An Initiative of the City of Akron

Accelerate Akron

Welcome to Accelerate Akron, the blog of the Akron Global Business Accelerator. Here you will find expert advice from the Accelerator team and information on issues that matter to entrepreneurs, tech start-ups, and small business owners throughout Northeast Ohio and across the globe.

Now more than ever, young tech startups should consider government contract work

Rich Delisio

 

Rich Delisio has served in the Ohio Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), located at the Akron Accelerator, since 2012. As the Akron procurement specialist, he serves 11 counties – Ashland, Carroll, Holmes, Jefferson, Medina, Portage, Richland, Stark, Summit, Tuscarawas and Wayne.

For more than 20 years, I have been helping Ohio businesses find and compete for federal, state and local government contracts. In that time, I have never been more optimistic for opportunities for tech companies, and specifically, IT, than I am right now. Why? Because government is realizing it needs to modernize. Government agencies  can no longer rely on old and outdated systems – NASA’s FUN3D code is more than 30 years old and there are some more than 50 years old! These systems are not only expensive and inefficient, but are now at risk of security issues. In other words, government is now looking to the technology sector to save money and upgrade archaic systems.

In fact, in May, the US House of Representatives passed the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2017 or the MGT Act. Simply put, the bill establishes a fund for technology-related activities to improve information technology and enhance cybersecurity across the federal government. It has yet to pass the Senate, but it is definitely a sign that things are changing.

Of course, ideally, a startup would have a product solution that can address the commercial and government markets, such as in IT – solutions, manufacturing, medical, logistics or cybersecurity, to name a few. I will always advocate for young tech startups to explore the government contract market, but now is especially a good time.

Here are five more reasons I believe tech startups should consider government work:

  1. Time commitment in securing government work is very similar to securing commercial contracts and investment.
    The average company takes 12 to 18 months to secure its first government award. That’s about how long it takes for a company to ready itself for investment or commercial contracts, so why not dig in and consider both routes? It takes a while to understand the government market, as well as the commercial market – how they’re alike and how they’re different.  Government can be a complement to the commercial market with similar clients. And, as we know, government buys more than anybody. The biggest commitment is time, so start early in building buyer-seller relationships.

  2. Government research is public and free and there’s a lot of it.
    The biggest change I’ve seen in the last few years is the amount of free information on the internet and also at the Akron/Summit County Library (in fact, all local startups should make a plan to go there!).  Commercial research is more difficult because of privacy – it’s more sensitive. But government information is out there for the taking. Here at PTAC, we can tell you who buys in your field, what’s trending, about dollar values and more. Commercial information is much harder to find and private companies don’t have to disclose numbers.

    What’s more, a research-based review of public procurement will assist you in understanding your competition and your own business strategy development. You can use it to model your marketing approach and discover potential opportunities. Because of the number of public documents available, you can see where you fit in the market through research.

  3. Government, university and economic development officials are excellent leads and potential partners.
    Relationship-building for resources, development and awareness serve both parties and hopefully lead to problem solving solutions. Networking is key as it takes an average of seven years for a company to fully develop, so it’s important to find and cultivate resources.

  4. Partnering or sub-contracting can cut red tape and open opportunities.
    To avoid the often frustrating bureaucracy of the government contract market, you can choose to do business with large prime contractors that are required to meet small business goals. This is a good way to get started because you’re offering a solution to help the prime solve the problem. Government is looking for experts so they don’t mind the team approach and encourage it. Today’s competitor can be tomorrow’s partner. Contractors have a need for people already trained or someone that can come in and train while offering product solution. Working with primes can also lead to investment. If you have a solution to take to market, you can gain exposure to investment through sub-contractor work.

  5. The government workforce is getting older and new, younger employees are open to new technology and vendors.
    By the year 2020, half of the federal government acquisition workforce (buyers) is eligible to retire. As I mentioned, there is a coming need for technology modernization and a new wave of buyers will want to apply that technology.

If you’re interested in learning more about the government market, here at PTAC, we can help match you with appropriate contract opportunities; research past contracts; prepare bids and navigate requirements; and offer assistance even after winning contracts. These services are offered at no cost to Ohio businesses. Please feel free to contact me at 330-252-0571 or delisior@ohio.edu.

