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From Corporate to Startups: My First Year at The Brandery

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When I left Toyota in 2015, I wasn’t entirely sure about what my next step would be- I just knew that no matter where I landed, I wanted to make an impact. After my first year as Program Manager of a nationally-recognized accelerator, I can honestly say I feel like I’ve accomplished just that. The Brandery consists of just 3 full-time employees, which means there’s always a lot to do, and plenty of ways to make a difference. I learned a lot last year, especially from the standpoint of being new to the tech startup scene. I present to you 10 key learnings that are hopefully not so generic to the point of boredom, yet general enough that you can apply these points to your day-to-day, regardless of what you do for a living.

  1. The Importance of Initiative. There’s a difference between being a go-getter and being a go-fer. If you’re waiting for someone to give you something to do, you’re not passionate about what you’re doing. Take the lead on projects. Actually see things through to completion. Don’t join the all-too swelled ranks of the all talk, no action army.
  2. Learn from as many people as possible. People always ask me: “If the accelerator only runs for sixteen weeks, what are you doing the rest of the time?” Fair question, and one I would have asked a year ago. I’ll tell you what I spent the vast majority of my first two months doing: meeting people. Not just any people, mind you- I spent mornings, afternoons, and evenings chatting with Brandery staff, alumni, mentors, investors, community partners, and anyone else even remotely associated with StartupCincy in an effort to learn as much as possible about what the accelerator has gotten right, but more importantly, what it could do better. And with every person I talked to, that was one more connection, one more dot that I could call on during the program to help our newest class.
  3. Learn just enough to be dangerous, not an expert. Listen, I’m no startup wizard, nor do I claim to be. I’m a former automotive engineer with an MBA who just happens to enjoy program management (sick, I know). When I first started at the Brandery, I was “assigned” a stack of books to read to immerse myself in the startup scene. Zero to One, Startup Communities, Venture Deals, The Lean Startup- I made sure to read them, but I definitely could have done with the Cliff’s Notes. Here’s what I recommend doing instead: get Flipboard and start following the heavy hitters like Inc., Entrepreneur, Fast Company, First Round Review, VentureBeat, and TechCrunch. Save the articles that mean the most to you, or ones you think your cohort or colleagues may find interesting. Hell, show some initiative (see 1.) and Slack it over to them immediately. These articles will serve as great jumping off points for conversation and insightful feedback when you have 1:1 time with your startups.
  4. Organization is imperative. I can’t emphasize this one enough, folks. When you’re not in program, you’ll think you’ve got everything under control with your 25–30 emails per day. Inbox Zero? Fat chance once you hit Day 1. From there on out, you’ll be responsible for ensuring each of your companies are getting what they need to succeed daily, and as Program Manager, you’re the first point of contact most of the time. There are several ways of accomplishing this: Slack is a great tool, as is Trello, whose bandwagon I have yet to hop on. Nope, this PM uses the tried and true notebook and three-ring binder to stay on top of things. I (try to) make a checklist each morning consisting of the top ten things I need to get done (prioritized by deadline, ease of completion, and whether I like whoever I’m doing it for- kidding).
  5. Communication, Communication, Communication. With an ever-bountiful inbox comes the potential to forget to respond to people on a timely basis. This is something I struggled with early on, and have only now been able to barely get control of. Block out time during your day to respond to emails- whether it’s a detailed response or a short “I’ll get back to you on this tomorrow”, the punctual reply will show respect for the other person.
  6. There is no task beneath you. Odds are you won’t have the luxury of a large staff that can cater to your every whim (and if you do, congratulations- don’t blow it). This means that you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and get dirty more often than you would have thought. I worked with our Office Manager a number of times to help set up events, our Demo Day, and even our lunches. Don’t think that just because you’re the Program Manager, you’re exempt from this stuff. Subscribe to the “all boats rise” mentality and be a team player.
  7. Realize that your startups’ wins are your wins. Never have I ever taken credit for someone else’s work; I refuse to do that and will always acknowledge and recognize an individual or group’s work. However, as a Program Manager, you’re tasked with providing your cohort with a quality curriculum, meaningful connections, and resources that will help them succeed. You’ll know you’ve done a good job when you get a “thank you” or when your founders tell you that they’ve reached a new milestone because of something you were able to provide or be a part of. Don’t be ashamed of feeling good about these moments. Finding individual wins as a PM may be difficult, but the ability to connect your startups’ successes to something you had a hand in makes the job all the more worthwhile.
  8. Still maintain some semblance of a life outside of work. I’ll admit, this one was tough at times. As a Program Manager, you may feel that the success of your startups rests solely on your shoulders, and because of that, you need to be there for them 24/7. This isn’t the case. Sure, there will be days (and nights) where you’ll scramble to provide a time-sensitive response or connection, but for the most part, you have to remember that your startups are adults (for the most part) and are ultimately responsible for their own success. In my case, 2016 was a challenging first year- not only did I pivot from corporate to startups, but I also got married a few weeks after our Demo Day. You can imagine the work it takes to not only manage a cohort but plan a wedding at the same time. For me, I made the decision to put my personal life ahead of work when I could. This meant not being able to support as many social/community events as I may have wanted to or felt obligated to, but at the end of the day, my personal relationships are far more important than my professional relationships.
  9. Do your research. If you’re an old pro when it comes to your industry, this may not be as relevant. However, for me, leaving the automotive world and joining the tech startup scene left me with no understanding of the industry. Luckily, my GM didn’t hesitate throwing me into the fire- I met with VCs, sponsors, agencies, and startups almost immediately, not knowing what the hell they were talking about. ARR? Cap tables? Investment thesis? I was overwhelmed almost every day, early on. Reading the books in #3 helped, but so did simple research ahead of my meetings. LinkedIn is a great resource, as are the websites for whoever you’re meeting with or talking about. Please, please don’t “fake it til you make it.” BS is easy to sniff out, especially when you’re speaking with seasoned veterans of the startup community.
  10. Be an advocate for your community. This may not be as important for established ecosystems like the Bay Area or New York City, but for startup communities in the midwest, you have to work twice as hard to ensure your environment is in the same conversation/train of thought for founders, investors, media, and sponsors. This isn’t always easy, and it certainly take a village, but you can do plenty as an individual. Write a blog. Tweet. Share stories. Reach out to universities, high schools, middle schools, and summer camps, and build a presence at those levels. Share with your audience the wins and good news, but also share the bad news- people can learn from both. Don’t always paint a rosy picture, but do maintain a relentless optimism about where your community is headed. Meet challenges head on, and commit to bettering an aspect of your community. Work with other dedicated individuals to do this. It will be hard at first, but when you get that first win under your belt, you’ll be further motivated to do more.

