By the time Edgar pulled into Dallas, he was used to drawing the crowds

After 1,500 miles, 10 states, and $100,000 in space makeovers awarded from the time our journey began on February 25th, the Culture@Work in the Heartland Contest is officially in the books.  As we meet many old friends in Austin at SxSW 2013, we’re also taking time to reflect back on the new friends we made in the heartland, and what we learned about their cultures.  Below are insights we picked up along the way in our travels from Grand Rapids through Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City and Dallas, before reaching our final destination in Austin.

Great spaces are worth getting excited about

While each city award represented a different type of company, team, and even circumstances (our bus showed up in front of structures ranging from a high-rise office building to a converted church), the reactions were very similar.  In Chicago, the winners high-fived and passed the skateboard trophy around above their heads like it was the Stanley Cup.  In Des Moines, they stood pressed against the front windows for 45 minutes, waiting for the triumphant sight of the turnstone bus.  In Omaha and Dallas, meetings erupted (and were interrupted) in cheers upon our arrival.  And in Kansas City, they even ran outside in the snow to greet the bus in its tracks.  What did all of our winners have in common?  They get that great spaces are cool.  That culture matters.  That space matters.  We emblazoned the latter two words on the side of our bus because we believe they succinctly describe the purpose behind everything that we do.  This trip was validation that we’re not the only ones who feel that way.

When one small company wins, everybody wins

We saw firsthand what community really means in the startup and creative ecosystem in every city.  A sense that when good things happen to one of them, it’s good for all of them.  The pattern repeated itself after every award – through Twitter, Facebook, text messages, you name it; as word spread of who the winners were, congratulatory messages were quick to pour in from the other finalists and friends alike.  Some winners planned future parties to show off the new space to their friends, with words like ‘collaboration’ flowing freely from their mouths without any prodding from us.  Particularly in the middle of the country, which has only recently been given proper credit for nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit, a win by one of them was yet another collective win for the region.

Competition aside, it’s about shared experiences

By far the most difficult part of the trip for us was calling each city’s other finalists and telling them that they didn’t win.  After spending time getting to know each of them and their respective space and culture needs, we became as emotionally invested in the outcome as they were.  But then a funny thing happened – many of the finalists who didn’t win rolled out the red carpet for us, inviting turnstone to see their spaces, and meet the people behind their culture.  Some of the most satisfying moments of the trip came from these unplanned moments, when we were given the opportunity to learn more about the companies driving the entrepreneurial movement in the heartland.  We felt humbled to be considered part of their community, even for a few brief moments, and we’ll be thinking of them as we continue our own journey to be the work companion to small and emerging businesses everywhere.

Small company culture isn’t defined by size or age

Truth be told, not every finalist was a shiny new startup.  Companies with up to 99 employees were eligible for the contest, and we had entries from startups that were a month old, to companies whose active lives have spanned several decades.  What we discovered through the course of the contest and trip is that with the right mix of people, place, and sense of purpose, small business culture can continue to flourish even beyond the startup phase.  Truly great companies figure out how to maintain that passion and culture that helped them get started, even as they face the inevitable transitional periods that every business must go through.  Our finalists came from all walks of companies and verticals, but that strength of culture and passion for what they do weaved through all of their stories.

We again congratulate each of our five winners; CarbonSix Research (Chicago), Goodsmiths (Des Moines), Bailey Lauerman (Omaha), Cremalab (Kansas City), and Tech Wildcatters (Dallas), as well as all city finalists.  Their makeovers begin as early as this weekend, continuing through the end of the month – stay tuned for more details.  Want to be inspired?  Check out the floor plan we created for Cremalab, above, as an example.


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