While everyone in Wichita seems to be nice, we often avoid digging deeper to offer authentic, critical advice and insight — especially when it might sting.
ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS THROUGH CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM.
Watch this video to learn more about how having healthy conversations about failure in business can actually improve our entrepreneurial ecosystem and ultimately lead to more success stories.
Wichita, like most cities in the Midwest, is often defined by its niceness. Ask anyone why they like living here and they're bound to mention how kind and caring everyone seems to be.
But here's the crux: while everyone seems to be nice, we often avoid digging deeper to offer authentic, critical advice and insight — especially when it might sting.
In Wichita, we often confuse being nice with being agreeable. You're kind as long as you don't offend. This often causes people to not raise questions that should be asked. It’s common for a budding entrepreneur to be praised for a novel or audacious idea, but rare for them to be questioned about critical success areas like the details of their profit model, their scaling strategy or the underlying assumptions of their valuation.
We talked with Wichita entrepreneurs to find out if our city has become too nice for its own good and too afraid to talk about the uglier sides of business and entrepreneurship.
"We are too nice in this community," says Jacob Wayman, former director of Wichita's e2e Accelerator. "Nice can go so far, but there's a point when we need to ask the tougher questions of someone who's wanting to launch a business in the community."
Wayman says being nice and welcoming is appropriate for shallow conversations and interactions, but it inhibits us from getting deep and talking about tough issues facing our community. He believes the root of our niceness is actually selfishness.
"I think we're all selfish," he says. "I think we're afraid of offending people, but I think we're afraid of just diving deep with people and really building those solid relationships with them."
Curtis Whitten is the founder and president of VendTech Enterprise, a regional company specializing in armed and unarmed guard services, security systems and administrative support systems.
Despite his company becoming a multi-million dollar success, Whitten says it wasn't easy in the beginning.
"It's not going to be easy sometimes," he says. "People don't see your vision, and sometimes people don't even see what you have on paper. Either you're dead in the water or you keep moving forward."
Whitten says his business has lived on the phrase, "failure's not fatal," keeping him focused on pivoting from missteps rather than dwelling on them.
"I don't think anyone approaches failure in a healthy way," he says. "You really have to be able to accept who you are as a person and what your God-given talents are."
Beth Tully founded Cocoa Dolce in 2005. After years of success, awards and growth, Tully decided in 2014 to take the business into a new market.
"We opened our second store in Overland Park, Kansas," she says. "Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that it could fail. But it didn't just fail, it was like a burrow into the ground and burst into flames kind of failure."
Nice can go so far, but there's a point when we need to ask the tougher questions of someone who's wanting to launch a business in the community.Jacob Wayman
The failure hit hard. Tully's business, which enjoyed lots of success in Wichita, was purchased in auction. The company continues to operate under new ownership. Tully now works for Sasnak Management, which owns and operates restaurants across seven states.
Tully says the failure led to her becoming a more whole, real person. She also says Wichita's kindness showed its true value during that time. She says she's still an optimist and believes you can never be too nice, but truth should always be spoken.
"I have been shown more kindness and support from a group of people than I ever have in my life," she says. "No, we are not too nice. But we have to be truthful — we owe it to each other as humans — but that truth comes out of kindness, not bitterness or anger or a dark place."
Toby Kriwiel is another entrepreneur who has experienced failure. In 2016, he started a fair-trade sportswear brand called Matano. After a year of working on the project in Wichita, Kriwiel got the opportunity to present his idea to 1 Million Cups meetings across the country.
It was during the Q&A portion of a 1 Million Cups presentation in Kansas City when he first heard it suggested that his business would probably fail because it was too niche with too small of margins.
"He (a 1 Million Cups audience member) tore my heart out," Kriwiel says. "But he did it in a way that said, 'I see your value, I see your energy, and I see your potential, but this idea is small potatoes, so let's figure out where you can go from here.' That was great advice. That was advice I didn't get in Wichita at the time."
While our culture of kindness may have caused Kriwiel to fumble in a waning business for more time than he should have, Tully points out that it's not all bad. She says our niceness invites to the table big ideas that might be shut down early in other communities.
"I think the positivity in an entrepreneurial community gives wing to people who might be afraid to do anything more than just dream," she says. "I think if you give up on big dreams and ideas, no matter what it is, if we as a culture stop thinking about that and stop thinking outside ourselves and outside the box, we don't progress. We need to always be in the process of growth."
Wayman says dreaming is great, but Wichita has no shortage of ideas. It does have a shortage of entrepreneurs able to execute on those ideas. And when it comes to doing, our niceness gets in the way.
"We encourage bad behavior by not having tough love with these entrepreneurs," he says. "And that's going to hurt everybody down the road."
Kriwiel says it's not about becoming mean-spirited or calloused. But it is about re-defining nice to include lending a critical eye and a lot of tough love.
"Sometimes nice hurts a little bit," he says. "So I don't think we're too nice; I think we've just got to better define what it means to be nice here in Wichita."
If you're unsure of what tough love might mean when you're examining an entrepreneur's business, take a cue from "The Demo Coach," Nathan Gold, who helps entrepreneurs and professionals prepare for high-stakes presentations and pitches.
His list of questions could be a starting point for how we critique and guide our entrepreneurs. Some of these are tough, but that's kind of the point.
- How will you make money?
- Why should I or anyone else care?
- If this is so great, why hasn't it been done before?
- What are the top three risks facing your business right now?
- Why you and your team?