University Startups - A Different Kind of Funding Mechanism

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Kevin White, PhD is Chief Operating Officer and Principal Scientist for Akron Ascent Innovations, an Accelerator company. AAI has developed a new approach to attach objects to various surfaces.  The company’s "dry adhesive" technology is a non-stick adhesive that can secure (as well as reposition and reuse) everything from framed and unframed pictures and posters to high-capacity hooks to walls and other surfaces without damage. (Photo credit: Ann Hermes of Christian Science Monitor)

Running a technology-centered company is tough.  Starting one is even harder, particularly when the approach is unique.  Since our spin out from The University of Akron in 2015, we have expanded to 10 employees in two labs at the Akron Global Business Accelerator, secured over $1M in state and federal funding, and established a strategic investment and partnership with The Velcro Companies.  We’re in a great place, but it took more than five years and we are still far from secure.  Commercializing technologies out of universities is inherently high risk and requires active state and federal support in addition to outside investment and industrial feedback to have a fighting chance.  Perseverance is necessary, but far from sufficient.

Know your market

In summer 2012, Professor Josh Wong at The University of Akron received a grant to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-CORPS program.  Dr. Barry Rosenbaum of The University of Akron Research Foundation (UARF) agreed to join the program as his business mentor. Their group interviewed more than 150 potential customers to explore whether the concept of a dry adhesive technology met existing pain points in the market.  The resounding answer was yes, which motivated them to establish AAI and seek to commercialize the first scalable approach to dry adhesion.

Mix it up

From 2013-2014, AAI received about $225k in state and federal support, including a NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Ohio Third Frontier Technology Validation and Start-up Fund (TVSF) Phase I awards.  This support was critical for the validation of the technology concept, but didn’t allow for the hiring of any professionals to lead the company.  The pivotal moment came in 2015 when, after almost a year of applications, justifications, and breath holding, AAI was selected for the NSF SBIR Phase II award.  This allowed us to hire a core team, scale up the processing equipment, and establish an independent lab outside of the university at the Accelerator. 

This didn’t mark the end of the search for funding; rather, it was the start of a new phase.  Fresh off a stint as a post-doc at Kyushu University in Japan, I joined the team as the principal scientist and within a month was tossed in front of Angel investment groups with a new title of chief operating officer.  It was my new responsibility to not only build the ship, but also steer it, staff it, stock it and fund it.

To mix metaphors, it took about nine months until the tires started to gain traction.  The Northeast Ohio Student Venture Fund (NEOSVF) selected AAI for investment in February 2016.  Shortly after came a well- received pitch to the ARCHAngels group, where we met future board member and investor, Tom Waltermire, retired CEO of PolyOne, a billion-dollar, publicly traded company.

Explore partnerships

The biggest win came through a strategic investment and partnership with The Velcro Companies.  From the first meeting in March of 2016, there was clear alignment in spirit and focus. The Velcro Companies’ well-known hook-and-loop product is an attachment system made of non-sticky components – just like our dry adhesive technology (we use natural “loops” built into the surface of the wall). This alignment helped establish a level of trust and comradery. After rounds of exchanging samples and engaging in open and frank discussions, the Velcro Companies agreed to support AAI in several supplemental awards through the NSF SBIR program, and provide an investment to secure the matching funds.  These programs allowed us to hire additional personnel to expand the company and begin pursuing a wider range of applications.

Never stop learning

Getting to this point has not been easy.  We continue to further develop our products while building and maintaining relationships across the supply chain.  Some of the things we’ve learned along the way include:

  1. Your value proposition has to be clear. Your technology could be the coolest in the world, but if there isn’t a market for it, it won’t matter. Engage with customers early on through research and testing.  Without positive engagement, the technology will be stagnant. It has to connect with your target market.
  2. Your flagship product needs to be flexible.  You need to be open to pivoting, but you also need to know your competency.  As the project progressed, we learned more about the capabilities of our technology, as well as the limitations, which allowed us to focus on the best near-term opportunities and clarify our immediate value proposition.
  3. You must have alignment in your outside partners – not just in market potential and sales revenue targets, but in core values and competencies.
  4. You need to learn how to communicate with different audiences.  First, determine who they are and then, how to talk to them about your product. It wasn’t until we figured this out and got the right people on our team that we were able to find a real partner.

Get help

The Accelerator and UARF were great partners along the way in helping us figure out where we wanted to go and how to get there. If you’re at a university and interested in finding out more about these types of funding, contact the technology transfer office or research foundation at your school.  Start early and know your role in the company.  It takes a team of committed individuals.  No one has the right skill set to handle it all.