With our 2017 program beginning in mid-June (applications open now, by the way), I’ll be reflecting on these ten points daily. Last year, I struggled with finding a balance between the creative, open-ended nature of startups and my structured, Japanese-influenced drive for efficiency and performance. My goal this year is to find that balance and give our founders what they need to thrive, during our program and beyond. If you have any advice to impart, don’t hesitate to reach me!

Mistakes Were Made

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$130,000,000+ raised by our companies.
Over 400 jobs created.
A Top-10 accelerator in the US.

There are a lot of great stats that I often use when talking about The Brandery. However, if you’ve ever heard one of my talks before, you know that the most important statistic to me is this one:

100% of our participant companies said the program was worth it.

No doubt this remains true today. That said, I’ll be the first to admit we are hanging on to that 100% by the skin of our teeth.

The Brandery team has done a lot of thinking on how to get better in 2017. Our conclusions are that we have slipped in two main areas: type of company selected to be in the program and the stage that company was at when chosen.

When The Brandery was started in 2010, the goal was to bring great talent to Cincinnati. That’s why, in every class, most of the teams come from outside the city. The initial thesis was to choose consumer-facing, high growth companies but we quickly created a lot of wiggle room there to accommodate talented founders over any other factor. I don’t necessarily think that was a bad decision, but we certainly lost focus on other variables. A talented round peg can succeed in spite of the square hole, but it’s not exactly ideally sustainable.

After many years of great results, and a particularly great 2015, we got over-zealous in thinking we could move the needle for anyone we brought in. While we always added some value to everyone who came through the program, the truth is we can help some companies tremendously and others in only limited ways. This is a function of the talents of our staff, mentorship pool, and the intrinsic nature of our close network of partners and sponsors. See here for more about the types of companies we are going after in 2017. Pretty much everyone in our network is well-positioned to add tons of value to these kind of startups.

We also overestimated our ability to take early teams and will them over the line to funding (as we have in years past). Historically, we average close to $2MM in funding per company, but out of the gate in 2016, our alumni did not find great success fundraising. Some of this is the function of the environment, but a lot is on us as well. The current state of venture funding requires significant traction to raise a proper seed round. What was needed to raise an A Round in 2012 you now need for the seed. This means we need to find talented teams that have already hit that product-market fit, raised a bit of money, and are looking to get to that next level. It’s almost impossible to get a small team with just a barebones MVP there in the span of a 16-week accelerator program.

If there was another miss it was simply around expectation setting. Past performance is no guarantee of future results but we didn’t do a great job of correcting the expectation that, as with past Brandery classes, a good majority of our companies would be able to raise a round of funding soon after Demo Day. We need to do better in preparing our companies for the reality of what comes after they leave us.

Running a startup is all about building, testing, refining – and repeating. I look at The Brandery in the same way. We can’t get better unless we’re honest with ourselves about where we fell short. Will our sharpened focus work? I think it will, but the only way to find out for sure is to dive in. I’m looking forward to an exciting 2017 – and learning even more.

We’ve seen a lot of accelerators shut down in 2016/17. It is a tough model if you have lulls/gaps. That said, we’re going to continue to be a strong pillar of the StartupCincy ecosystem for many years to come. Our drive to learn, evolve, and grow is the reason why. I welcome anyone and everyone to help us continue to get better!

Alumni Series: Why Choose The Brandery?

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If you’re in the process of applying to The Brandery’s 2016 accelerator program, you might be doing a lot of research to try and figure out whether The Brandery is the right fit for your company, or even trying to decide between more than one accelerator. We get it – there’s a lot to consider!

During this time, we’ve asked a few of our alumni to chime in with their perspective about why they picked The Brandery, how it helped them, and ultimately why they decided to grow in Cincinnati.

Meet ChoreMonster (class of 2011):

ChoreMonster makes chores fun by engaging and rewarding your kids!
Kids earn points by completing chores to use towards rewards like an hour of video games or a camping trip. Parents get an easy-to-use tool that takes the tension out of household chores. Kids also earn tickets to the Monster Carnival for each chore completed, where they can win and collect our monsters. With ChoreMonster, your kids will beg to do their chores!

