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City's new CPO to bring Baltimore's city innovation lab model to Cincinnati

Cincinnati's new Chief Performance Officer has had the public service “bug” since he was a kid.

Chad Kenney grew up in Pennsylvania, where his dad worked for both the local township and county. When Kenney left home to study math at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he found that he shared his father’s passion for public service. He started tutoring local kids for the SATs and became enamored with a local school there.
“I was interested in Baltimore as a city with a lot of issues,” Kenney says. “I realized that education was at the center of it.”
Johns Hopkins had a partnership with Kenney’s school, called the Academy for College and Career Exploration, so he found himself there quite often. After he graduated, he knew he wanted to work there full time. He taught math at the school for two years through a local Teach for America program.
“It was incredibly challenging,” Kenney says. “I knew I couldn’t work there for a third year, but I still wanted to be involved in service of some sort.”
Fortunately, the Baltimore CitiStat office was hiring. Tasked with making the city faster, cheaper and better in general, Kenney found himself overseeing city functions like transportation, housing and the police force.
“I loved that job,” Kenney says. “To be able to learn about a variety of city operations and add my mathematical and analytical capabilities … it was a great experience.”
When Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black was hired in 2014 from Baltimore, where he served as Finance Director, he decided that he wanted Kenney to be a part of his plan for our city. So Black created Cincinnati’s new Office of Performance and Data Analytics and brought Kenney to town.

“(Black) has a comprehensive vision for how (performance management) should look,” Kenney says.
Unlike Baltimore, which already had differing, hard-to-integrate systems in place, Black and Kenney came to Cincinnati and were able to start from scratch. The Office of Performance and Data Analytics’ primary role will be to provide city residents and businesses with better customer service, faster services, cheaper services and efficient and effective city services.
On Kenney’s plate over the next few months is designing and building the city’s new CitiStat Innovation Lab. The lab, modeled after the one Kenney worked with in Baltimore, will provide analysts, researchers and city problem-solvers with dedicated space to confront real city problems — from trash collecting to efficient permitting services.
“We’re going to take different processes and get everyone in a room together and deconstruct the problem, then put it back together and streamline it,” Kenney says of the lab.
The space should be fully functioning by spring. For now, Kenney is spending his time creating a professional foundation with the other 18 departments and familiarizing himself with the 122 city programs already in place.

Outside of work, he and his girlfriend are enjoying their East Walnut Hills home and getting to know the city one recommendation at a time.
Findlay Market has become a part of our weekly routine,” he says. 

Son of legendary Cincinnati barber opens upscale men's grooming shop

For over 60 years, the Salzano family has cornered the men’s grooming market in downtown Cincinnati. After emigrating to the U.S. from the Abruzzi region in Italy, Nicolino Salzano built a strong following at his Fourth Street barber shop, Salzano’s. Sons Guido, Angelo and Domenico have all been in the business since they were kids.
This week, in the recently-vacant space next to the barber shop in Atrium 1 of the Omnicare Center at Fourth and Main streets, one of the Salzano boys is taking a swing at cornering another market: men’s grooming products.
Industry-savvy Guido Salzano is set to open G. Salzano’s, a men’s grooming product retail store where his father’s customers can find the high-quality products the Salzanos use for their hot lather shaves and hair cuts.
With the help of his father, Nicolino, and his two brothers, Angelo and Domenico, Guido hopes to provide a hip, swanky space for men to find everything they need to look sharp. Hoping to give the place an “old world feel,” Guido’s retail space will feature a chandelier, comfy leather chairs and an old antique barber chair as a centerpiece.

The products on the shelves will include skincare and hair care products from Baxter, a California company, as well as German-made brushes, razors, after-shave and shaving cream from MÜHLE. The store will also feature products from Taylor of Old Bond Street out of London, the only retailer in Cincinnati to do so.
Eventually, Guido plans on releasing his own line of men’s care products to sell on the shelves. For now, it’s about creating an experience for his customers that goes far beyond that of Art of Shaving or any other retailer in the category.
“I want this place to be for every guy,” Guido says. “Athletes, CEOs, teenage hipsters, common folk like myself. Everybody.”
The shops hopes to attract customers of all ages who want more from their grooming experience. In addition to selling men’s hygiene products, G. Salzano’s will also feature items like pocket squares and cufflinks. It’s a shaving store, but with a twist.
In addition to drawing in shaving enthusiasts, barber shop customers and Christmas shoppers, Guido also sees his shop as the perfect venue for a groomsmen’s party.
“We’ll feed them, drink them, give them a great razor shave and have them check out the store,” Guido says. “I mean, a real badger hair shaving brush? That’s a great groomsmen’s gift.”
More than anything else, Guido sees his store as a product of the decades of hard work the Salzano family has put into their business. Though he's opening the store in his name, his brothers, father and uncle all played an important part in making his vision a reality.

