Last week, we featured two entrepreneurs in our program from California who are more than pleasantly surprised with all Cincinnati has to offer. But what about the true Cincinnati folks? Three teams have been building their businesses in Cincinnati from the beginning. We wanted to step back and ask the the CEOs of our three Cincinnati startups about their experiences as entrepreneurs in Ohio and their journey to becoming part of The Brandery Class of 2014.
Eric Elias, CEO of Lagoon, 28, has led engineering teams in hardware and software projects at Clifton Labs. He has experience in finance and operations with General Electric and Nielsen. Eric’s entrepreneurship roots started at Washington University in St. Louis, working at the Skandalaris Center and starting a city-wide wireless company. Eric enjoys coffee drinking and bike riding in Over-the-Rhine.
Lagoon is a hardware/software solution to raise awareness and give actionable techniques around water consumption. The flow sensor is externally wrapped around the outside of the main water line and communicates to the smartphone app. The app provides information, actions and notifications regarding water use.
Steffan Howey, CEO of Peerio, 26, has spent the last six years in business development and sales at both startups and Fortune 500 companies. In a past life, he was the metal vocalist of a nationally-recognized touring band.
Peerio solves the problem of back-and-forth communication, Yelping, Googling, etc. when trying to meet up with someone. Whether you’re meeting with friends, a professional contact, a date, or with strangers, Peerio’s auto-geolocation and proximity tools help in selecting the best place for you to meet, based on the context of the meeting.
Matt Lenahan, CEO of HireWheel, 34, has a decade of professional experience having worked for NYC’s two largest real estate firms as a broker and referral director. While at his last company he referred over $250M of business in one year. He also co-founded a mortgage firm on Wall Street and in West Palm Beach. Matt was a finalist on the CBS television show SURVIVOR, where he went by the family nickname, “Sash.”
HireWheel allows any professional to make effortless referrals. HireWheel believes the review industry is fundamentally flawed and is setting out to change that.
How long have you been in Cincinnati? What brought you here?
Matt: I moved to Cincinnati at the end of 2013 after living in New York City for 7 years. My wife is originally from Cincinnati, and she was offered an opportunity at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. She grew up here and went to school at Miami University, but really hadn’t been back since as an adult. Because it was such a great opportunity, we packed our bags and headed to Cincinnati.
Steffan: I moved from Toledo to Cincinnati back in 2008 after deciding to follow a failing relationship down here. All reasons aside, if you’ve ever been to Toledo you would agree that it all worked out in my favor, haha.
Eric: After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, I had a great opportunity with GE Aviation in Cincinnati. It was one of those really corporate jobs in finance. Then I went to Nielsen, where I worked in finance and operations. In 2011 I left the corporate world to work in St. Louis and Chicago for a few startups before coming back to Cincinnati to work for a startup.
What’s your Cincinnati startup story?
S: I decided to venture out into the world of entrepreneurship myself after realizing I was not a good fit in the corporate world. After all, it’s easy to ask why and criticize a company’s direction when it’s not your own. I needed to learn for myself. So I founded a company called Lomerce that allowed you to search and discover physical products in stores around you. We ended up going under due to poor inventory data, a problem our new friends at Shelfie (also a Brandery 2014 company) are trying to solve, but it taught me a ton. After that failed company, I was hooked, and I knew this was going to be my future. Now I’m here in The Brandery. Life’s funny.
M: At first I was really hesitant to move to Cincinnati because I was founding a tech company and I really doubted that any city could have the type of resources that New York does, with the exception of Silicon Valley. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, but even more so, overwhelmed, because it’s an awesome community and there is such amazing support for startup founders.
E: While I was away in St. Louis, in 2010 and 2011, you could really see the seeds of the startup scene growing, especially with the first Brandery class being in that year. I kept seeing the trajectory of startup culture that was going on in Cincinnati, so I came back to work for a startup here. I also joined my friend’s development shop, Clifton Labs, where half of our clients were startups. By 2013, three of my friends had moved back to Cincinnati, too, and we started working on side projects together. One of those turned in to Lagoon.
And why did you choose to stay?
M: There are so many resources superior to those in NYC that I’ve been able to tap into. It’s been an awesome experience so far and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
E: We chose to stay both for the support the city provides and the strong networks you can create. It’s so easy to get intros and have access to high level executives and mentors; it’s literally one phone call away. For us, being a hardware company, we are able to have a 2000 square foot workshop in Over-the-Rhine to create our technology, which is a huge advantage of this neighborhood.
