If you’re trying to decide on the best state to start an LLC or the best city in which to locate and build your business, it can be helpful to hear from other entrepreneurs about their experiences. Chicago is one of America’s largest cities with a vibrant business community, beautiful neighborhoods, world-class restaurants and a passionate spirit of civic pride that’s reflected in the city’s sports fans and the general swagger that this “city of the big shoulders” brings to work every day.
We talked to some Chicago entrepreneurs about what makes the Windy City such a great place to start a business. Learn more about their business journeys and why they began their businesses in Chicago.
Jennifer Chow – Nurture Life
Nurture Life is a meal subscription service that provides fresh, nutritionally balanced, ready-to-enjoy meals for babies, toddlers and kids. Jennifer Chow is co-founder of the company, and she was inspired to start this business based on her own busy family’s struggle to find healthy but convenient food options for her children.
"As a mom of two young boys, I noticed a serious gap in the kid’s food market. When looking for prepared foods for our kids, we found that parents had to choose between food that is convenient and food that is healthy. We created Nurture Life to help parents feed their children delicious and nutritious meals, without having to compromise between convenience and health," she said.
Jennifer and her co-founder decided to locate their company in Chicago in part because of the Midwestern location and also because of the access to talented employees. “We chose Chicago because it’s a major food hub, centrally located for us to distribute throughout the contiguous U.S. and it has an incredible talent pool for us to draw from,” Jennifer said.
As for advice for aspiring Chicago entrepreneurs, Jennifer suggests "that no matter how passionate and convicted you are about your idea, try to validate it, whether it be through market and industry research, family and friends, networking, etc. Building a business is really hard, but if you have an idea that you’re passionate about that fulfills a need in the market, it can be an incredible journey!"
Brian Saunders – BigTime
BigTime is a software as a service (SaaS) company that provides an all-in-one platform for time tracking, billing, and expense tracking for professional services firms.
Brian Saunders is the CEO of BigTime, which is a private equity-backed company with more than 2,000 customers. As a serial entrepreneur (he previously helped found a successful consulting startup called DaVinci Software) and an alumnus of the University of Chicago, Brian felt right at home starting BigTime in the Windy City.
“Chicago is one of the greatest cities in the world,” Brian said. “Not only do we get talent from top universities like Chicago and Northwestern, Loyola and DePaul, we also have a pretty deep bench of management talent and industry expertise to draw from. Take a look at the brands that have grown up in Chicago: GrubHub, Groupon, RxBar, Simple Mills, to name a few.”
Brian also likes the overall business community and culture of Chicago as being an ideal home for new startups to grow. “Chicago respects the same things I do when it comes to startup and growth-stage firms, so I feel very at home talking to its investors, senior managers and engineering heads,” Brian said. “I also think the cross-section of old-world and new-world businesses in Chicago makes it much easier for startups to get to revenue quickly. Most of the networking events in the city include a mix of mid-level and senior-level executives at Fortune 1000 firms as well as startup entrepreneurs. I like that dynamic.”
Elizabeth Harz – Sittercity
Elizabeth Harz is CEO of Sittercity, the first and largest digital platform for finding in-home care, connecting millions of parents with babysitters and nannies each year. “As a working mother of two, I experience daily the challenges of finding, scheduling, communicating with and paying the network of caregivers that helps raise our children,” said Elizabeth. “As CEO of Sittercity, I work with an amazing team in pursuit of our mission to make child care finally work!”
Elizabeth understands the unique benefits and upsides of doing business in Chicago, which she describes as “extremely friendly!”
“I find the business community is on a mission to make Chicago a great destination for entrepreneurs,” Elizabeth said. “There is an extraordinary amount of support available and great talent. Plus, investors are looking for bets outside of California and New York!”
Elizabeth mentioned several local networks and resources in Chicago that are helpful for entrepreneurs, such as the Pritzker Group (which she calls “an incredible resource that continuously supports its local CEOs through making introductions and fostering relationships”), Chicago Innovation, 1871, Women Tech Founders and the Executives' Club of Chicago.
Kyle Swinsky – AMOpportunities
AMOpportunities connects healthcare students with the clinical experiences that they need to complete as part of their professional training. The AMOpportunities platform provides on-demand clinical experiences for students, as well as concierge services such as visa and housing support.