Local tech company enosiX raises $4.25 million to simplify mobile app development

Another Cincinnati company is taking full advantage of the tech development market, working to fix a key mobile app downfall.
enosiX, a Cincinnati-based software company known for their developer-friendly "Framework" for mobile app creation, has a $4.25 million price tag on their first round of funding. Just last week, the company announced its success at the Gartner Application Architecture, Development and Integration Summit in Las Vegas. The company was formed in August at the Chiquita Building, 250 E. Fifth St., downtown.
enosiX's software solves the primary problem many modern mobile application developers face: integrating SAP (systems, applications, products). Many Fortune 500 companies use SAP for data inventory and inventory management, among other things, but many modern social applications for your smartphone and other devices don't connect to SAP. If a company wants to access their SAP data system, they can't do so on a mobile app — enosiX is trying to fix that problem.
By creating this Framework solution, enoisX is allowing big companies to connect their apps to SAP, therefore eliminating the need to train SAP specialists or pay to hire a SAP-knowledgeable employee. In essence, it's a heaven-sent solution for the development community.
The $4.25 million investment came from a variety of sources, including Allos Ventures and Mutual Capital Partners Funds. With the money, the company hopes to increase its staff (now at 15) and expand globally. The solution already has clients in Europe, and founders Gerald Schlechter and Philippe Jardin are currently talking with potential clients in the U.S.
Schlechter is a native of Austria who moved here in 2005 to work for Swarovski Crystal. He met his wife, a Cincinnatian, in 2006 and continues living here today. With a background in SAP and experience that crosses international borders, Schlechter decided to start building enosiX's framework after running CNBS, his own consulting company, for a few years.
Jardin hails from South Africa and was put in contact with Schlechter when the idea of the enosiX Framework was in its infancy.
"Philippe knew the right people, he knew how to start this kind of business," Schlechter says.
The company is constantly hiring, Schlechter says, particularly those knowledgeable in SAP and .NET developers. They hope to reach 40 employees over the next year.

Makers Megaphone graduates from CO.STARTERS to help other small businesses

When the words "marketing" and "branding" hit a Cincinnatian's ears, a plethora of big names come to mind. As a small business owner, the overwhelming size and high price tag that accompany services from larger marketing firms can prove intimidating. As a craftsman-turned-business owner, that intimidation factor can be even more significant.
Enter Ashley Berger. A Pratt Institute graduate and participant in the current fall ArtWorks' CO.STARTERS program, she moved to Cincinnati after 11 years in Brooklyn. Her background is in art, but she's worked and specialized in marketing, advertising and branding as the years have gone by.
Berger moved to the area to pursue a job opportunity with Dynamic Catholic in Hebron, and it wasn't long before she noticed the tremendous amount of creative energy in the Cincinnati area. After a year, she decided to quit her job and pursue a goal she had in mind: to help these creative individuals get the word out about what they can do.
"Many of these creative small business owners are really good at making things but not at letting people know about them," Berger says.
Berger intends to offer small-scale business coaching, website development services and other marketing tools to the kinds of craftspeople who surround her at ArtWorks. Her company name, Makers Megaphone, reflects the idea of providing a metaphorical megaphone through which these "makers" can promote their craft.
Berger has found guidance and support through the business-building process at CO.STARTERS. Unlike many of the participants in the program, however, Berger is actually building her business as the class goes along. The questions she asks during the seminars are not hypothetical; the answers are quickly applied to her business in real time.
"The week they talked about LLCs and trademarks, I did that," Berger says.
As of now, Berger hopes to be open for business by the beginning of 2015. Her website is in its final stages and her business plan is almost complete. Since each step of her company's establishment aligns with the CO.STARTERS curriculum, her final session on Wednesday evening will likely coincide with her business plan's finishing touches.
As for clientele, Berger hopes that her creative pricing structure and hands-on experience with other craftspeople through ArtWorks and otherwise will likely attract business owners who could benefit from her expertise.