Know what you are hoping to gain, find out what it will take to get there, and seek out the best partners.  Most importantly, remember the process will be long and arduous, but the pay-off could be worth it.

Redefining Akron through arts and tech

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Austin Kettner is a founder and mentor of The Bit Factory. He specializes in design and product development with a focus on web sites, web design and modern technology. 

In 2009, I co-founded Quixby, a start-up focused on helping users build custom computers. Even though my job was largely technical, several of our clients were building machines to help them make art in various formats. It was my first glimpse into how art and tech could work together. I was starting to understand that although the two disciplines may seem very different, there could be great potential for success when brought together.  

Eight years later, that relationship has never been stronger. Technology enables artists to make their creations, visions and ideas come to life in ways never before seen. They can create any world they want, ranging from scary monsters to simple robots with emotions, or even talking cats. But at times, this untethered artistic freedom can create chaos, taking us to unbelievable worlds with movements that are jarring to the audience.  To combat this chaos, we can use technology to tether ourselves to science and the world we intimately know to create something relatable and recognizable.

In Akron, alone, in the last two years, we’ve seen a thriving arts/tech community blossom where dozens of arts initiatives were born and hundreds of tech companies have been founded, resulting in one of the most actively developed regions in the country. At a time where cities seem to have all been labeled as “something,” I’m excited to see Akron and the Northeast Ohio region centered on tech and the arts.

The Akron Accelerator and The Bit Factory were both founded on the premise of helping tech startups at various stages grow. However, we, too, have embraced the arts as an entrepreneurial avenue. The arts have played a huge part in The Bit Factory’s success, and we’ve experienced tremendous support from the arts community as it has become helpful for them as well.

One example is Spectrum Gallery, a unique-to-Akron standalone art gallery that is a collaboration of The Bit Factory, Akron Accelerator and local foundations. Opening this year, it is located here at the Accelerator and on the same floor as The Bit Factory. Spectrum is a place for new and existing artists to showcase their work within a space that is driven by tech at its core. With an online-first approach, the gallery provides online previews and a global, app-focused approach to spreading the word about the gallery and its featured art. This is one form of differentiation in an ever-evolving industry.

Most of today’s art is entirely created or aided by technology and being in a city that is not only redefining itself, but is also deeply rooted in both tech and art, is exciting for all  to experience. Look around…you’ll see new art and tech everywhere with still more to come!

Staying One Step Ahead: Workforce Development for the New Economy

Eric Wise

Eric Wise is founder and chief academic officer of The Software Guild, a partner of the Akron Accelerator. The Software Guild is an intensive, fast-paced apprenticeship program where participants learn to be a software developer. Courses are offered full-time, in-person for 12 weeks or 10 months, part-time online, where students acquire the skills needed for entry-level developer positions.

Since the end of a contentious election season, I have been reflecting often on the direction of the country and the overarching themes behind the electoral choices that were made. It is clear to me that there is much of concern about the economic futures of our regions, particularly here in the Midwest, which flipped parties in the election and seemed to respond to a message about putting American workers first.

Workforce development is a theme that resonates with politicians of both parties and I created The Software Guild to address the need in our region for more technical workers as well as provide a pathway for people with high aptitude, drive and preparedness to transition into a high-demand, high-paying career. By any measure this program has been a resounding success. We have trained hundreds of students since 2013 and through strong ties with our regional employers, have maintained a greater than 90 percent placement rate in technical roles. We have a model that works well here in northeast Ohio and works equally well in other regions with technical needs.

Challenges

To be sure, we’ve made some significant steps forward, but there are still some challenges in workforce development that I believe require attention from both the private and public sector to address.

Funding

Bootcamps are not inexpensive; ours is $13,750 for a 12-week program. However, the return on investment is significant with a shortened timeframe to employability, a 90-percent placement rate and the average student increasing their salary by $20,000 upon graduation. But initial investment is a hurdle many simply can’t overcome. And there is very little funding available for non-traditional training programs like ours. Access to grants and student loans (such as those through the GI Bill or Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)) would go a long way toward assisting those who can’t afford the program.  It is unfortunate that those capable intellectually of doing these jobs are unable to receive training because of financial difficulties.

