“For years, through high school, college, and most of my 20’s, I would say, I was haunted by the fact that I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Dougan Sherwood, co-founder and managing director of the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in St. Louis. Modeled after CIC in Cambridge, Massachusetts, CIC St. Louis provides a coworking space where businesses can rent space and share resources. The original Cambridge location currently houses 2,000 entrepreneurs and 700 companies, including Google.
Sherwood had been with CIC in Cambridge for just over six years before he volunteered to oversee the business’s first-ever expansion outside of Massachusetts–working with CIC is the closest he’s ever come to feeling like he’s doing what he was meant to do. Before, this sense of purpose had continually eluded him. His journey has included dropping out of college when he was 21, achieving half of a master’s degree, and living in seven states in his 20’s and 30’s. “I don’t fear change. I run towards it, sometimes to a fault,” he says.
When CIC chose to expand to a third city about four years ago, its leadership began an international search for the right market. They looked at San Francisco, New York, London, Tokyo–world-class markets with well-established startup scenes. “San Francisco is amazing, of course. But … it’s so expensive,” says Sherwood. “The actual cost of getting into a market like San Francisco or New York would entirely change the dynamics of our business in ways that we weren’t ready to do. Secondly, and more importantly, it didn’t really fit the mission that we were creating, which is that we want to be a game-changer in whatever community we’re part of.”
They began to look at smaller cities, hoping to identify one that was ahead of its competition. “That’s when St. Louis really began to identify itself as a place that, through its own strength, is really emerging as what I would call a national leader in innovation,” says Sherwood. It was decided–they’d expand to the Midwest. In September 2014, CIC opened a gigantic new location in the Central West End, in the formidable, newly renovated Western Electric building. “We really feel like we’ve found this diamond in the rough in St. Louis, in terms of its efforts to build a startup system here. It was a shock to us, and I think it was a surprise to St. Louis.”
Sherwood, originally from Cape Cod, grew up convinced he was missing something because he didn’t know what he ultimately wanted to do. His brother, who saw the ocean for the first time at two years old, knew from then on he wanted to work on boats. He later attended a maritime academy, and is now a boat captain. “He’s always known, and I was always envious of that,” says Sherwood, who remembers thinking, “‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I figure out what everybody else knows?”
After graduating high school in Cape Cod, Sherwood attended college for a few years before dropping out at 21 and moving to Utah. He’d been there once on vacation and remembered its depth and history: Native Americans, Westward Expansion, the red rocks of the Southwest. “I wanted to move where I didn’t know a soul,” he says. “Sort of like, ‘This’ll be a good education for me. I’m not going to go be a senior in college right now. I’m going to drop out and go be Dougan Sherwood, and figure out what the hell that means.’” Within three months he re-enrolled in a new college, ultimately staying in Utah for three years. “The pros and cons of having an adventurous spirit are you experience a lot, but you’re rarely terribly satisfied in any one thing.”
Today, Sherwood walks across the open atrium of CIC, with its high ceilings and cutting-edge modern architecture. Relaxed and easygoing, he says ‘Hello’ to just about everyone he passes. Businesses that currently rent space here include large companies such as Nestle Purina Petcare’s Emerging Growth Group, Polsinelli Law Firm, and new startups Frienedy and Synek. Dubbed the “Keurig for beer,” Synek recently surpassed their $250,000 Kickstarter goal by more than double.
Sherwood first learned about CIC at age 24, when he moved back home to the East Coast. He saw a news story about something called the Cambridge Incubator, now CIC, which piqued his interest. He began working there in 2000. “My attitude was, ‘Until something whacks you over the head … go find interesting environments with smart people doing cool things–see what you can learn from that.’ There’s no shortage of that in Boston.”
When asked why coworking spaces are so vital to the success of young companies, Sherwood replies, “It’s scary to start a company. I don’t care who you are, how old you are, how much experience you have–it’s hard. And it can be really, really intimidating … you really are searching blindly through the night to figure out the direction of your business.” Having access to resources and other entrepreneurs who are enduring the same thing is indispensable. “They can say, ‘I get it. Keep going,’” says Sherwood.
He speaks from experience–at 30, he started his own business in the second bedroom of his apartment. “It didn’t work. I could write three books on all the things I didn’t do right.” One of the mistakes he mentions is that he created the business in a vacuum, away from other entrepreneurs. “I just went off my own gut and what I knew, and could have really used some direction and guidance. I had no idea how to raise money, how to put together a business plan. I didn’t have the right cofounder–in fact, he was four states away,” he says.
The business, which Sherwood dubbed The Western Institute, was a 10-day trip for high school students preparing to begin their first year of college. “In retrospect, I would have benefitted from taking a year off between high school and college, but I was encouraged by my parents not to do that,” he says. “This was a program I created to help kids who are going to college get a little more worldly perspective.” Once, while listening to a panel of entrepreneurs, he heard one of them give the following advice to the next generation of startup founders: “If you have an idea for a business and you can not do it–don’t.” Sherwood explains, “you have to get to a point where you can’t sleep unless you start this thing.”
He remembers arriving at that point with his own business idea. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this, but I’ve got to try.’ At some point I just said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to go do it.’ I followed my heart, but I just didn’t get it right. Which is ok, because I tried.” Sherwood labored over the program for a year and a half, but had to cancel it due to lack of interest, leaving him with several credit cards to pay off. That was nine years ago. “I learned an incredible amount about myself, but unfortunately no kid ever went on my trip. I’m over it. But I can’t wait to be in a position where I can try that again. Overall, I’m so glad I tried,” he says.
Amidst his other professional endeavors throughout his 20’s and 30’s, Sherwood completed half of a master’s degree in public policy, worked in the US Senate for Edward Kennedy, pursued education reform, and became a program director for another company. Yet, none of these other opportunities felt like what he was supposed to do. Remembering the Cambridge Incubator, Sherwood reached out to founder Tim Rowe. CIC had almost gone out of business during the dot-com bubble in 2001, but Rowe had revolutionized the once-dying coworking space into a robust, promising business. In 2007, Rowe instated Sherwood as director of CIC in Cambridge. “It’s the closest thing that really felt like what I should have been knocked over the head with,” Sherwood says.
Sherwood cheerfully walks through the second floor, leaning against a bannister to have his picture taken. There are walls of windows, tons of natural light, and a large rectangular blue column that juts out from the ground floor. “That’s a set of stairs,” Sherwood clarifies. Employees joke with him as the camera clicks–having a business that didn’t work has brought him some unprecedented street cred here. “It’s a badge of courage, almost. The only question you get around CIC when you fail is, ‘Hey, when are you doing your next one?’” he says. “For years and years and years, I was convinced that I was missing something that everybody else knew. I guess I would say I’m at peace with not knowing.”
For more information about Dougan Sherwood and CIC St. Louis, visit www.cicstl.com