Local startup Strap attracts $1.25 million in investments for wearable tech

It looks like nice guys can finish first. That's certainly true when it comes to Strap, the Brandery grad and Soapbox-profiled company that's created the first software and analytics platform for wearables.
Charlie Key, cofounder of Cincinnati's Modulus and angel investor for Strap, describes the company as having "all the pieces." He describes founding partners Steve Caldwell, Patrick Henshaw and Joey Brennan as "extremely likeable, intelligent people."
Maybe that's why the company announced a $1.25 million round of seed funding last week. The round secured investments from CincyTech, Mercury Fund, Vine Street Ventures, Danmar Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners, New Coast Ventures and a number of angel investors, including Wendy S. Lea, CEO of Cintrifuse.
The founders' sparkling personalities aside, Strap also seems to have been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. With the popularity of wearable technology slowly gaining ground, Strap's "toolkit" for developers entered the market while the market was hot. Their team, made up of startup veterans and truly brilliant technical talent, was also more than prepared to dive in.
"Well-timed, right team, right tech team — all investors look for that," says Caldwell, who serves as CEO.
Strap's technology, called StrapMetrics, is already compatible with wearables such as Pebble, Android Wear and Google Glass. The tool's ability to optimize sensory data from wearables is a key element in the growth of the industry.
Though nothing was set in stone, Caldwell and his team knew to expect an increase in capital as far back as early November. They've been fundraising since June and July, but it was The Brandery's Demo Day that truly ignited investor interest. In the past couple of months, Caldwell, Henshaw and Brannen have moved their families from Mississippi and truly settled into Cincinnati. They've since posted five job listings (four developers and one VP of engineering), reflecting their anticipation of a change in workload. They also recently already hired a marketing specialist, Sophie Turcotte.
For now, Strap will remain at The Brandery on Vine Street. By February, however, they expect their staff to have increased to 12 people, a number too large to fit into the accelerator's workspace. At that point, they'll start looking for another location in Cincinnati to call home.
"The goal is to grow the company significantly," Caldwell says. "This is a billion dollar industry, and we believe we can be a billion dollar company."

Petbrosia receives $1.5 million loan, moves into Over-the-Rhine office space

Yet another innovative Cincinnati company is moving to Over-the-Rhine. A converted livery, complete with old horse stables in the basement, will serve as the expanded office space for Petbrosia, a tech-enabled consumer product company specializing in custom pet food.
"We combine tech with something you can touch," CEO Keith Johnson says.
Petbrosia allows customers to enter specific information about their pet into an online system that then creates a custom blend best-suited to the pet's development and well-being. The company ships the food to customers across the continental U.S. in as little as one day. The company targets customers who are both e-commerce savvy and very passionate about their dogs and cats.
Johnson, a Procter & Gamble veteran who started Petbrosia in 2013, sees their new downtown office as a primary example of the kind of innovation their company hopes to represent. He and his 12-person team hope to bring jobs to the neighborhood and develop the area as a technological hub. By taking over the space at 1415 Central Parkway, they also hope to contribute to the constantly-developing culture for which OTR is so well-known.
While the decision to move into the new OTR space was made quite some time ago, Petbrosia's most recent news involves a $1.5 million loan from Ohio Third Frontier, a main source of funds for growing companies in the area. With the pet category of consumer products growing at a rapid pace, Petbrosia arrived on the scene just in time. Johnson believes they were granted the loan due to the fact that their revenues have remained consistent.
The loan money will be primarily used for marketing, he says, which includes hiring new staff, creating infrastructure and launching a new product line.
As for the new office space, the large building will provide ample room for a growing staff, and then some. With the recent launch of a vet partnership program, the Petbrosia offices will provide an ideal meeting space for seminars. Petbrosia also plans to share the space with Petwave, a pet-related content website that emerged in 2007. With plenty of room left over, the space may also be rented out to non-pet-related companies who want to be part of the OTR business scene.
Though the custom pet food idea has been picked up by larger pet food companies like Purina, Johnson is confident that Petbrosia's small size and personal commitment to each pet/pet owner will ensure the stability of their business. They also have a process and method patent currently pending to protect their concept.
"I think bigger companies have a harder time innovating," Johnson says. "With a smaller staff, the shift is much easier."