Transparency

The bootcamp space has a transparency issue. Since our launch in 2013, the space has exploded with training providers, going from a handful to well over 100. Providers report their outcomes in a variety of ways, some of them in ways that we consider to be dishonest. And there is currently no accreditation mechanism to hold them accountable. This issue is not limited to the bootcamp space. Higher education groups such as ITT Tech have been forced to shut down by regulators over deceptive practices.

Consumers of education services are increasingly interested in outcomes. The price of education is not trivial and consumers rightfully want to know if their investment is going to pay off. Our organization is pushing for more transparency in outcomes by being a founding member of a group to define the standards and release audited outcome reports on a regular basis. The hope is that education consumers put pressure on all organizations to release these kinds of metrics so a true apples-to-apples comparison between programs can be achieved.

Pipeline

Lastly, we need to do a better job of supporting our K-12 education providers. The tech industry has historically done a poor job of marketing itself to students as a viable career path. I have personally invested time speaking to students at regional high schools and unfortunately few students seem to be aware of what kinds of technical jobs are available and the pathways they need to follow to get to them.

How to Get Involved

It will take a focused effort from educators, companies and government resources to ensure that we have a technical workforce that can meet the needs of the new economy and drive economic growth to our region. Increasing the number of high-paid positions in the region creates a network effect that drives revenue to other sectors and that rising tide will raise all ships.

One of the best ways to get involved is to connect with ConxusNEO an organization dedicated to prosperity. This organization was a driver of Akron being named a TechHire community by the White House and is a thought leader in creating a demand-drive talent pipeline. The Software Guild is proud to be deeply involved with them and we hope that you will join us.

Local Students are Key to the Future of Akron's Startup Community (Hint: you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be a part of it!)

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Jessica Sublett, JD, LLM, is a program specialist at the Akron Global Business Accelerator. Jessica manages the Technology Company Acceleration (incubator) program and new client development and is involved in strategic outreach and growth initiatives for the Accelerator.

Each year, the Accelerator hosts more than 100 local organizations, schools and leadership groups who come to learn about what we do and how we help advance economic development and entrepreneurship in Akron. We enjoy sharing our mission and being able to highlight the many companies that are part of our incubator program – they are developing some of the coolest new technologies in our region, and we love to show visitors what they’re up to.

Of all the groups that visit, my favorite is the students. They are fun, energetic and inquisitive. But more importantly, I see this as my chance to encourage entrepreneurial spirit and let them know that they are the key to the future of Akron’s startup community. I also like to stress that you don’t need to be an entrepreneur to work at or for a startup – startups need employees and partners with a range of skills and experiences.  I.e., you don’t have to be the one who comes up with a billion-dollar idea – it can be just as exciting to help the billion-dollar-idea person succeed. They will need help with marketing, legal, business development, you name it. And there are plenty of opportunities here in Akron.

In fact, I was recently able to demonstrate this to one high school group, in particular.   

When I choose which companies to visit on each tour, I try to mix diverse industries with personnel from different backgrounds.  It just so happens that on my most recent tour, two of the companies’ founders were out of town so we were able to hear from the employees, i.e. just the type of people I was telling them about – those working for and supporting the founder(s)! The first was a startup called Revenue Conduit. They develop automated marketing systems for small online retailers. The guys gave a great overview of what it’s like to work in a startup vs. a large company and encouraged the students to seek out internships at local startups.  The students left energized and it made entrepreneurship a lot more tangible to them.

The other company was Timocco. Timocco develops online games that help children with motor and cognitive skills. A neat thing about this group of employees is that they weren’t that much older than the students, so the opportunity to work in a startup felt real.  The employees engaged the students in their technology and let them actually play the games.  The students were blown away that this type of technology exists and was being developed right here in Akron!

Our last stop was at Akron Ascent Innovations, where the founders were able to talk to the students. AAI makes a “dry adhesive” made from natural and synthetic fibers that allows you to stick things to the wall without glue, nails or tape. It’s pretty amazing and the staff does a great job of simplifying and demonstrating a relatively complicated, but very cool, technology.

Our students are the future of startups and the overall growth of our region, so it’s essential that we show them the opportunities that exist right here in their backyard. It is likely that only a small percentage of these students will be entrepreneurs, but every single one of them can learn to think in an entrepreneurial way, seeking career opportunities where they have the chance to work on cutting edge technologies and supporting those who are creating change in the world.

Nine tips for hiring in a young, growing company

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Amy Wong, founder of Dot Org Solutions, a marketing and consulting firm located in the Accelerator shares her thoughts on how to make smart hiring decisions. 

