When Sho Rust lived in Los Angeles, his address was on one of the most expensive streets in the country. Now he lives and runs his design AI company, SHO.AI., in Cape Girardeau, a city of about 40,000 people in southeast Missouri.
He moved back to the city in 2017, long before the pandemic pushed many people out of large cities, partly because he had family in the area — he started SHO.AI out of his grandparent’s garage. But his main motivator to move back was financial.
Starting up in LA was expensive and would require him and co-founders Michael Machiah and Thomas Belhacene to raise large rounds to keep up with the expenses. In Cape Girardeau, rent was cheaper, and so were his personal living costs, so he could bootstrap longer than if he remained in LA.
Codefi, a coworking space in Cape Girardeau, also offered him $50,000 and weekly coaching to start up there. Now, he’s raised more than $1 million, almost all from Atlanta-based Valor Ventures.
Previous Career with BCG Digital Ventures
Rust, who lived in Missouri after his family moved there from Japan when he was 11 years old, first moved to LA for Art School in 2009, majoring in design. He co-founded rare-form, which transformed billboards into backpacks and tote bags, but left the startup to work at BCG Digital Ventures, the investment arm of The Boston Consulting Group. There, he helped corporations start ventures: “essentially a startup every six months,” he said.
Along the way, he learned the ins and outs of branding, and came up with the idea for an automated service. “I realized there’s a lot of room for automation here in terms of how to create brands,” he said. “So much like human DNA, the systems that they would create, only 10% of them were different.”
So, he created SHO.AI, which does exactly that: automates branding for growing businesses. Some of his coworkers and friends jumped onboard, compelled by the idea. “They almost all immediately quit their jobs,” he said. He convinced a handful to move to the Show Me state with him.
Sometimes it takes some convincing to get new team members out to the center of the U.S., he said. But typically, once he flys them out and shows them there’s interesting restaurants and quality of life — like affording a three story house in Cape Girardeau instead of a tiny apartment in LA for a fraction of the cost — they’re sold. The median house price in Cape Girardeau was $193,000 in October, while the median in LA was $790,000 during the same month.
Offices in New York and Paris
His team of 20 also includes some remote workers, too, and SHO.AI has offices in New York and Paris as well.
For Rust, living in Cape Girardeau has helped him hunker down and focus on building SHO..AI. In LA, where many people spend free time partying, he made excuses to his friends of why he had to miss another weekend outing. That kind of pressure isn’t there in Cape Girardeau.
It’s also a slower-paced environment. In LA, it seemed that everyone had a side hustle — from investing in crypto to starting new businesses. There’s plus sides to that, Rust said — like, for instance, being immersed in the newest trends constantly. But it’s also distracting and exhausting for some people.
Ultimately it comes down to whether someone is extroverted or introverted. “If you’re the type of person that gets annoyed by having to talk to people at the watercooler, more of a remote area actually might be better for your productivity and, like, sanity,” he said. “If you are the person that needs that conversation at the watercooler then the city might be good for you. It’s gonna be a hard time for you outside of the city.”
- Remember you’re just one person. There’s no doubt that most startup founders work long hours. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed and as though you’re sprinting, it may be time to reevaluate. Ask yourself, can you do this day over and over again? If the answer is no, you should adjust your workload. “You don’t get an award or trophy for destroying your body on the way to building a really cool business,” Rust said.
- Focus on priorities: What needs to get done? Get those tasks completed first. Also, recognize that your business cannot fulfill every customer’s needs. Stick to your direct focus, and recommend trusted businesses to fulfill other needs rather than trying to do everything yourself, he said.
- Track your process. The first step is building a process you can quantify. Then track your work and evaluate for real improvement.
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