Eight startup myths ... busted

Whether they're actually involved with one or not, people love talking about startups. And amongst all the chatter, several stereotypes have emerged. Here to set the record straight are a few of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky's startup connoisseurs.
Special thanks to Eric Weissmann of Cintrifuse for the pitch.
MYTH: Startups are full of young people in hoodies.
"Startup life isn't for everyone. I came from the corporate world where I was used to dressing up more times than not. Now I find myself participating in no-shave November and wearing hoodies, athletic attire. I have even been caught wearing socks and sandals..." – Alex Burkhart, Tixers
"Entrepreneurship spans all ages. Out of the 60-plus companies inside HCDC's business incubator at the Business Center, the average age of entrepreneurs is 42 years old." – Bridget Doherty, Hamilton County Development Co. Business Center

MYTH: Venture capitalists (VCs) sit on bags of money and live a glamorous life.
"(VCs) are hard workers hard workers, very smart, travel a ton and don’t make very many investments in a year. They’re patient and deliberate with their funds (see Dov Rosenburg at Allos Ventures)." – Eric Wiessmann, Cintrifuse
"VC's are very much like entrepreneurs. They are out raising money themselves. They are constantly fundraising and tied to performance. They definitely don't just sit back and kick it, that's for sure." – Alex Burkhart, Tixers

MYTH: Every startup has to be a tech startup, and every employee is tech-savvy.
"We work with over 100 entrepreneurs each year, and of those 10 percent fall into the tech category." (See PetWants, Creative Invites and Events, Project Blue Collar, Functional Formularies.) – Corey Drushal, Bad Girl Ventures

MYTH: Startups have to go to West Coast or East Coast to find investors.
"(Some entrepreneurs) don't consider the advantages of things like an increased runway because of cost-of-living if you build a company in the Midwest." – Patrick Henshaw, Strap

MYTH: There are no women in startups, no women in tech and no system in place to support them.
"The Greater Cincinnati/NKY startup eco-system has a friendly and inviting environment for female founders. The latest Uptech class has five female founders, including myself and Amanda Kranias of Seesaw, a family social network. ... We also have a fantastic female founder, Brooke Griffin, at the CincyTech-funded company." – Candice Peters, Seesaw

MYTH: If you start your own business, you will have fewer people telling you what to do.
"Some people want to start their own businesses to get away from long hours ... or the horrible bosses of the world. However, starting your own business requires a substantial time commitment and possibly more people telling you what to do." – Bridget Doherty, HCDC Business Center

MYTH: In the startup world, no one gets paid until you have a big exit.
"Many startups have attractive pay and competitive benefits (see InfoTrust)." – Eric Weissmann, Cintrifuse

MYTH: Startup owners just eat Ramen noodles and drink beer from their office fridge all day.
"Not just Ramen — if you add hotdogs, it makes it that much classier and better tasting." – Patrick Henshaw, Strap
"There is never a problem finding beer. No keg per say, but always a case of Miller Lite or craft beers in the fridge." – Alex Burkhart, Tixers

Roadtrippers launches new app to ease holiday travel

Forty-eight hours before its users were hitting the road for Thanksgiving last week, Cincinnati-based startup Roadtrippers released their new iPhone app. A redesign that's been in the making for three months, version 3.0 arrived just in time to make traveling easier for the millions of Roadtrippers users across the country.
In the hopes of encouraging holiday travelers to "ditch long airport lines and expensive ticket fares for the open road," CEO James Fisher wants this version of the app to take advantage of the 41.3 million Americans projected to travel over the holidays (AAA). The timing of its release was entirely on purpose.
Known for highlighting off-the-beaten path destinations for road-trip enthusiasts, Roadtrippers' new app combines every element of planning a trip into one place. The newer features include weather forecasting and a GPS-enabled function that locates nearby gas stations, hotels, restaurants and other noteworthy stops as you drive. The interface is cleaner than the company's last iPhone app, and the maps are clearer and more detailed.
The app also features a virtual "concierge," which offers suggestions when users are not quite sure of where they want to end up. The concierge greets the user upon opening the app, helping the planner to do exactly what they want to do at that moment.