Why did you choose The Brandery over another accelerator? Why did you feel The Brandery was right for you?

We chose the Brandery due to their incredible network of mentors and advisors. The Brandery taught us how to navigate the waters of venture capital as well as how to work with marketing agencies on a regular basis. It gave us the opportunity to explore and validate our concept amidst valued feedback, which led to better iterations toward launch.

In what way do you think going through The Brandery’s accelerator program helped your company the most?

I think The Brandery continues to help our company on a regular basis. It enabled us to grow a network of investors and mentors that we still rely on regularly for advice and feedback.

Why did you choose to grow your company in Cincinnati?

The people! Cincinnati has the best people in the world. This city is filled with authentic, kind human beings that are very willing to help however they can. It has become a vibrant startup ecosystem anchored by the efforts of the Brandery.

How To Stand Out When Applying To The Brandery

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[Editor’s Note: This post is by co-founder of The Brandery, Dave Knox. Dave, along with the rest of The Brandery team, will be reviewing applications for the next few months as we recruit startups for the Class of 2015. By day, Dave is the CMO of Rockfish. Read more of Dave’s blog posts and thought leadership here.]

Did you know that getting into a top tier startup accelerator is actually statistically more difficult than getting into Harvard? For its Class of 2018, Harvard accepted around 5.9% of their 34,000 applicants. In 2014, The Brandery accepted half that percentage with <2.5% of applicants being offered a spot in the program (a number we consistently see with other top-ranked peer programs).

So what should a founder do in order to get their application to stick out? After reviewing thousands of applications over our five previous classes, here are a few best practices I have seen work to help your startup stand out from the crowd. None of these are hard and fast rules, but more what I personally look at when I am reviewing our applications.

1. Become a known entity

If there were only thing that a startup could do when applying to The Brandery, this would be it. It amazes me how many startups apply for The Brandery but do not do any personal outreach. It is pretty easy to find out the decision makers behind our program. All of the founders and staff are listed on the website. All of us are very open about our contact info with emails and Twitter. And we hold a ton of events during application season where you can meet Brandery staff, alumni, and mentors in person. Yet despite this, an amazingly low number of applicants take any steps to reach out beyond their written applications. One of the keys to standing out is to have champions that believe in your team and your company. You can increase your odds of finding those champions by putting in the extra effort to meet the people behind the selection process.

2. Get a personal introduction / endorsement

Speaking of finding champions, one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd is with a warm introduction from someone in the Brandery network. We have an amazing group of mentors, investors, and alumni that are part of The Brandery family. If I get an email introduction from any of them telling me that “so and so startup is applying for The Brandery and they are awesome”, then I put that application on the top of my list. For instance, we had one application a few years ago that had a so-so initial product. But right before they applied, I received an email from an investor I trusted who said the startup had “one of the best mobile product teams” they had ever seen. Needless to say, that type of endorsement changed how I viewed the application right off the bat.

3. Do not be a “Me Too” Startup

Every year, The Brandery receives around two dozen applications that are best classified as “Me Too” Startups. The common theme of these companies is that they are a small twist on whatever the hot startup happened to be that year. When Groupon was gearing up for an IPO in 2011, we had an influx of companies with takes on the Daily Deal space. When Instagram was bought in 2012, our application inbox was flooded with photo startups. The shame with these applications is that I often don’t spend the time digging into the team because I’ve already dismissed the potential of the idea right off the bat.

4. Prove your hustle instead of telling us about it

Every startup talks about having the perfect “Hacker, Hustler, and Designer”. But it is interesting how often The Hustler actually doesn’t show their hustle. If you want to see hustle, talk to Michael Wohlschlaeger, CEO & Co-Founder of Ahalogy. When Michael applied to The Brandery, he and his wife were living in China. That year, The Brandery was having a “get to know us” happy hour during applications at a local bar in Cincinnati. Michael showed up at the event, where we learned that he flew from China to St. Louis (where his family was from) and then drove six hours from St. Louis to Cincinnati— just for the happy hour. That is the definition of hustle. I knew at that moment I would place a bet on Michael as an entrepreneur no matter what. Since Ahalogy has been ranked the fastest growing startup in Ohio the past two years, I think Michael has lived up to that reputation for hustle.

5. Apply early

Do not wait to the last minute to apply. Yes, the final deadline to apply is April 16th, but don’t make the mistake of waiting that long. All of us are reading applications as they come in, and I personally have a ranking of my top 10 applicants that is evolving in real-time. If your company has applied early, that has given me a longer time to learn about you, the company, and your team. I have been able to research the space you are playing in and talked with other investors about the opportunity. If you apply at the last minute, you are “forcing” me to make a quick decision about whether you should be a company we interview and accept.

All that being said, applications to the Class of 2015 are open now. The deadline is April 16.

Guest Post: 8 Similarities Between Rock Bands and Startups

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[Editor’s Note: This post is part of a new blog series in which our graduates and partners share their perspectives on startups. Thanks to Eron Bucciarelli-Tieger, CEO and co-founder of MusicPlay Analytics, for this post. Prior to founding MusicPlay Analytics, Eron was the drummer of the platinum-selling rock band, Hawthorne Heights. Follow Eron on Twitter.]