Kyle Swinsky (CEO) and his co-founder and COO Benjamin Bradley met as undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but they decided to move their company to Chicago in 2014 for a few big reasons.
“Chicago is known for healthcare, and it’s an international city that is home to the third-largest airport in the United States,” Kyle Swinsky said. “I also was accepted into the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to obtain my MBA.”
Getting his Chicago MBA turned out to be a big break for Kyle’s company too. “While I was a student there, we entered the University of Chicago New Venture Challenge, an accelerator program for Booth students with startups,” Kyle said. “After three months of perfecting our presentation, meeting with VCs, judges and other experts, we won the 2017 NVC and received $100,000. This also gave us the stage to raise our seed round, bringing on OCA Ventures and Madison-based HealthX as investors.”
Kyle believes that Chicago is a great place for starting a business. “The startup community in Chicago is exploding,” Kyle said. “The location is great. Being in the middle of the country means it’s relatively easy to travel anywhere in the U.S. quickly, and with such a large airport, international travel is easy, too. Cost of living is lower than in places such as Silicon Valley, and investors abound.”
The biggest Chicago startup resources that have been helpful for his company include the University of Chicago (“the university has helped countless startups find their footing and turn into successful businesses,” Kyle said), tech startup incubator 1871, and Matter, a healthcare startup incubator.
Meg Barnhart – Zen of Slow Cooking
Meg Barnhart is the co-founder of Zen of Slow Cooking, a Chicago business that sells spice blends to help people create unique and delicious home-cooked meals by using slow cookers and multi-cookers. Zen of Slow Cooking spice blends are sold at Whole Foods, specialty stores, selected Walmart stores and World Market, as well as Amazon and the company’s website.
The company is a Certified B Corp that works with a social enterprise partner to help create jobs for adults with developmental disabilities and also helps raise money for children with autism, children who are homeless, women with breast cancer and the Family Dinner Project.
Meg is a Chicago native and her co-founder is from the UK but was living in Chicago when they started building the company. “Chicago is my home, and we never thought about basing our business outside of this beautiful city,” Meg said.
However, even for a proud native Chicagoan, Meg has grown to discover that Chicago is an ideal location for food-related startups. “Chicago is in the nation’s breadbasket, has a vibrant local food movement and there are tremendous resources available here for startup food businesses,” Meg said.
Chicago-area food startup resources that Meg recommends include The Hatchery, a nonprofit food and beverage startup incubator, and Naturally Chicago, a program that advocates for building a better food and natural products system. “This is a tremendous resource in the natural food community and was founded by four outstanding organizations: FamilyFarmed, KeHE, SPINS and Presence Marketing,” Meg said.
Josh Goodman – PourMyBeer
Josh Goodman is founder and CEO of PourMyBeer, a next-generation self-pour beverage system that has 7,000 taps at bars, casinos, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores and other locations in 24 countries.
Originally from Virginia, Josh moved to Chicago for reasons unrelated to entrepreneurship: his wife got a great job opportunity in Chicago and so they moved there for her career. But he has found Chicago to be a great place to be an entrepreneur.
“Chicago is great — the energy, the people, everything,” Josh said. “The first six-figure investor we got was from here. When he invested in us in 2016, we had just doubled in revenue and were on pace to double again. Then we joined 1871, the startup incubator, and I credit a lot of our growth in 2018 to calling that our home base.”
Running his business out of the Chicago startup incubator 1871 gave Josh a chance to learn from other founders and network with amazing people.
“We got nominated for and won a Fast 50 award in our sector and not a day went by when we worked out of 1871 where we didn’t meet new and amazing people,” Josh said. “Whenever anyone famous was coming through, they came by 1871. We had a private fireside chat with Jack Dorsey, the billionaire behind Twitter and Square. We also got to meet and shake hands with the Prime Minister of Australia, which was especially exciting for our resident Aussie on our team.”
If you’re inspired by all these Chicago entrepreneurs and ready to start your business in Chicago, be sure to form an LLC and file any necessary paperwork with the Illinois regulatory authorities. Learn more about how to form an Illinois LLC and how Incfile can create and file an LLC for you for free — just $0 + state fee.
Ben Gran is a freelance writer from Des Moines, Iowa. Ben has written for Fortune 500 companies, the Governor of Iowa (who now serves as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture), the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, and many corporate clients. He writes about entrepreneurship, technology, food and other areas of great personal interest.