About four-and-half years ago my family was living in South Florida, just outside of Palm Beach. When we had originally moved to Florida, we heard there was no state income tax and thought, "Sweet. More money for us."
The trickle-down effect I had been hearing about from politicians was finally going to trickle down all over the McKissens.
However, we quickly learned that Florida isn't cheap. Even without state income tax, the cost of living was a lot higher than we anticipated. There are toll roads. And a million different fees. And the cost of removing snakes, armadillos, and wild boar from your yard. And the cost of commuting 45 minutes to your office every day because actually living in Palm Beach was not in the budget.
So, when I got a call from a recruiter about a job in Missouri, I jumped at the chance to find a new home for our family. After my last interview, I drove to St. Charles, Missouri, the small city west of St. Louis where my wife and I were looking at relocating to--if I got the job.
There I stopped at a dive bar along the historic Main Street. It was at that bar that I decided we would move, regardless of whether I was hired for this specific position. My decision wasn't driven by the historic Main Street, or the way I could walk across the street to the spot where Lewis and Clark launched their journey on the Missouri River.
My decision came after I paid $4.96 for a cheeseburger, onion rings, and a Pabst. I actually took a picture of the receipt and texted it to my wife, with the words "We're moving here" beneath it.
You have to understand: I am a father of three, and at that time we were a one-income household.
Cheap food mattered to me. That's not a joke. Our family depended on the muscular, gigantic chickens at Costco--the kind that have the potential to hit 70 home runs and have been genetically engineered to have an additional breast where their head used to be.
The lower cost of living didn't just save us money on cheeseburgers and chicken. A couple of years after getting the job and moving to St. Charles, I took a chance on starting my own business. One big reason I could do that--and take the initial pay cut that came with it--was because the cost of living was so low.
The reality is that most successful entrepreneurs are not 19 years old. In fact, according to the Kauffman Foundation, the average age of a founder with a business that has more than $1 million in revenue is 39. Regardless of whether he or she is a parent, your typical 39-year-old has obligations that may make the mix of a higher cost of living and aspirations of entrepreneurship incompatible.
The takeaway here?
While most of the venture capital may be in California, cheap cheeseburgers can be found here in the middle. And while there is a slim chance you may get funded, there is a 100% chance you have to eat, put a roof over your head, and pay for the other necessities in life. The money you save living in a cheaper place is money you can put directly into launching your startup.
If you're thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, consider the middle. I'm partial to St. Charles and the St. Louis region, but there are a lot of cool things happening in bigger cities (Kansas City, Columbus, and others) and small cities (Youngstown, Ohio; Erie, Penn.; and others) throughout the Midwest.
There is also a takeaway for policymakers.
The cost of living shouldn't just be a term that gets thrown into campaign speeches. Ensuring people have access to affordable housing, food, and transportation is an investment in creating entrepreneurs.
You simply can't take risks if you're worried about affording the necessities of life.
And we need to create more risk takers.