There are dozens of startup analogies out there. It’s human nature to relate new stuff to old stuff. While I, like everyone else, know sports, I won’t fall into that cliche. It just so happens that the “stuff” I know most is music. Prior to founding the company I now run, I was a professional musician for ten years, so it’s only natural for me to view startup “stuff” through the lens of a musician. Since everyone likes their stuff presented in list form, I now present to you, “8 Similarities Between Bands and Startups”:

1 – Team Matters

People come together to form bands because they share a collective musical vision. With startups, it’s not much different. Instead of musical passion, it’s product vision. Regardless of the reason and situation, not having the right group of people can have dire consequences early on. Before record deals and funding can happen, everyone needs to pull their weight with little immediate reward. Not having the right people prevents you from creating a good product (or song). More importantly, not having committed people will lead to everything falling apart the second disaster strikes; your van breaks down in the middle of a poorly attended tour or your app doesn’t get accepted to the app store. Everyone has to wear multiple hats early on. You might be the singer, but you’re also the booking agent. You might be the CEO, but you’re also the head of marketing and HR. It’s all about talent and work ethic. If ever those two aren’t balanced properly, the band or company will fail.

2 – Starving Artist/Starving Entrepreneur

Seriously, what’s the difference? When you’re starting off, it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re writing a song or writing code – you’re not making any money (or very little). What matters is you’re chasing some sort of dream, and not eating regularly is simply a casualty of that pursuit. The best art comes out of a place of hardship. It’s only when you’re down and out that you really push yourself. Ever wonder how a band’s first album can be so good and their latest be such crap? Struggle = genius. Comfort = garbage. It’s only the truly gifted songwriters and businesses that are able to replicate this inspiration or find other inspiration with equal passion that end up having repeatable success.

3 – It’s All Legos

Writing a song or coming up with a business idea follow the same creative thought process as playing with those amazing plastic blocks as a kid. Both begin with an idea, it gets fleshed out and eventually released upon the world. Business planning can easily be substituted for jamming, hacking/iterating for recording and launching for distribution. Those are all different terms for the same process. A rose by any other name…

4 – Content Is King

A product is a product, (whether it’s a song or an app). That’s not a Dr Seuss limerick. As the creator of a song or a business, you get to dictate the terms under which your product goes to market. It’s only the ratio between desperation and buzz that leads to companies and bands getting good/bad deals (assuming the product is great). Labels and VC wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you. It’s hard to invest in nothing and make money on it. Remember that.

5 – Pour Some… Money On Me

Startups need money to grow. Musicians need money to promote themselves. There are always a few exceptions in both worlds, but “Bootstrapping" and “Doing-It-Yourself” are synonyms and can only get you so far. At some point, you need money from an investor to take things to the next level (whatever that may be).

6 – All That Glitters Is (Not) Gold

Most startups fail, most bands fail. When I started my musical journey, only 1% of all CDs released sold more than 1,000 copies (in a year). Of that 1%, only a small handful were fortunate to sell 500,000+ copies (a measure of success at that time). These are somewhat antiquated metrics for success in today’s music environment, but the percentages closely mirror the percentage of companies receiving VC. In reality, securing funding doesn’t equal success, but not having funding most often leads to failure.

7 – Investment Does NOT Equal Success

Getting a record deal doesn’t guarantee sold out arena tours in your future. Likewise, VC doesn’t guarantee you’ll be the next Über or Facebook. Funding simply opens up new opportunities. It’s up to you to walk through those doors as they open. No one is giving out piggyback rides.

And lastly…

8 – Personnel

  • CEO is the lead singer (generally). They are the visionary, the creative director, and responsible for the company’s culture or the band’s gimmick. Sometimes, they’re just the public face.
  • CTO/CPO is the lead guitarist or songwriter. Without a good product, a company is going to fail. Without good songs, a band will fail.
  • COO is the drummer. Drummers and COOs are usually the ones holding things together (okay, I’m biased). 9 times out of 10, the drummer is the “business guy” in the band. They do all the work and get none of the credit.
  • The head of logistics/supply chain is the bassist. You never notice when everything is going alright, but when the bass player drops, out everyone panics. You don’t think about the ability to ship your product to market, but if that channel is severed you’ll freak out.
  • CMO is the rhythm guitarist. They’re great to have but they’re not always necessary when you’re starting up.

If you want to check out Eron’s company, go to musicplayanalytics.com. If you want to check out Eron’s biggest hit, Ohio Is For Lovers, download here.

Guest Post: 10 Ways To Build A Rock Solid Marketing Engine For Your Startup

When my company, Leap, was in the Brandery class of 2012, we had a “spray and pray” approach to marketing. It was really just pure hustle and a little bit of luck that helped us reach 50,000 downloads for our mobile app in a matter of weeks.

As we started to grow, I marched on out to the Valley thinking a nice chunk of change (a few hundred thousand) was going to fall into our laps and all would be right with the world.

But it didn’t exactly work out like that.

Now there are a lot of reasons why and there are a lot of mistakes that our team made that we can talk about, but today I want to talk marketing. Specifically what mistakes we made (which are also mistakes I see other early stage companies making), what I would have done differently knowing what I know now, and finally a little bit about the approach (and some juicy tips for you) that I use today.

Where I Messed Up

When it came time to raise the big bucks for Leap, I struggled to answer these questions:

  • How do you guys get users long term (beyond press and App Store features)?
  • What’s your revenue model?
  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What’s your unique value proposition?
  • What’s your customer acquisition cost? LTV?
  • How are you focusing on marketing right now?