 

Over the last four years, our company has been growing. Between gaining new clients and having incremental business from existing clients, adding staff has been essential.

Our team at Dot Org isn’t big (we just added our fifth, full-time person). Yet every person added has been carefully selected to fill a particular need for our clients and for our company.

Unlike an existing business with open positions, small, young companies like ours are creating jobs and hiring for positions that haven’t existed before. For us, adding staff meant filling gaps in tactical and technical areas as well as allowing me as CEO to move from managing day-to-day operations to focus more on strategy. It also meant making sure new hires were comfortable having a position that may have ever-evolving responsibilities.   

I have learned many things along the way that help us hire better when the need for new team members arises. There are nine things in particular I’d like to share.   

 

  1. Figure out the real costs associated with adding a position.
    Before adding my first three positions, I met with my accountant to talk about hiring costs and determine if the company could afford and sustain the positions. I learned that costs go way beyond salary. Insurance, software licenses, hardware, parking passes, payroll taxes and other items add up. These sessions helped me get a better understanding of cash flow and forecasting

  2. Put the right people on your hiring team.
    Hiring is not one of my favorite things to do. If you’re like me and don’t have an interest in going through the process, find someone who does. I am the final decision maker and participate in interviews, but we have other team members who are good at doing the initial vetting for us.

  3. Have a hiring process.
    A formal hiring process is critical to keep things moving smoothly. Our process includes where we post the job to how we onboard our new people. We tweak it each time we hire to help improve efficiency. Our process also helps us better focus on hiring the right person.

  4. Involve your team.
    We are a small shop so it is important for our team to be part of the hiring process since we all work closely together. If your team is larger, make sure the people working with the new staff member, especially the direct reports, are involved in hiring. Getting buy-in creates good camaraderie and leads to smoother onboarding.

  5. Hire the positions most critical to your company first.
    To grow your company, do you need someone to develop software, to sell a product or to help provide a service? That person should be your first hire. For us, initial staff positons were needed to manage work from new accounts and generate revenue in the form of billable hours. Subsequent hires have been made with revenue generation in mind, but also specific expertise in key service areas and processes.

  6. Hire for fit.
    Hiring for fit has always been a key component of my hiring philosophy. We spend a ton of time at work with our staff and colleagues. The wrong person can be toxic. More often than not, you can train for skills. You can’t make someone fit your culture.

  7. Hire people who have complementary skills to yours.
    Consider doing a work or strengths assessment (DiSC and Strengthsfinder are popular) to learn your work style and strengths. Then hire people who will help close the gaps. Highly functioning teams have people with varying skills and strengths. And you cannot be good at everything.  

  8. Determine where your time is best spent.
    This one is specific to CEOs and founders. Not all positons have to be staff positions. Outsource tasks if you can’t afford a full-time or part-time person. Hire subcontractors for key areas and find ways to build a team to support the work you are doing so you can concentrate on vision, business development, raising money or other key initiatives.

  9. Do a background check and check references.
    Spending a few hundred dollars on a background check and calling references is a worthwhile investment. Vetting employees before they start helps avoid surprises that could cause problems in your organization. It’s cheaper than having to fire someone later.

At Dot Org Solutions, our hiring philosophy and process continues to evolve but I am convinced that the work we have done has helped us get the right team in place to help us grow.  Whether you are seeking technical or tactical expertise in your growing company, taking time to plan for future hires will make the process much smoother and more efficient.

Year in Review

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Greetings and Happy New Year from the Akron Global Business Accelerator.

For many people, the New Year is a time of resolutions and looking forward to what’s ahead. I decided to focus this month’s blog on sharing some of the great things our Akron Accelerator programs achieved in 2016.

Program and major project successes

  • Our Technology Company Acceleration (TCA) program received 41 applications in 2016 and added 14 new tenants.  Our client companies shined, creating almost 100 new jobs, receiving $15 million in new investments and posting $25 million in payroll.
  • The Bit Factory experienced a break-out year, receiving 44 applications and adding six new clients. We also invested $250,000 in companies over the last two years and hosted numerous startup-focused events, including our own inaugural FUEL Akron shark-tank event.
  • The Burton D. Morgan Foundation awarded the Accelerator a grant of $242,200 to build a new café and meeting space on the first floor. Renovating this space will provide a more welcoming entry into the Accelerator building and provide a great place for collaboration.
  • The US Economic Development Administration awarded $2.5 million to the city of Akron and the Accelerator for the Bits and Atoms Innovation Center.  With $4.5 million raised to date, we are on track to open this entrepreneurial development center in downtown Akron with our partners The University of Akron and Stark State College along with many private/public collaborators in 2018.