"It helps you plan but also act on the fly," says Roadtrippers business development manager Chelsea Koglmeier. "Unlike the usual map app, which shows you nearby places within a certain radius, our app keeps you on your route."

Users can also browse categories of destinations by using the "Discovery" feature. Place cards offer visual and descriptive information on each of your stops as you drive, and particularly appealing places can be saved under a kind of "favorites" list.
Though Roadtrippers gained popularity through its online planning tool, this updated app will likely inflate the company's already-booming success. It encourages travelers to change up their initial plan if something interesting comes along while still staying informed and on track.
With $3.25 million in brand funding on the books, it's likely that the app will only continue to develop and evolve as its popularity increases.

Better for buyers: Shelfie and Popad give consumers control

The folks over at Popad hate advertising.
"It disrupts your experience," says John McClelland, co-founder of the company. "What if people in your community could make the ads you see … your friends, your family?"
McClelland and his Brandery-trained team are self-proclaimed data geeks. Their chief technology officer, Luke Libraro, has an RFID (radio frequency identification) card in his hand that allows him to enter the Brandery building with a simple wave.  Their "boy wonder" engineer, Skylar Roebuck, was head of product at a company called Mobiquity by the time he was 25. And Rachel Bires, their Instagram connoisseur, is actually a licensed attorney who is unbeatable at darts.
Together, they have created an interactive app where users can submit a photo of themselves using or displaying a particular product. That photo, after a series of votes by other Popad users, then becomes available to Popad clients for purchase. In return for their submission, the creator of the image will receive royalties if their "ad" is purchased. Right now, all submissions come through Instagram.
The idea behind Popad emerged when McClelland's wife posted an Instragram photo of his (presumably very cool) shoes. When friends saw the photo and subsequently bought the shoes, a lightbulb turned on. By allowing regular Joes to submit photos of themselves actually using or enjoying a product, Popad hopes to create a stronger, more authentic personal connection with the consumer. This, they believe, is much more effective than advertising in the abstract.
"There's more of a dialogue now—there's been a fundamental shift in how people are operating," McClelland says.
Consumer communication is a key part of another Brandery graduate's business plan. Shelfie was founded by Edward Betancourt, a quinoa-obsessed runner with mad programming skills, and C.J. Acosta, a Reddit loyalist with a knack for marketing and pink hoodies. Together, they've put together a data-generating application that has already seen stellar success in in-store audits.
The app itself gives shoppers the power to do something about an absent product on the shelf. If they notice a product is missing, they simply snap a "shelfie" of the empty shelf, send it through the app, and are rewarded for their participation with points that they can redeem later.
"Think of it as an easy, one pic review of the in-store experience," Acosta says.
By generating real-time data, Shelfie could potentially create solutions ranging from contacting sales representatives at the site to arranging to have the missing product shipped to a customer's home.
For now, Shelfie is looking for investors. By staying in marketing-friendly Cincinnati, or "the little city that could," Acosta and Betancourt have made incredible connections and are building on the consumer-first approach that was born during their time at the Brandery.
"The concept of tackling the problem, from the consumer's side, proved to be the radical and most disruptive thing we could do," Acosta says.