My answers were weak. Something along the lines of…

“Well, we’re building partnerships with influencers so that they can build communities on Leap and it spreads organically because people share content from the app. Basically, once we build up the user base we’re going to bring brands onto the platform so that they can create challenges on our app. Right now our audience is pretty broad – we’re narrowing down into some of the really active communities we see doing challenges. We’re too early to know our customer acquisition cost.”

Now that I spent time working at a VC firm last year and now help fast growing companies scale their online marketing, I slap my forehead when I think back to those days. And you wouldn’t believe the amount of companies that I talk to that really can’t answer these basic questions and are hoping to raise a $1 million seed round from investors.

What You Can Learn From My Mistakes

When I read the example of my answers above, here’s what I think today:

“Ok, this company doesn’t truly know who their customer is – I think they’re going to have a hard time finding a scalable way to generate growth (PR & features won’t do it). Since they aren’t 100% who they’re going after, how do they find the right channels for their business?

Hmm… if they aren’t really focused on a core audience to start with, then overall their marketing is going to be tough since they can’t really communicate a unique value proposition.

And they don’t really have a revenue model so finding out how to spend money to acquire users at breakeven isn’t going to happen until they figure out how to make money, since ‘going viral’ isn’t how 99.999% of businesses are built.”

Now let’s use that to think about the takeaways for your company, and we’ll drill down into some actionable tips.

Here’s what I want you to think about:

Who is my customer? What problem am I really solving for them?

  • Actionable tip #1: take your most active existing users and put them in a spreadsheet.
  • Actionable tip #2: create columns with their name, email, & Facebook profile page. Then stalk the crap out of them. Go onto Facebook and find out what books they read, how old they are, male or female, where they live, what websites they like, what interests they have, what groups they are a part of, grab everything you think will be useful.
  • Actionable tip #3: then find them on LinkedIn and do the same thing. Look for patterns – this is how you’re going to find out who your customer is. (H/T to Noah Kagan’s Summer of Marketing for this)

How are you going to get people to use your product?

  • Actionable tip #4: use that list above to find out where those people are hanging out online and what their interests are, and what demographics your biggest fans have in common.
  • Actionable tip #5: go build out some Facebook Ad campaigns targeting that same person! (You can check out the Crush Campaigns blog for more tips on how to actually structure your campaigns).
  • Actionable tip #6: next find out what the biggest players in your market are already doing! Spy on their ads using SEMRush. They’ve probably spend a crap-ton of money getting customers, so find out what channels are already working for them. You can get a good guess by filtering out ads and campaigns that have been running for a long time.
  • Actionable tip #7: put all that competitive stuff in a spreadsheet. Find out as much as you can about where they get traffic, what they’re doing on social, etc. Not only will you have a better idea of where you focus your attention, but you’ll know where the gaps you can exploit as a little scrappy startup are.
  • Actionable tip #8: now you have a good idea who your customer is and how to find more of them. Write down 3 things that you can test each week (3 ways you can reach this customer). Validate or invalidate great potential user acquisition channels over time. See how much it costs you to get an email address, a download, or a customer and track the results!
  • Actionable tip #9: And this is how you’re focusing on marketing right now. You’ll sound really smart, like you know what you’re doing :)

What’s your customer acquisition cost? What’s your revenue model, etc.?

  • Actionable tip #10: Hopefully you have a revenue model. But the rest of the stuff will begin falling into place once you start these activities. Trust me, you’ll start to have a MUCH better understanding on marketing.

Final Tip

It’s never too early to start experimenting – so get started on this stuff now. You’ll have a much deeper understanding of your market, your customers, and how you’ll grow. Finally, you won’t have the short term “spray and pray” approach that Leap did – and when you’re ready to pound the pavement and talk to investors, you’ll be ready to answer some of those tough questions.

Author

James Dickerson is the Founder of Crush Campaigns, an online marketing agency that helps innovative companies acquire more customers.

Brandery Storytime: FlightCar

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Quick Facts


Company: FlightCar
Brandery Class: 2012
Launched: 2013
Total Raised: Over $6M
Locations: 3, SFO, BOS, and LAX
Cars Rented Out: Over 5,000



It’s just another day in 2012. Rujul Zaparde and Kevin Petrovic are sitting at Panera Bread, enjoying their last few months of high school. It’s March, and Rujul and Kevin already have their acceptance letters to Harvard and Princeton, respectively. Rujul mentions to the well-traveled Kevin that he’d recently read an article about a startup called Airbnb. They start discussing, and an idea emerges.

“If people are willing to share their most valuable asset, their house, why wouldn’t they be willling to share their second most valuable asset, their car?” Rujul asks Kevin. People could drop off their cars at the airport with them instead of parking in long-term parking at the airport, and visitors that needed to rent cars could just use the bank of cars they already had. It would save everyone involved money.

The story would be great if they instantly started drawing up plans for their startup, building their business, and raising capital. But that’s not how it goes.

“We thought it was a terrible idea and ignored it for about a month.”

Kevin and Rujul had known each other for about ten years through school, and had already started a non-profit together, called Drinking Water for India, that brings safe drinking water to rural areas of India.
A month or so later, the idea came up again. It didn’t seem so terrible anymore. Rujul and Kevin decided to investigate its potential. At this point, they didn’t know what an accelerator was, let alone think they would be at one in two months.
They began doing some research and, as Rujul puts it, “began asking dumb questions.” Some of this research led them to learn that accelerators exist, and The Brandery seemed like a good option for them. The application deadline was the next day.