Key partnerships

We formed new, key partnerships to help entrepreneurs and professionals succeed.

Key client investments, partnerships and recognition     

Our client companies’ success and our success depend on developing key partnerships and generating investment. This year, many of our clients made significant strides in achieving success in their businesses.  

Special events and visits

The Accelerator was a hub of activity in 2016.

Clients and the Accelerator in the news

Our clients’ success was featured in various media with stories published in prominent local and national print, online and television outlets including Allure, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Vogue, Akron Beacon Journal, Crain’s Cleveland and Akron, Akron Legal News, Akron.com, ABC News, Cleveland Channel 19 and more.

I am extremely proud of everything we’ve accomplished and what our client companies and graduates have accomplished. As a result, there has been significant buzz in the technology and art communities about what has been happening inside this old tire factory building.  The continued successes and visibility of our programs have helped affirm our position as the place where Akron entrepreneurs come to work, create and collaborate. 

FUELing Growth – A successful first event and three new Bit Factory startups

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To say that our first FUEL Akron event was a success is an understatement. Two weeks later, I’m still awed by the startups, the sharks and the event itself, hosting more than 70 people at The Bit Factory. The competition, (described here by Jessica Sublett is last month’s newsletter) helped us attract strong leads, as well as admitting three new client companies – TPAStream, Skinny Table and Komae.

The competition focused on the company’s product, market and traction, separately. This allowed us to give each the opportunity for funding versus awarding an exclusive winner.

All three companies did a phenomenal job impressing the sharks, and each received an offer for $10,000 investment. Here’s a rundown of each one and why they were selected:

TPAStream

TPAStream is a software platform that helps third-party administrators manage health payment account documentation and substantiation; simply put, TPAStream gives health companies a dashboard to manage paperwork and validation of health accounts. Jacob Sheridan, CEO of TPAStream, impressed the judges with his experience, traction and product-market fit. With strong initial customers and growing revenue, TPAStream is positioned optimally to work with The Bit Factory mentors to scale aggressively. The sharks felt that TPAStream had a proven model, and thus, agreed with the convertible note ask by Jacob.

Skinny Table

Skinny Table is an app and website to help consumers dine responsibly by offering data-lead dining choices and a solid user experience. Skinny Table has good initial traction and users; a minimum viable product (MVP); and a solid team composed of experienced entrepreneurs. The team impressed the sharks with their focus on attacking a niche market and expanding vertically into incumbent market leaders. Dr. Ross Marchetta was selected to pitch because of his passion and prior experience leading startups. Overall, Skinny Table won the investment through their passion, initial market traction and unique market approach.

Komae

Komae, led and co-founded by Audrey Wallace and Amy Husted, is a true sharing economy app, initially focused on creating an exchange by helping parents with babysitting. TBF chose Komae to pitch because of their beta results and traction, dedication, and strong industry feedback. Komae has successfully identified a way to tap into the underserved and underestimated mom market, impressing the audience (and sharks) with their success and market research. Komae received an offer from the sharks that was appropriate with their stage and commensurate with the ecosystem at large.

Next year, we plan to improve FUEL by adding outside sharks, increasing the amount of resources available to ask, and expanding the applicants outside of the Northeast Ohio region. I look forward to 2017 FUEL, and hope more entrepreneurs, startup enthusiasts, and people will join in the event to witness the growing Akron software ecosystem!

From concept to reality – FUELing the fire of northeast Ohio’s startup community

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I cannot believe our FUEL event is one week from today! We are so excited for our inaugural event and really looking forward to everyone meeting our final three software startups and learning more about these exciting companies.  As the event draws near, we wanted to take you behind the scenes and show you  how FUEL went from concept to reality.  

A competition is born

It all began with an idea to find a  way to identify deal flow for The Bit Factory – i.e. we thought this competition would be an interesting way to find new client companies. FUEL stands for Fostering Unique Entrepreneurial Leads and we are looking for FUEL for our Factory – get it?? Second, we wanted to do something that was unique to northeast Ohio. There are a lot of pitch competitions around the region, but none of them take a Shark Tank-like  format where companies actually negotiate investment in front of an audience.  Live negotiating an investment is a little intimidating, but it’s also an extremely valuable learning experience for not only the entrepreneurs, but also for the audience. Our “sharks” are arguably a bit more forgiving than Mr. Wonderful, so this format gives companies an opportunity to take a stab at negotiating with an investor.

