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Chicago May Be the Next Digital Behemoth

The rise of digital startups in Chicago

Chicago Night Sky GREY JournalChicago Night Sky GREY Journal

When it comes to rising above adversity, Chicago is a city with a history like no other. What began in the 19th century, in the midst of a booming economy, is a spark for innovation that still energizes industries today. We’re taking a look at how Chicago evolved from the center of commodity to become home to some of the largest digital startups of the modern age.

A Prosperous City

Chicago Board of Trade under construction in 1894
Chicago Board of Trade 1894

Chicago has always been the heart of wholesale in the U.S. Once known as The Great Central Market, Chicago’s abundance of livestock and proximity to railroads made it a convenient location to transport goods. The convergence of waterways also made it easy for the Chicago Board of Trade to help farmers exchange corn, wheat, and soybeans.

After the The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, everything changed. Brilliant architects and engineers united to rebuild the city from the ashes. They were determined not to repeat the calamity and employed new techniques. Wider streets were made to accommodate fire engines and buildings were constructed using fire resistant exteriors. New architectural structures also lead to the invention of the first skyscraper. The entire city was rebranded and, only twenty-two years later, it became home to the World’s Fair. It’s Chicago’s continued ability to adapt that makes it unique.

The Rise of Digital Startups in Chicago

1871 Chicago Logo
1871 Chicago

As we’ve witnessed at the Chicago Innovation Awards, Chicago is a home for clever minds. In recent years, many popular companies have gotten their start in the city, such as Groupon, SpotHero, and Grubhub. Groupon’s former CEO, Brad Keywell, even went on to create Uptake. Uptake is an analytical software that communicates with service vehicles, such as planes and trains, to determine whether they are running efficiently. The new software was named the hottest startup in 2015 by Forbes and is currently valued at $2.3 billion.

1871, named after the year of the Great Chicago Fire, is a company dedicated to helping digital startups get off the ground. In 2017, 1871 was named the #1 Incubator in North America, creating over seven thousand jobs since its formation in 2012. One of its many success stories is of Cameo.

Cameo Chicago

Employees in Cameo Chicago Office
Employees in Cameo Chicago Office

Cameo is the first Chicago-based social media platform and was named one of the ten winners at the 2018 Chicago Innovation Awards. The platform enables users to book personalized video shoutouts from celebrities and popular influencers. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Cameo CEO, Steven Galanis, speaking to him about finding success with the help of 1871. Cameos’ headquarters, which is located inside a renovated warehouse, is very laid-back, but the hard work generated inside speaks for itself.

Steven Galanis at Cameo
Steven Galanis at Cameo

Steven is a very easy-going man himself. When he invited us to sit down, I could tell he was someone I would not get bored with easily in a conversation. Steven believes in order to succeed, you have to set the vision and mission of the company from the start. Most importantly, you have to hire the right people. He values people’s time and dedication and believes the greatest gift you can give another person is mentorship.

In an inspiring LinkedIn post, Steven talks about how his former boss, Mike Gamson, encouraged him and fellow employees to learn all the skills they could so that in two years they could branch out to do what they truly love. Because of Mike’s influential words, Steven found the drive to create Cameo. Steven remains in touch with Gamson and still receives mentorship from current LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, who Steven credits as his “CEO coach”. Every night, Steven gets together with other local CEOs to go boxing. It’s a therapeutic experience, but also one that shows how strong the bond between Chicago startups truly is.

Steven Galanis
Steven Galanis

Companies like Cameo are making Chicago a major player in the digital age. Because of Steven’s innovation, previously elusive celebrities are now much more accessible, begging the question what surprises the company might bring in the future. Chicago still has miles to go before it encompasses Silicon Valley, but there’s no denying that rebranding has always been in its blood. The gears are constantly turning and Chicago’s spark for innovation will continue to revitalize the modern age.

What other digital startups in Chicago do you think are making an impact? Let us know in the comments below.

David Romo
Lifestyle blogger and content creator. I keep you entertained while your boss thinks you're working. After earning his BFA in digital filmmaking, David spent years honing his skills as a screenwriter and producer. He then took a chance and quit his day job to pursue writing full time. In an unexpected turn, David found a completely new role as a marketing associate and copywriter for GREY. Currently, he has one published book and is writing an adventure for a tabletop RPG.

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