They applied, and after picking up their developer, Shri, from MIT, the guys flew to Cincinnati for their interview. “We saw their application and that they were three guys from Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and thought, ‘okay, well that is interesting,’” explained GM Mike Bott. “So we invited them to come interview as a finalist. We offered Google Hangout as an option, but they said they would rather come in person. They asked if they could come interview on a Friday for some reason, and on the way back from the airport— obviously at this point we had realized they were a lot younger than their application had alluded— we asked them why they needed to interview on a Friday. Rujul said, ‘Well, Kevin’s high school graduation is tomorrow. We thought you would take us more seriously if we showed up in person.’ They knew they really had to sell themselves.”

Ultimately, FlightCar was accepted to The Brandery’s 2012 class, making them the youngest co-founders in any class, at 17. In June, they ditched their plans for an Ivy League education, poached their developer from MIT, and moved to Cincinnati to tap their idea.

“We were just excited to meet mentors and be around people that thought we deserved $20k.”


Rujul, Kevin, and Shri showed up to The Brandery with the idea, the name, FlightCar, and a logo that “looked like a car with a shark fin on top of it— it was bad.” Right away, they got to work trying to find parking lots to use for the launch of their car sharing service. It was hard. To add to that, they were beginning to tackle the critical issue of acquiring insurance for the vehicles they would be renting out. About five weeks into the program at The Brandery, they were told that it couldn’t be done. Insurance would be impossible. Should they just shut down? Why would anyone lend their car to a stranger without insurance?

Meanwhile, FlightCar’s agency partner, Landor, was hard at work on their brand.

“They could not have done a better job. Landor was excellent in helping us figure out how to present ourselves. It wasn’t just a logo and a color scheme, which they did give us, but it’s a lot more than that. The concrete stuff was great, but what they really helped us out with was actually creating a brand. We didn’t understand A) what a brand was or B) what our brand was. The tagline, the tone of voice we use, that is all attributed directly to Landor.”

By the end of the program, Rujul, Kevin, and Shri had built a working prototype, established viable markets, acquired early investors, and done the impossible right before Demo Day, had insurance committed. They were prepped to launch.

What happened next?


After FlightCar graduated from The Brandery, they faced more challenges. Investors wanted to see traction, and they didn’t have it yet. They had all the tools to launch, but didn’t have the capital to secure parking lots. This was FlightCar’s “trough of sorrow.” They went from October to December trying to fundraise with no traction. They had the connections from The Brandery, but nothing was lining up. After four tedious months, they raised their first round and were able to launch in their first city, San Francisco.

A few months later, FlightCar applied (again on the last day that applications were open) to Y Combinator and was accepted. They were still scaling, still finding the numbers, and YC helped them through that process while they kept fundraising. FlightCar began to take off— they received tons of press and raised their series A in 14 days. And then they got sued.

The City of San Francisco filed a lawsuit against FlightCar that suggested they be subject to the same fees that the rental car companies have to pay the airport for being on airport property. FlightCar is not located on airport property, but the city argues that they should pay since they are using their customers. They handled the lawsuit with class and kept pressing on.

Today, FlightCar is in San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles, with other cities coming very soon.

How did The Brandery help FlightCar?

“If we hadn’t gone to The Brandery, I don’t think we could have gone through with any of this. I 100% wouldn’t have changed our decision to go through the program. You’re in one location with [GM Mike Bott] and all the other companies who get to know you so well. You can walk 25 feet and get any question you have answered and walk back to your desk and think about their answer. We just had so many questions and it is the absolute best way to get all of those questions answered. That was the number one thing for us. That, and everyone was there all the time, which is unlike other accelerators. Most people even work on Saturdays, which helps you stay on track with the other companies. You saw everyone every day. The Brandery holds your hand a lot more that other accelerators, which is a good thing. We needed that.”



Rujul’s advice to future Brandery companies?

“Use the program as much as you can. Work seven days a week. Take things in stride and focus on what you need to get done.”

Apply to The Brandery now.

Why Should Startups Create Epic Content?

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Startups have to claw their way to the top. We know that. Even with a good idea, successful startups have to cut through millions of distractions to become noticed.

And even when you do get noticed, how are you going to reel them in? Why should your customer choose you over your competitor? Why should they trust you? Why should they tell their friends about you?

Is it because your product is genuinely superior to every other one in the market? Maybe. Probably not. It’s about the brand. It’s about how people perceive your brand. And it’s about content. If you’re a startup without a content marketing strategy, build one.

So what’s content marketing? The simple definition we like by the Content Marketing Institute is, “It’s owning media, not renting it.”

In this post, we focus primarily on blogs, but keep in mind that content can be created just about anywhere these days, and new platforms are being created all the time. This phenomenal infographic from Marketo outlines 20 different mediums for content you can consider.

Here’s some suggestions on what to focus on when crafting your content marketing strategy.

Be a thought leader.


Simply put, writing blog posts that are centered on your industry without directly selling your product will help your business. We know content helps you in search (re: clawing your way to the top), and insightful articles that have never-before-seen ideas in them are, by nature, going to get more shares. Say you are creating an app that will locate and help you review and locate processed cheese puffs all over the world. Maybe you could conduct an interview with a cheese puff tester, ask a manufacturer what brand of high fructose corn syrup she uses, or talk to the distribution manager about where they sell the most cheese puffs per capita. Then create an infographic about it. You could research snack food consumption and how it makes people happier. Write it up and package it for the Internet to read. Stop selling and tell the story. Think about it—if you find an article that you enjoy, challenges you, or that you disagree with, you are more likely to share it with a friend, tweet it, or bookmark it. More shares and more search results means more traffic to your site.

