Middle of the Pack

Brandery Co-Founder Rob McDonald took a moment to reflect on Steve Case’s recent visit to StartupCincy and provide his thoughts. Check it out below:

Reflections on Steve Case’s Follow-up Visit to Cincinnati;

Three years ago Cincinnati hosted Steve Case for his first Rise of the Rest tour. This was the summer of 2014. At The Brandery, our fifth class was just beginning and ten new companies were joining us in Cincinnati. When we launched The Brandery in 2010, we had projected that by year five we would begin to see exits and liquidity from our initial cohorts. So, in the summer of 2014, we grand ambitions.

Further, in the summer of 2014 Cintrifuse was beginning to find its footing by honing its mission around BigCo connections, operating a fund-of-funds to catalyze more Series A investment in the area, and developing the groundwork for #StartupCincy as a community. Wendy Lea was not yet #StartupCincy’s fearless leader, but she joined us as a judge of the Rise of the Rest pitch competition that summer. More and more founders were engaging, a plethora of events were being launched, and big plans were being developed for the Union Hall building.

Even with all of this momentum, #StartupCincy was admittedly still very much a work in progress. With a certain amount of humility, I was eager to show off our new found tech scene to Steve, but at the same time, I felt we weren’t quite ready to show off.

Yesterday, we were thrilled to have Steve back (five Rise of the Rest tours removed). Naturally, a good part of the fireside chat yesterday was focused on our progress since that 2014 visit. We have much to be proud of. Eric Weissmann (who, by the way, deserves a huge pat on the back for his continued leadership of events like this) did a great job outlining much of our progress – a gorgeous new hub at Union Hall, a few nice exits (he outlined three specifically), significant funding progress, and some key BigCo + Start-up connections formed.

Despite all of this progress that was highlighted, the thing that sticks with me the most from Steve’s second visit is his response to a question he received during his tour of Union Hall. “So, after visiting roughly 30 cities on the Rise of the Rest tours, how do you think Cincinnati stacks up?” Without a twinge of antagonism, Steve politely replied “middle of the pack.” Now, at one point in our history, this evaluation would have been a cause for celebration. But, today, this is a bit hard to hear. But, let’s be honest, he’s right.

Speaking for The Brandery alone, we haven’t seen the exits we had hoped to see from our companies by now; though we have many companies doing wonderful things (i.e. the irons are still in the fire) and have also had our fair share of smaller exits. And, over the last 3-4 years, The Brandery has been in the middle of the Top 25 Seed Accelerator Rankings (although, due to changes in the ranking system, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, we always target Top 5). Middle of the pack doesn’t work for us. We keep pushing for a break-through. We’re fatigued, but introspective. We have spent ample time thinking about the future and how we can best help drive growth.

Applied more broadly (i.e. not just to The Brandery), the pieces of the puzzle are in place, but we need to grow the size of the puzzle many times over. No one organization or start-up can take Cincinnati out of its spot in the middle of the pack. We need more support organizations, more accelerators, more funding, more exits, more events, more customer connections, etc.

What does this look like for us (i.e. the whole of #StartupCincy)? I think it means supporting organizations doing good things (i.e. Mortar, FirstBatch, Cintrifuse, etc.) and encouraging other new entrants (i.e. Hillman Accelerator, Refinery Ventures, etc.) – whether angel groups, accelerators, or other support organizations. We need to put capital to work with organizations that are making a difference, assess their success, and deploy more capital (with a certain allocation to new initiatives). I think it means propping up more fund managers to launch new investment vehicles. I think it means helping talented people build new start-ups (and, simultaneously, letting go of some companies that aren’t going to make it). It means doubling-down on our competitive advantages; our amazing consumer branding, marketing and design talent. It means fostering deeper BigCo relationships (some level of this is supporting our BigCo’s appropriately – i.e. finding the right opportunities for them rather than throwing everything under the sun at them). And, it definitely means rallying around our big research institutions to spin-up strong technology. Overall, instead of working with elbows out guarding our territory (which regrettably is becoming more and more common place), we need to be working together to bring more people in.

From here, I’m going to try to channel all of my frustration to helping us find our way out of the middle of the pack. It is true that some ecosystems have progressed further much faster. Arguably, some comparable ecosystems had the benefit (double-edged sword here) of starting further back (think Detroit – truly, rising from the bottom). Some have had the benefit of having big dollar and big name supporters early-on (think Tony Hsieh in Las Vegas, although results are still TBD there). Some others have benefitted from being in larger markets (think Chicago – our venture stats in 2010 didn’t look that dissimilar). At this point, in the summer of 2017, the trajectories of these other #RiseOfTheRest ecosystems are only important to the degree that we can leverage learnings from them. Today, we are where we are – middle of the pack – and now, together, we need to start throwing many more darts (with precision) at the dartboard.