The customer is always funnier: The story behind Barefoot Proximity's new CIO

The existence of Chief Innovation Officers (CIOs) at growing creative companies is nothing new. It is, however, a role that is becoming more and more necessary as newer businesses emerge and already-existing companies fight to stay relevant. Barefoot Proximity, a Cincinnati-based advertising and communications agency, recently hired its new CIO both in response to this trend and to make sure that any opportunity to disrupt convention—or "innovate"—is seized will full force.
The man filling this role, Troy Hitch, is a character. His creative background in theatre and musical production is immediately apparent upon meeting him; he is animated, sarcastic and quick on his feet. After graduating from Northern Kentucky University, Hitch dabbled in everything from medical text illustration to creating interactive installations for the Cincinnati Zoo. As a creative individual, Hitch always knew that the Internet was a powerful tool. In 2004, he and a partner started their own content-generating studio, Big Fat Brain.
Big Fat Brain was based in Covington and dubbed a "new media studio" by its founders. Hitch and his partner made webisodes and short-form video content for companies looking to vamp up their websites.
"It was lo-fi production value, high content value stuff," Hitch says.
Big Fat Brain's national success led to a connection with the former president of CBS radio who had just started MyDamnChannel, an entertainment studio and distributor of web and TV content. Big Fat Brain's work with the company, which involved producing numerous creative webisodes, is what ultimately led Hitch and his partner to realize the power of consumer input.
"We could actually engineer a connection [to the user]," he says.
This realization came to a head with the success of Hitch's trans-media web video series, "You Suck at Photoshop," in 2008. The episodes, which have reached 100 million views to date, centered around a pissed-off guy, whom the viewer never sees, begrudgingly providing a YouTube tutorial.
When an overwhelming amount of fans insisted the "You Suck at Photoshop" guy was comedian Dane Cook, Hitch and his partner realized they could use that user connection to their advantage. They brought Dane Cook onto the show, and the Internet exploded.
Today, as the CIO at Barefoot, Hitch hopes to find more opportunities to truly involve the customer/consumer/audience when considering strategies for his clients. By integrating their inclinations and preferences in every way possible, Hitch hopes to expand on the opportunities presented to the company. As the person in charge of hiring Barefoot's creative department, he also plans to draw in talent that knows how to deal with that kind of data.
"This is not about me anymore," he says of his work. "The consumer is fickle—there are a million different options these days. We need a value exchange. My job is to engineer [the material] so that other people can create and think and inspire."
According to Hitch, the power of the media is that people want to participate. CIOs, he says, are necessary because the consumer expects something different than what the old agency formulas can deliver. That said, if it were up to him, the word "innovation" would be cut right out of the title.
"Innovation is an overused and abused word," Hitch says. "I like to describe my role as embracing complexity and delivering simplicity."
Every company's CIO may see their role differently. Still, when individuals like Hitch are hired to force companies to think way beyond the box, "innovation" in inevitable. 

RevolutionUC's hackathon brings young tech talent to Cincinnati

These days, the internet is littered with lists of life "hacks" that take everyday frustrations and make them mind-blowingly simple. This weekend, from November 14-16, students from across the tri-state area will spend two sleep-free days programming to create real solutions to real problems at the second annual hackathon, RevolutionUC, at the University of Cincinnati.
Local engineering and business data group Zipscene joins the list of sponsors for the event's second run. The hackathon provides a space for hundreds of talented students to hash out ideas for some sort of product or service that provides a solution to a common problem (a hack). During the two-day event, participants create a basic business plan that is detailed enough to implement into the University system. Last year's winner was a campus safety smartphone tool that sends a discrete call for help and uses GPS to track an individual's location when they may be in danger. UC is currently considering the tool's integration into its campus safety system.
Attendees can expect rows and rows of computers, laptops and charger cords with students congregating on the floor, in the corners, and on lounge chairs at the 800 Baldwin location, a part of the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science. Not many hackathon participants sleep; those that want to are encouraged to bring a blanket and a pillow. All meals are provided, from breakfast from Panera to lunch from Jimmy Johns and Currito to dinner from Adriaticos and Alabama-Q. Insomnia cookies will be providing sweet treats as well.
RevolutionUC is largely student run, and this year's event expects a turnout of more than 300 hundred young, creative minds from UC, Ohio State, Perdue, Kent State, Wright State and the University of Dayton. As a sponsor, Zipscene is there all weekend to support and mentor the students in attendance. That, and scope out a little talent for themselves. Last year, Zipscene hired two students they encountered at the hackathon.
Some hackathon participants continue working on their hacks long after the competition comes to a close. The exposure and connections gained at this weekend's event give them a leg-up in the industry.
Contestants will be judged based on the utility of their products, the creativity and technical difficulty involved, and overall polish. All experience levels are welcome, and high school and graduate students are equally encouraged to sign up.

