-imposed the moniker of “most entrepreneurial city in America,” and we’ve grown into it in many ways. But now, it’s time to narrow our brand position. Kansas City has the resources, support system, and cost of living to make it the easiest city in the United States to build a fintech company.
Why? Well, there are several reasons.
Cost of living.
Someone making $50,000 in Kansas City would need to make $94,637 to maintain their quality of live in San Francisco, as an example.
Cost of talent.
The average web developer salary in Kansas City is $81,946, according to Indeed. Whereas, the average salary for the same job in San Francisco is $103,297. This doesn’t take into account other variables like turnover and how often bay area companies have to train and retrain new hires.
Cost and access to experienced management talent.
With the likes of Cerner, Sprint, Garmin, and the steady increase of native Kansas Citians returning to Kansas City for the second act of their career, the cost of top-flight operations and management talent is lower here than anywhere on either coast. Joe McConnell from blooom and Spencer Hardwick returning to join Teach For America Kansas City are both examples.
Midwest bias is gone. The old story of venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road that only invest in companies that they can bike to is disappearing. The smart investors are looking for alpha in new places — the smart ones are realizing that the Midwest is one of the most important “emerging markets” to pay attention to. Most well-funded startups in Kansas City have a number of Bay Area and NYC investors on their cap table by this point.
There are 68 banks chartered in the Kansas City region alone – that’s more than the entire state of Arizona. Between the banks and the sheer volume of large corporate organizations, the potential for strategic partnerships and basic vendor relationships never ceases to grow.
The case for Kansas City’s fintech future is strong, but there’s still work to be done. If we can focus-in and rally around fintech as a point of dominance for Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, then we will set ourselves apart from the crowd and start drawing financial startups from around the world.
Kansas City is America’s underground financial center — our next step is to move above ground and plant the flag as the United States’ primary fintech hub.
If you’d like to chat, ask or argue about any of this, register here for the coming Innovation Exchange at nbkc bank.
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