22 August 2017
By: Allison Babka
By now, it's obvious to many people around the St. Louis region that Randy Schilling becomes really excited when he talks about St. Charles. Really, really excited.
He's at the window seat in one of the back rooms of OPO Startups, leaning forward as he ticks through a long list of businesses that draw him to Main Street.
'We have a hair salon across the street, a dress shop, a jewelry store,” Schilling says, punctuating each item with an air tap. 'We've got Picasso's Coffee on the corner, we have Llywelyn's on the other corner, we have a pizzeria across the street. What else do you need? You've got your startups, your caffeine, your pizza and your beer. That's the recipe.”
The mix of businesses — along with a variety of artists and services — fosters both innovation and community, Schilling insists, and it's what's spurring St. Charles to become the St. Louis region's latest startup ecosystem. Known for years as the city's historic district, today's Main Street also boasts entrepreneurs who specialize in technology, digital marketing, education, broadcasting and more. Together, the blend of businesses keeps St. Charles humming while contributing to the forward-thinking allure of the greater St. Louis region.
'It's really about how do we move the region forward and have these innovation spaces that are so critical to attracting and retaining talent,” Schilling says. 'Also just the creativity of what's being built. The startups provide so much energy for the region.”
The collision of history, tech and community happens daily now, thanks in no small part to Schilling, who in 2015 converted a 100-year-old post office into OPO Startups, an innovation space for entrepreneurs and creatives. Now with seven nearby OPO buildings that house both startup founders and shops of every type, Schilling is building an environment that invites smart talent, encourages collaboration and keeps the local economy strong. Those mom-and-pop shops along Main Street are a big part of that, Schilling says, along with the larger corporations in the area and about 50 tech-related startups that call the OPO buildings home.
'This is becoming the hub for not just the startups but also for the merchants on the street to kind of figure out how they compete in the Amazon world and the Walmart world — giving them access to social media marketing, digital marketing, search engine optimization,” Schilling says. 'It's the startups, but also service companies. It's collaborating with your local community, your street.”
Taking a page from the Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis's Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods, Schilling tries to strengthen the downtown St. Charles community by developing OPO programming around Main Street's needs while also bringing in partners like Lindenwood University, St. Charles Community College and national businesses and thinkers. OPO regularly hosts workshops and collaboration sessions that can benefit anyone, no matter their background or industry. College students mix with corporate tycoons and small-business owners, retailers book services from one another, entrepreneurs pursue new ideas with new friends, and everyone enjoys an array of snacks and drinks from eateries along Main Street. If you can fill people's needs from within the local community, everyone can thrive, Schilling claims.
'I think that each of our little communities should probably be doing this. We're not an island,” says Schilling, who notes that he often ends up at Frankie Tocco's Pizzeria just down the block for lunch, for friendship and for thinking through new projects. 'I think it helps on a much broader scale in terms of trying to retain talent. It's great to have those cool spaces and people that you know, that are creative and that dream up all this new stuff. You have to do it in order to compete. It's how big ideas happen.”
Folks outside the St. Louis region might be surprised to hear that dozens of startups are spread throughout this historic town along the Missouri River. But the tech revolution has been happening behind the doors of the restored 18th-century buildings on Main Street and in other areas of St. Charles since at least the 1990s, when several software and IT companies made the city their home.
Schilling was among them, with his multi-million-dollar IT consulting firm Quilogy employing hundreds of workers along those cobblestone streets and elsewhere throughout the nation for two decades. After he sold the company, he founded BoardPaq which provides a robust paperless portal for leadership teams, boards and committees. Like other Midwestern founders, Schilling has had the opportunity to move his businesses to larger business cities but chooses to remain in St. Charles because the upsides are immeasurable.
'It was all about doing the technology in your hometown. A lot of the work, we would sell it on the coasts, but we do the work here because of cost of living,” Schilling says. 'And not only that, but also a sense of family. My wife and I both grew up and went to grade school and high school here.”
With the variety of economic development, innovation and talent training happening throughout the entire St. Louis region, Schilling is confident that all communities will rise.
'I think Saint Louis is really getting a great reputation for our entrepreneurship and innovation because we are taking a more regional approach to it. And I think that makes St. Louis a much stronger story,” Schilling says. 'The whole region has startup fever and this thirst for innovation, and I think that people thrive on that. They feed off that and they look for that. Ultimately if you're trying to attract and retain the best talent, having these innovation centers just pumps such positive energy into the region.”