Making life easier: Two new companies create platforms for homeowners, busy socialites

With the large influx of new and growing businesses in Cincinnati, there are going to be a lot of new homeowners looking for contractors, plumbers, and other service providers to help them settle in and adjust. HireWheel, a member of the Brandery's Class of 2014, is here for them.
While HireWheel is not the first to answer this call (Angie's List, Yelp, and the Yellow Pages all offer sites where homeowners can search for the best service provider), founders Steve Sperry and Matt Lenahan are quick to distinguish their growing business from the review-driven companies already in existence.
"Reviews are subjective," Lenahan says, "and less than 1 percent of homeowners actually write them."
The HireWheel solution is to take a data-driven, objective approach. The HireWheel team uses city permit data to track how many home improvement jobs are being completed, and by whom. The team then organizes the data and crunches the numbers to create a rating that users can grasp: one that is based on the experience of the service provider rather than popular opinion.
Hailing from New York, Lenahan and Sperry were pleasantly surprised by Cincinnati and have no intention to leave at this juncture, especially after having such a positive experience at the Brandery.
"We're light years ahead of the curve now," Lenahan says.
While many members of this year's class hail from elsewhere, there are a few examples of local talent. One of these companies, Venn, is made up of three native Cincinnatians who will probably stick around for a while.
"Being able to sit down [at the Brandery] and talk with the founders from successful startups—casually—is so huge," founder Steffan Howey says.
Howey, a startup veteran who handles the business end of things, joins Ian Donahue, a University of Cincinnati grad in charge of design and aesthetics, and Tim Giblin, a graduate of St. Xavier high school and Miami University who specializes in web development.
The Venn idea was born when a run-of-the-mill Craigslist meet-up went awry. Attempting to sell a phone, Howey says he was held up at gunpoint in a parking lot. The initial idea was that of a marketplace that would solve the problems that can arise when planning meet-ups, both social and otherwise. After working with the Brandery for a few months, the trio discovered an even bigger opportunity. Instead of a marketplace, Venn has now redirected its focus to creating an application that will provide a useful tool for developers.
"Developers will be able to build a new class of web and mobile applications where things like reservations, transportation, payments, identity verification, scheduling and location recommendations are as easy to integrate into their app as flipping a switch," Howey says.
Venn's most notable recent project is an app called Meetloaf, or, as Donahue describes it, "the Tinder for places." With a little help from Interbrand, the app features an adorable character named Marty Meetloaf who helps you navigate the when, where, who and how of getting together. The app is currently under review at Apple.
For those looking for a startup job, Venn is also hiring iOS developers. In the meantime, they can't wait to get little Marty off the ground.

Pet Wants owners to open distillery in Over-the-Rhine

PetWants co-owner Michele Hobbs has a secret.
Well, two of them. First of all, she knows the origin of the ubiquitous "OTR$" stamp that has been appearing on paper money throughout the downtown Cincinnati area. Second, during a time when real estate in Over-the-Rhine is expensive and hard to come by, she and her wife (and PetWants co-owner) Amanda Broughton managed to purchase an old warehouse that will do much more than serve as a receiving area for the 25,000 pounds of food PetWants sells each month.
"People like me don't get these buildings," Hobbs says.
Hobbs discovered the structure after poring over public bankruptcy records. She stumbled across an owner who hadn't paid taxes since 2007 and jumped at the opportunity to make the building hers. For $225,000, Hobbs found herself with 17,000 square feet of space, including a warehouse and an attached garage. Two blocks from the streetcar, she has space for 250 cars and the kind of business potential people only dream of.
Though currently in the business plan stage, the groundwork has been laid to house OTR's first distillery in decades in the Central Parkway location. According to Hobbs, there used to be 80 distilleries in OTR. Though the city is chock full of craft breweries, liquor production has taken a back seat.
Born Again Distillery, a name Hobbs has already trademarked, will produce gin, whiskey and bourbon while also providing a large event space for rent. Hobbs hopes to collaborate with other OTR residents to make the place a neighborhood-driven destination.
Though she is excited about the project, Hobbs' main focus is still PetWants—that, and encouraging folks to buy local. Though money stamped with "OTR$" has been rumored to be linked to a neighborhood drug ring, its true origin is nowhere else but PetWants' own cash register. They created the stamp and stamps like it to make people aware of their company's commitment to spending money locally.

Hobbs' local commitment will become even more apparent with the emergence of her OTR distillery. The warehouse transformation should begin sometime next year.