Be human.


It’s great to constantly write about cheese puffs and only cheese puffs if your business is exclusively an e-newsletter about cheese puffs. But every once in a while, your readers and your consumers want to know about you. They want to know that someone’s heart is invested in the brand they support. Creating some original content that defines your personality, tells the audience how you met your co-founder, or what your personal favorite brands of cheese puffs are can make your company as a whole more relatable. Be as approachable as possible, and leave the technical jargon in the test kitchen. No one wants to read a blog written by a robot, but these posts won’t directly help scale your business either. Your customers are rarely startups. Find the balance that keeps the focus on your industry without distancing yourself from the customer.

Be receptive.


Content marketing is a two-way street. Don’t push, push, push to your consumer and never listen when they finally begin to interact. Have public conversations in the comment section of your YouTube video. Follow people back on Twitter every now and then. Ask for feedback on your latest podcast. And then adjust your content. If no one wanted to read your last post about what kind of plastic is used in cheese puff packaging, don’t write about what kind of lids they use next week. It’s okay to experiment, but take a hint when you have decreased interactions on a specific topic. As Brandery alum James Dickerson told our current startups, “Focus on one topic and see if anyone gives a crap. Write epic shit.”

Dedicating a little more time each week to create content can pay off big time. We’re obviously just scratching the surface here. You can dig deep into SEO and content working in tandem, examining your demographics to narrow down the best topics to focus on, or optimizing the time you’ll release your content. The list is long. What have you discovered are the best practices for your startup or small business?

Photo courtesy of Zackariah Cole Photography.

Meet the Mentors: Joe Medved, SoftBank Capital

1. Tell us about yourself! Who are you and how are you involved with the Brandery?

I am a Partner at SoftBank Capital, a venture capital fund focused on mobile applications, social media, ecommerce, online advertising, gaming, and cloud computing. I have been a mentor at the Brandery since its inception. Dave Knox, who had been a great mentor to companies in our portfolio, encouraged me to join the program when it launched.

2. Why are you passionate about the startup community in Cincinnati?

I grew up in New Hampshire but my parents both came from Cleveland, so I have personal ties to Ohio and great fondness for Cincinnati (except when the Bengals are playing the Browns). Dave, JB, Rob and Bryan laid out a vision that would leverage Cincinnati’s industry leading consumer companies and wealth of design talent. The timing was perfect given the evolution of the web, as open source solutions and utility computing leveled the playing field a bit on the infrastructure side, enabling a new wave of innovation at the application layer. Great branding and design, which the Brandery and Cincinnati represent, are the key elements to differentiation at this layer of the stack.

3. As a specialist in investments and venture capital, what is your biggest piece of advice for applicants and aspiring entrepreneurs?

One of the most important things an entrepreneur does in his or her company’s infancy, is to hire the right people to build their team. The same diligence that is put into the recruiting and hiring process should be applied when selecting mentors and investors. Having the guidance of Mike and the team at the Brandery can help entrepreneurs identify the mentors and investment partners that are optimal for their business goals and culture.

4. If you started a company, what would it be?

Many of the greatest startups, particularly on the enterprise side, are built by people that are attempting to solve a problem they’ve experienced firsthand. Being a VC is an incredible job, but one pain point in the job is email. We network with an extraordinary number of people in order to help our portfolio companies and identify new entrepreneurs to back. I am constantly behind on email and feel bad about responding slowly. My dream company would be one that completely disrupts email with a more efficient form of communication.

5. What are your goals for the Brandery as a mentor?

My goal is to share my perspective in areas where I have significant experience and to help make connections with experts in areas where I don’t. One of the things that I learned early on as a VC, from my partners who had decades of experience operating and investing, was to understand your strengths and weaknesses as a mentor. Just because you help control a lot of investment dollars, people may assume you’re an expert on every facet of being a startup, or worse off, you may believe it yourself! Our team has investors from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from sales to product to tech to finance. We aim to leverage those talents across our portfolio, and I try to take the same approach to my mentorship role at the Brandery.

My goal as a mentor representing SoftBank Capital is also for us to find great companies to invest in, which we did recently with FlightCar. I mentored the team at the Brandery, and we are thrilled to be investors in the company. The Brandery helped the brilliant young team at FlightCar craft a powerful brand message that is clearly resonating in the market.

For more information about Joe Medved or any of our mentors, visit www.brandery.org/mentors!

Meet the Founders: Rob McDonald

The Brandery has decided to feature more of our companies, mentors and founders! Please take this opportunity to learn more about one of our co-founders, Rob McDonald!

1. Tell us about yourself! Who are you and how are you involved with the Brandery?

I’m Rob. I’m a Co-Founder of The Brandery. I’m also an attorney at a local law firm called Taft Stettinius and Hollister, LLP. Prior to attending law school, I worked in advertising for TBWA\Chiat\Day, so I have an odd mix of marketing, venture capital, and law experience. As my co-founders sometimes joke, I’m the co-founder that makes sure that no one gets in trouble and that we are doing everything by the book. In all seriousness though, all of the co-founders are pretty good about trading off responsibilities between each other based on capacity. So, my role is ever changing but includes working with the companies on a daily basis, assisting our Brandery team to manage our day-to-day operational needs, and thinking strategically about what The Brandery should be doing.

