Oct 10, 2014 · 6 minutes

Columbus, Ohio: Not exactly the most obvious place to build a startup, right?

Sure, it's a great American city with a strong independent rock and hip-hop scene, a nice-to-exceptional art community, one of the biggest universities in the country, and cheap rent. (Okay this is the part where I should disclose I was born in Columbus and lived there for the first quarter-century of my life).

But while the ratio between the quality of living and the cost of living in Columbus is, I would argue, among the highest in the country, is it really such a great city to launch a tech company? The state's biggest investment firms, like Rockbridge, focus more on private equity than venture capital. There's some potential excitement around the newish VC firm Drive Capital, which was founded by two long-time partners at Sequoia and just raised its first fund totaling $250 million. But there's obviously far less venture capital in the Buckeye State than in ecosystems like Silicon Valley, New York, and Los Angeles, to name a few. Nor has Columbus seen many significant exits, the notable exception being men's ecommerce site Jack Threads which sold to Thrillist in 2010.

But for entrepreneurs Web Smith (yes, that's his real first name) and Jonathan Poma, Columbus is the perfect place to build a company -- as long as you understand your local market and don't mind doing things on the cheap.

Last week, Smith and Poma launched Whence, another one of the many, many same-day delivery apps that are spreading at a rapid clip across the country. Unlike apps devoted to a specific vertical -- like Eaze for marijuana or Washio for laundry -- Whence will offer hour-and-a-half delivery within a 17-mile radius from any Columbus shop that enlists its services, regardless of vertical. Local favorites like Jeni's Ice Cream and Milk Bar Boutique  have already signed up for the app.

Whence is hardly alone in offering same-day delivery across verticals -- Postmates is quick to come to mind, and Uber has also experimented in the space. But Poma says what sets Whence apart is its emphasis on understanding the needs of local businesses and their customers.

"Ecommerce hasn’t done much to deepen relationships in a community," Poma says. The fact that Whence's logo is a milk jug is no coincidence -- Smith and Poma want customers to be as familiar with their Whence delivery driver as past generations were with milkmen. "We want to stick with a quality of service and a personal touch and feel, hearkening back to the 'village economy' that we grew from."

Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that Columbus was not unlike the farm town many outsiders still think it is today. Since 1950, however, its population has more than doubled, leapfrogging its more recognizable neighbors, Cleveland and Cincinnati. But while that's done wonders for the city, both culturally and commercially, public transit and parking haven't kept up, and Poma says business owners are feeling the pain.

"Businesses that were once more profitable when Columbus was a more close-knit community, a lot of those businesses are struggling," Poma says.

When he explains the pain points felt by Columbus consumers, I know exactly what he means: I'm familiar with the nightmarish parking prospects and the tangle of traffic that wreaks havoc every weekend in neighborhoods like the Short North, which is host to some of the hippest shops in town. Urbanites who don't live within walking distance would rather stay home (or go drink at the Pabst-damaged dive Carabar), while suburbanites will flock to the convenience of the big malls on the outskirts of the Outerbelt.

It's that combination of hip, big city commerce, the communal small-town vibe the city never outgrew, and the unfortunate fact that the city wasn't exactly built with convenience in mind, that makes Columbus the perfect spot for a more intimate on-demand delivery service. The "milkman" metaphor, for example, would never fly in New York -- the only couriers with whom New Yorkers have any friendly familiarity with are the ones who deliver their drugs.

Whence is still in closed beta, taking things slow and steady while it refines its service -- a luxury it can afford as a bootstrapped, founder-funded startup that isn't beholden to the high-growth demands of venture capitalists. Right now, it makes about five deliveries a day and every driver is employed in-house. Smith and Poma even jump behind the wheel when necessary. They may bring on outside contractors as they scale and, interestingly enough, have even been in conversation with Uber about handling its overflow.

"We’ve been open to the idea of leveraging partnerships if they make sense," Smith says. "We’ve had a lot of good conversations with UberHQ and Uber Columbus and Uber drivers."

Speaking of Uber, Travis Kalanick has been eying same-day delivery for a long time. Last April, the $18 billion company took its first major leap into the space, launching a courier service in New York. And while Postmates, with $24 million in funding, is hardly as monstrous a threat as Uber, it's already making 10,000 deliveries a week in eleven cities.

But Smith and Poma say they aren't worried about rivals outside the city. They believe their understanding of the local market, and their devotion to quality experiences as opposed to rapid scaling, give them all the advantage they need. Moreover, they believe that while Columbus is already home to Uber's car service, the city is safe from Travis Kalanick's all-seeing Sauron eye when it comes to delivery -- at least for now.

"We look at Uber scaling all the way back from beta in San Francisco in 2010," Poma says. "It took them four and a half five years to get to a mid-market city like Columbus."

The founders' confidence in the face of much bigger and better-capitalized companies may be over idealistic. Furthermore, the same-day delivery market has gone through a boom and bust once before. (Remember WebVan?) Although mobile and Internet penetration has exploded since the disastrous first wave of web delivery startups, the ultimate prospects of this sector are still uncertain.

Whether or not "Web Delivery 2.0" pans out the way its most bullish supporters hope is out of Whence's control. As for capital, the bootstrapped founders are still considering when and if it will raise outside funding. Next week they have a meeting with Drive Capital to determine whether Whence is a good fit for that $250 million fund. In any case, Smith says the city's relative dearth of startup capital doesn't have to be a disadvantage -- of course that's what every mid- to small-market entrepreneur says...

"Columbus startups are good at increasing their run rate and staying afloat by finding ways to actually be good at business," Smith says. "[Silicon Valley startups] can raise a Series A in 3 months as opposed to 3 years. [Columbus startups] have to actually make money from the very beginning to prove themselves."

Regardless of whether Whence's story has a happy ending, it shows how startups in mid-sized markets can use their city's comparative lack of flash and private investment to their advantage. Cities like Columbus are small enough that the nuanced desires of the community can be grasped in a relatively short amount of time -- plus, there's a smaller chance that somebody's already doing what you want to do. And yet these cities are large enough that there's a demand for the kinds of services offered by the newest wave of digital startups.

I love Columbus but I'm not irrational. The city may never be in the same startup league as Middle American hot spots like Chicago or Austin, to say nothing of Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. But with the right market conditions and the same crazy diligence and focus required of all entrepreneurs, a great company can be built anywhere.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]