We decided it would be optimal to do the competition during Global Entrepreneurship Week in November and we were ready to get to work!

Picking the sharks

The first two sharks were natural choices – Anthony Margida, Akron Accelerator CEO and president of The Bit Factory, and James Hilton, a mentor at The Bit Factory. We also thought it would also be fun to include local attorney Michael Craig, who is a partner in the intellectual property group at Brouse McDowell. Brouse McDowell has done a great job inserting itself into the startup scene in Akron and we knew they would be a great partner for this event. When we brought the idea to Michael, he happily agreed to be a shark and Brouse McDowell agreed to be the exclusive sponsor of FUEL – a very exciting day for us. 

To be sure, each shark will bring a unique perspective to the competition.

Choosing the finalists

In order to keep the competition as authentic as possible, Jack Hilton, mentor at The Bit Factory and I were tasked with reviewing all of our applicants and identifying our finalists.  Applications opened Sept. 15 and closed Oct. 14. We received 42 requests and 23 completed applications. Of the 23, we selected 10 companies to interview for three spots. The process was very competitive and we selected the 10 companies based on their technology fit with The Bit Factory, the viability of their business models, their product/market fit, knowledge of their markets, and the ability of the team to execute. After interviewing all 10, three stood out above the rest – Komae, SkinnyTable and TPA Stream. Not only were we impressed by the teams behind each company, they all seek to solve a problem that currently does not have a better solution. 

Running the show

We are also excited that Eric Camulli, vice president of marketing and product management at 7signal Solutions, one of our own Accelerator client companies, will be our host and emcee for the event. Eric’s background in tech marketing will bring a unique perspective to the event that should make for a very fun evening. 

FUEL is free and open to the public, but space is limited. To register to attend, visit fuelakron.com.

Learn to Follow Up

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When I was growing my first startup, we went through the Bizdom accelerator in Cleveland. At that time, I didn’t think much about response time until someone I admired, Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers, addressed it directly as part of the Quicken Loans list of “Isms,” a set of rules that defines their company culture. It reads, “Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play.” This hit home with me because this is an extremely successful corporation obsessed with responding to their clients, vendors and each other with urgency. Who was I to argue? The rule was simple: everyone has a few spare hours in any given work week, regardless of how busy you are, so find time to respond within 24 hours, period. I took that to heart and have been practicing it ever since.

Six years and several companies later, even though I used to be guilty of the same, I continue to be amazed by the manner in which many new, young entrepreneurs communicate with potential leads, investors and/or customers. Or I should say, don’t communicate.  In particular, they take their time responding to someone who is showing an interest in them. I can tell you from experience, that this is not the best way to do business. When you are new, you still have things to prove. You should be religious about following up, you should respond as soon as you are able.

When you ask for a meeting and someone accepts with a time, respond promptly with a calendar invite. When you ask for someone to review a document, which may take them a few days, do not respond in kind, but with haste. Communicate respectfully with leads, customers, and investors; follow up to questions or thoughts, concerns or ideas. That means you don’t wait four days because you had the weekend off (and in fact, how many entrepreneurs have weekends off?) or you find another excuse to delay. If you want something from someone, and they return your inquiry, then you need to respond as soon as you can.

As I have become more and more busy with my various companies, I understand when priorities change, and time gets lost. But I share this knowledge with fresh entrepreneurs because I believe it is essential to success.

That said, we are launching an inaugural event called FUEL at The Bit Factory. We are taking applications right now for any software startup, even if you’re in the very beginnings of the idea stage. We will be investing up to $10,000 in three different startups (each), who will pitch their idea to a team of sharks. It is a competition for any entrepreneur at any stage in their startup to get into The Bit Factory accelerator and receive some capital as well.

I bring this up now because as things get rolling, the importance of communication never wanes during the lifecycle of a startup. FUEL will be a starting point for many early startups, and setting a precedence now that instills the proper communication is important.

When you want something, it is your hands to make it happen – it is your responsibility to keep the ball rolling. Respond as soon as you are able. Be communicative, open and studious about your conversations. That small measure of respect will go a long way.