Ex-P&Gers find welcome in local start-up scene

Long seen as the conservative backbone of Cincinnati’s business community, Procter & Gamble is having another impact on a very un-conservative aspect of the local business scene.

A growing number of ex-P&Gers are branching out from the Ivory Towers and starting their own businesses, using the training and experience they gained at the brand-creating giant while pursuing their own entrepreneurial dreams.

“I’ve always been passionate about new ideas and innovation, and what P&G gave me was the skill set to let all of that run free,” says Mike Sarow, 34, who left P&G in late October after 12 years to start his new technology device firm, Nugg-IT. “I had several years' experience in both marketing and manufacturing, which pretty much has prepared me for anything.”

In the past few years, there are nearly a dozen local companies that have been started in Greater Cincinnati by former P&G workers, as well as branch offices of other companies. They range from social networks to device makers, to nightlife social enterprises to ways to link music and sound to marketing.

“It's not surprising that when we have folks leave the company, that they go on to lead and succeed in other areas (whether it be their own business or as a head of another company),” says P&G spokeswoman Mary Ralles. “We have a strong build-from-within culture at P&G, with talent development programs that build leadership skills and experience. And we have an impressive global P&G alumni network as strong testimony to this.”

Indeed, P&G alums include Meg Whitman, who now runs Hewlett-Packard, and current Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer. But more and more, those leaving are doing so to create their own niche businesses. That includes Rodney Williams, who left P&G in August to work full-time on his startup Lisnr, a new app that connects music and sound to marketing and other messaging. He has been able to get the company fully funded and is now in development mode.

“I was a brand manager under Pampers, and really loved what I was doing,” says Williams, 29. “But I had a knack for creating new ideas. And this one was big enough and good enough to pursue on my own. And the training at P&G is unmatched.

“I am better prepared to do anything, whether I do a tech startup or run a company. And if you look at all the P&G brains in the Cincinnati community, there is an amazing catalyst to continue that growth.”

Another factor in the growing exodus and number of local startups is that P&G is cutting back dramatically on its own marketing division, leaving hundreds of highly trained, highly motivated workers looking for new outlets. Many of those who left and started their own company were part of a downsizing that occurred on Oct. 31.

That includes Nadia Laabs, who had started Night Owl Market as a test concept last summer while working at P&G, and is now looking to develop the concept full-time since leaving. (Night Owl, which Laabs co-founded with fellow ex-P&Ger Sally Yoon, creates places at night where food trucks, artists and other cultural attractions can converge to catch the attention of the late-night crowd).

“It’s an exciting time to be here and part of this growth,” Laabs says. “Sally and I are both appreciative of the time at P&G and the skills we picked up along the way.”

But there are other reasons for the corporate fold, says another expatriate of the company.

“As the world has become more external, P&Gers are also seeing the opportunities more and more,” says Dave Knox, who worked to help P&G create a digital strategy before helping start the Cincinnati office for ad agency Rockfish in early 2010 with fellow ex-P&Ger Bryan Radtke.

Knox and Radkte also helped found the startup incubator The Brandery in Over-the-Rhine, which is now run full time by another ex-P&Ger, Mike Bott.

“Not only that, but all the growth for P&G is international right now," Knox says. "And a lot of people come here to Cincinnati and fall in love with it and don’t want to go overseas, so they look for other options."

He adds that the culture changed internally at P&G to embrace company alumnus under former CEO A.G. Lafley.

“P&G is in the middle of a shift much like what has happened at Google … workers there are leaving to spin off their own companies,” Knox says. “But Google is at the point where they are buying up those companies and while P&G isn’t there yet, I see that day coming.”

As for staying a part of the P&G family even after leaving, another former P&Ger who is in startup mode says that he has been able to stay in touch with his former mentors, who have even helped guide him with his new venture.

“There has been a lot of talk about work-life balance … but I think it is all life-life now,” says Dustin Garis, 32, who is starting up a lifestyle-oriented marketing firm, Life Profit. “I am not going to sever relationships just because I worked at one place and then I don’t anymore. And those people are not going to do the same either.”

All of these entrepreneurs agree that one key aspect of their P&G experience has been to look at problems or products from the consumer’s point of view and to keep an eye on the big picture even when being overwhelmed by the details that come with starting up a new company.

“P&G is all about consistency, and that was great training, as was the pure business strategy training I received,” says Sarow of Nugg-IT. “But part of that consistency meant that there was always going to be a damper on the risk-reward equation.

“Now I can use those skills to be out on the cutting edge, where I want to be, and the rest of those who have joined me in making the leap into being an entrepreneur.”

James Pilcher, a former business projects reporter and mobile content coordinator for The Cincinnati Enquirer, has a history of writing about and working for high-tech startups. A content strategist and dedicated storyteller, he is a contributing writer for Soapbox.
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