2. Why are you passionate about the startup community here in Cincinnati?

When I moved to Cincinnati in 2009 it was clear that we had a problem; smart young professionals were fleeing. I thought that if The Brandery could be successful in fostering a high-tech start-up community in Cincinnati, there would be a palpable energy that would not only stop young people from fleeing Cincinnati, but also draw top talent to Cincinnati. Dave and JB convinced me when we all first met that we had the ability to reverse the course locally. I’ve said it before but 3 years removed from when we launched The Brandery and I feel like we are the precipice of something pretty special. I think this must be how the Napa vineyards felt in the 1970’s. They thought they could take on the French and create world class wines. I feel like we can take on the coasts. We have some start-ups that are proving this.

3. What is your biggest piece of advice for applicants and aspiring entrepreneurs?

Tough question. I regret that I likely have too much advice for applicants and aspiring entrepreneurs. The one major learning for me over the last three years has been to focus on people, not ideas. In our first year, we really focused more heavily on ideas (i.e. What idea does the applicant have?). In year 2, we focused more on team (i.e. Who is on the team?). In year 3, we started to get even smarter and focused on the team and the idea (i.e. Does the team have the capacity to execute the idea?). Now, I think we have gotten relatively good at selecting teams that have the capability and grit to create a business. The term grit has been used quite a bit in education recently, but it is absolutely necessary for entrepreneurs as well. Suffice to say, my one piece of advice would be to build out an incredible team that has the skills to execute the idea.

4. If you started a company, what would it be (does not need to be a serious answer)?

I would start a business accelerator and call it The Brandery. Just kidding. Everyday I think of 100 new businesses I want to start. Last night, I really wanted to start a company to create machines to fold my laundry for me. Kidding again, but seriously, how useful would that be!

5. What are your goals for the Brandery?

Our long term goal has always been to make the Brandery a self-sustaining community. We need the Brandery to remain a powderkeg of innovation and we need it to be built to last for several decades. I think the concept of having successful Brandery graduates fueling future Brandery graduates decade over decade is a powerful vision. So far, so good.

Have additional questions for Rob? Email us at autumn@brandery.org!

Te'o needs REPP

Online identity fraud is a PROBLEM.

A problem made exquisitely clear with the Manti Te’O hoax that has been parading around the news for the past few days.

The truth is: Online identity fraud is commonplace. It is 1) a problem for people online dating; 2) a problem for people engaging in peer-to-peer, ecommerce platforms; 3) a problem for anyone traveling via sites like Airbnb or Couchsurfing. With increasing numbers people developing relationships over the internet, there needs to be a way to increase security and transparency.


REPP is a solution.


The platform allows users to create a profile that includes a background check, photo verification, and social media listing, so that people can have confidence their interactions are truthful and they are not putting themselves into a dangerous situation by meeting someone in person.


Sign up for their Beta now.


Startup Lesson from Max Levchin

Over on Quora, Max Levchin provided a great response when asked about his greatest lessons in entrpreneurship:

Among Max Levchin‘s lessons learned as a young entrepreneur, which are the greatest?

It’s usually better to have a cofounder than go it alone.

Being an entrepreneur is not about being in love with an idea, it’s about being in love with running a company.

Having a highly homogeneous (background, education, values, preferences, etc) very early team is better than not — cuts down on time-wasting arguments.

You can have successful teams where people hate but deeply respect each other; the opposite (love but not respect among team members) is a recipe for disaster.

If there is any doubt about hiring a candidate for your first 5-6 positions, there is no doubt — do not.

You cannot hire a cofounder.

Do not allow senior managers to develop long-term grudges against each other. You will have to arbitrate those later, a huge time sink.

All compensation information eventually becomes public, and usually eventually == very quickly.

In many cases “working from home” is not really working.

Most often, when someone wants to leave your company, you should let them. Chasing them with offerings of money and power messes up the incentives of others.

Intra-office romance is usually (but not always) bad news.

Figure out one thing each of your investors is genuinely really good at, and insist they help you with that. Among other things it will save you from their help in other areas.

Consider on occasion whether the adjective “relentless” applies to your team. If not, you probably need to step it up.

Leadership by example is the most effective type. If you expect the troops to crank through nights and weekends, better be there yourself, even if you aren’t actually involved in the task at hand. It’s a little irrational, but it inspires people.

One usually raises money on great story or great results. Raise before, or right after launching. Don’t plan to raise a few weeks after launch.

Having a large and complicated cap table is rarely a good idea. Few committed angels is better than $5k from everyone and their brother.

Board meeting should never be product strategy debates. Double true that for product tactics.

Have a cardboard box at board meetings where attendees must deposit their mobile devices at the start for the entire duration of the meeting. At the very least suggest that idea.

Serve food at board meetings.

If you have a cofounder, give them a board seat. If you can, keep one more for yourself, and leave it empty. You’ll need it later.

Cofounders (under usual circumstances) should have same amount of equity.

Raising money between May 20th and August 10th, and Nov 10th through January 15th is somewhat harder than during any other time of the year — many VCs vacation during those times.

Never, ever agree to participating preferred.

Redemption rights are actually OK (it seems to be an East Coast thing), if placed a bunch of years out. Startups shouldn’t be in a limbo for that long anyway.

If you are going for a big raise at a huge valuation, consider the resulting pref overhang (and its impact on future employee motivation) very carefully.

You are not designing for yourself, and shouldn’t be. Most people using the Web don’t understand (most of) what makes it work and don’t want to. Design for those people — there are many more of them than you