We looked at other incubators, but knew we wanted to have a consumer-facing brand and we needed to have that experience to encourage people to change the way they use water. We love Cincinnati. It’s such a huge support structure.
S: Once I was here, I fell in love with the city and I’ve never looked back since.
What is your favorite part about the city?
E: I love our OTR neighborhood. It’s where literally everyone knows your name. From the restaurants to the small businesses to the people you run into, it’s great.
S: I love that you get the perks of a big city but you can still have a meeting with anyone that you want to. It’s got a big city feel with all the small town benefits.
M: I have to piggyback. The opportunity to create genuine relationships is my favorite part. The other day my wife came down to OTR for her birthday. Just walking from The Brandery to Senate, I saw four people I knew eating outside that said “hey” or gave me high fives. The community has been really great.
What has been the best part about building your business in the Midwest?
E: When we test consumer groups, it applies to a larger population. The demographics in this area are great for testing opinions. We’ve had huge support, too. Confluence has been extremely supportive, the Department of Commerce, Sally and Roy at the EPA, Marc Connor and his team at POSSIBLE, and then The Brandery mentors from Mark Achler to Hunter Thurman have been incredible. That system of support helps you ensure your startup will keep living.
M: No one has ever said no. Never. Even before The Brandery started, people were willing to take meetings and reach out. Every meeting I take, people ask, “How can I help?”
S: The Midwest is full of helpful people who genuinely want to help your business succeed. And if they can’t help you, they can find someone who can. More specifically, if you’re connected through The Brandery or a company like P&G, you are only a degree or two away from literally anyone that you might want to meet with. It continues to amaze me.
E: For us, we are addressing a water conservation issue and the Ohio Valley has a river and has enough water. Balancing that and our target consumers is a challenge.
M: From a recruiting standpoint, it’s a challenge when speaking with people who have never been here before. Once they’re here, they get it. They see how amazing it is. It’s just getting them here for the first time. Cincinnati is such an easy sell once they get here, but getting over the initial barrier is a challenge. Plus, CVG is expensive to fly to.
S: If you want to raise money here, you only have a handful of options. It’s getting better though with heavy hitters like Drive Capital. Special shout out to our mentor Mark Kvamme!
What has been the best part of The Brandery so far?
E: The people. I love our teams so much. They have great ideas and are so supportive. We are competitive but we all work together— from marketing, to development, to helping you find an apartment. The Brandery structure is good as far as creating a level of urgency. It’s not about the money, it’s about the push forward.
M: Mentors are an incredible asset. And getting the opportunity to work with the agencies. Plus, the internet is amazing. I’ve never seen so many developers geek out so hard.
S: Seconded on everything these guys just said. I would also add that the Brandery provides a kick-ass office full of amenities. From catered meals multiple times per week, to awesome snacks and an unlimited supply of coffee, beer, and the obligatory startup staple – foosball. Oh, and the internet is literally off the charts. Thanks Cincinnati Bell!
What can fellow Cincinnatians do to help you be successful?
E: Check out our website and get on The Brandery’s beta list.
M: Follow us on Twitter and other social media for updates on what we are doing and how to get involved.
S: We need people to try out our first product, our mobile app. We need the feedback. Sign up for an early beta version of the app and give us your thoughts. Any business owner that owns a cafe or restaurant and would like to get more involved with startups, we have a lot of ideas on ways our product to drive traffic to your location. Those early conversations are important to us, so send us a note.
NOTE: You can get on The Brandery’s beta list here.
Any last thoughts?
S: The momentum in Cincinnati is incredible. The proud and competitive feeling I get when another Cincinnati startup closes a round of funding, hires people, or gets a new office is inexplainable. Frameri closes a round, hires a bunch of people and opens a new office, Roadtrippers hires their 40th employee – all of these things provide an insane amount of the “founder juice” necessary to keep the momentum going for our own company. I’m just so proud of what’s happening here in Cincinnati and would recommend anyone to spend just a few days here. You’ll quickly understand what we’ve been talking about.
E: These other great startups like Choremonster and Ahalogy, they have paved the way for us.
M: Modulus exiting was huge too. The momentum… There’s so much happening right now. We know we are on the verge of something bigger in Cincinnati and we just hope to be a part of it.
Photos in this post courtesy of Christa Belle Martin | Black Bread Box Studio