The Brandery Class of 2014: Strap makes wearables doable

Two weeks ago, the Brandery celebrated Demo Day for its 5th graduating startup class. The graduation released the growing companies into the metaphorical "wild," though several will still maintain a presence at the Brandery until they find an alternate working space. This particular class, drawn from the Brandery's highest number of applicants to date, is made up of the most technically savvy founders the accelerator has seen yet. Not only that, but eight out of 10 of the members have decided to grow their businesses right here in Cincinnati.
"When you're in a vibrant place where people want to be, companies tend to stick around," says Mike Bott, general manager at the Brandery.
Bott is often quoted for his "swiss cheese" analogy when it comes to startups. When companies first come though the Brandery's doors, the foundation is there, but there are holes to be filled. When Class of 2014 graduate Strap first arrived at the Brandery, there were a lot of holes.
"When we arrived, we had a pretty narrow vision of what Strap would be," says Steve Caldwell, founder and CEO at Strap. "By the end, ... we had evolved personally and professionally into a well-rounded company."
Strap serves as a software development and analytics platform for wearables. The company's goal is to attract both developers and retailers who want to get the most from their wearable technology through an easy-to-use system. Caldwell and his team are thrilled to be developing their product in the cost-effective, startup-friendly Cincinnati area, a place he describes as combining the best of the big city with the friendliness of a small town. The resources don't hurt, either.
"If someone locally can’t provide something, we’ve been one degree of separation from just about any industry or area of interest through Brandery connections alone," Caldwell says.
The Strap staff is made up of a creative director who has a black belt in karate, an operations guru/former Army Ranger who spent time tracking and destroying the Taliban's bombs in Afghanistan, and two engineers who just dominate code.
"If you combined a musically inclined hipster kung-fu master with an Army Ranger, you’d be approaching our culture," Caldwell says.
Soapbox will profile the other nine members of The Brandery's diverse new class in the coming weeks.

Local startup Lisnr finds a home with Techstars and R/GA

When you’re a company like Lisnr, accelerators come to you, not the other way around. As a relatively established Cincinnati startup, Lisnr already has millions in investments, a solid employee base and an even more impressive product. So when one of the largest accelerators in the country approached its chief executive, Rodney Williams, he was not planning on settling for just anything.
That accelerator was Techstars, a Colorado-based, nationally recognized accelerator that has recently teamed up with R/GA, an equally acclaimed design and advertising firm. As the Wall Street Journal blog reported a couple of weeks ago, the duo is seeking startups that are far past the seed-stage and well on their way to generating revenue. Techstars and R/GA hope to attract companies just like Lisnr by offering them a worldwide network of investors, customers and developers.
That said, Techstars and R/GA’s more-than-appealing offerings were not what convinced Williams and his team to come on board. There had to be a spark.
"When I usually meet an agency, they’re trying to understand Lisnr," Williams says. "Within a few minutes of speaking with R/GA, they not only understood us, they understood how impactful we could be in the market."
Lisnr, which describes itself as a “premiere smarttone technology company,” develops software that uses ultrasonic technology to transfer data through audio. It could mean big things for retailers who want to reach their customers directly, in real time. Anything, from advertising data to promotional announcements, can be transferred through audio waves directly to a consumer’s smartphone or other device.
Working with Techstars and R/GA means that the technology can now become more prolific than ever. According to Williams, it has the potential to replace Bluetooth. This is no small task, and where an accelerator could prove very beneficial.
"The R/GA client base is incredible for Lisnr," he says. With success stories like Microsoft, Beats by Dre and Nike Fuel Bands on their resume, R/GA has proven extremely successful in marketing products to the exact customer base Williams hopes to reach. As for Techstars, Williams anticipates that they will help him to recruit even more top talent in the area to even further perfect the software.
"As we look at the next four months, it’s really about connecting with companies, creating standards," Williams continues. "Demo Day, for us, will be about becoming the new standard."
After their time with Techstars and R/GA, Lisnr hopes to appear on millions of devices and have developed a team both in Cincinnati and New York that can further that goal. Though their New York office provides an important hub for the business, Cincinnati is still home.
"There are no better developers than here in the Midwest," Williams says. "Cincinnati has been amazing for us."
The company plans to move into its new building at 12th and Broadway in the next month, where it will have more room to expand and grow as a brand.
"The team is uber-excited," Williams says, "and so motivated to speed this up within the market."
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