Some 679,072 businesses were started in the U.S. in 2015, creating jobs for 4.1 million people — and Cincinnati is ranked as one of the fastest growing startup communities, according to the Kauffman Index, which analyzes startup funding and attitudes.
Judging by the 300 or so mostly millennial, aspiring and established entrepreneurs mingling and sipping craft beer in Oakley on a late October evening, the scene is positively robust. They’d come out to hear OCEAN
accelerator alum and Cerkl startup founder Tarek Kamil at Unpolished, a regular networking event held eight times a year at Crossroads Cincinnati.
The meetup for founders began in 2014 as a community group at Crossroads, a Cincinnati church of 25,000. “We expected 150 and got three or four times that — 500 to 600,” laughed James Clair, OCEAN marketing director, noting that between the annual Unpolished
conference that draws 1,000 and the meetups, they connect with about 3,000 entrepreneurs each year. The OCEAN accelerator was founded out of that 2015 conference.
And, they’re about to gear up to reach more. Both Unpolished and OCEAN will join under Agora, a new training entity designed to roll out original coaching content for both tech and lifestyle founders. A full-time director will be hired to run the training curriculum.
“A lot of people say faith and commerce don’t mix,” said Scott Weiss, a seasoned entrepreneur with three decades of experience leading private equity and publicly traded businesses in the tech sector, addressing the crowd that turned up on Oct. 25. “We don’t agree.”
Weiss is the chief executive at OCEAN, the nonprofit accelerator based on the Oakley Crossroads campus. “Our goal is to increase God’s presence in the marketplace, and both Unpolished and OCEAN can help.”
GCF funds OCEAN mentor program, tools
Connection and relationship building are foundational at both OCEAN and Unpolished. This year, accelerator fellows will focus on deeper community by participating in retreats funded by a $35,000 grant from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation
, which will also fund mentor program growth and online tools.
While the accelerator already has a five-month educational and mentoring module in place serving tech startups, Agora will also develop training content for “lifestyle startups,” delivering them through Unpolished. Weiss delineated lifestyle businesses as those outside of tech that serve retail, service or food trade — and they are two different kinds of animals, he explained.
“Only one in 10 tech startups makes it — and there’s a big payout for investors when it does,” he said.
By contrast, six out of 10 lifestyle startups in the food, retail or services sector makes it past the first two years and they create jobs, but not big cash payouts. Weiss made the case that the models of support for divergent kinds of startups ought to be different. “And so, we’ll have two streams of training,” Weiss said.
Startups by the numbers
- 679,072 businesses were started in the U.S. in 2015
- startups created 4.1 million jobs
- Cincinnati is ranked as one of the fastest growing startup communities
- 6 of 10 lifestyle startups succeeds
- 1 in10 tech startups succeeds
Agora training modules for founders
Unpolished will focus on providing two training course tracks for established and aspiring small business founders. The 4-6 week courses will be fee-based, developed by Agora content partners, and followed by a weekly meet-up with a mentor for one year.
Why connect OCEAN and Unpolished with an umbrella organization if the nature of the two businesses differs? “There are synergies between them,” Kamil
said. Founders face many of the same personal challenges, he explained, regardless of the industry they serve — whether tech or retail or a food truck. Both groups are susceptible to the pitfalls of the entrepreneurial life.
There's a sense of isolation and loss of perspective during the all-consuming launch years. Agora will provide training based on spiritual principles to build relational sustenance for the long-haul — along with the kind of skill-building modules in finance, marketing, HR, legal and branding that have improved success rates for the tech founders out of OCEAN.
Weiss explained that OCEAN will continue to recruit tech startup founders through a rigorous application process that draws upward of 500 international applicants to compete for $50,000 in seed money and access to funders in pitch sessions. The application process for the 2017 cohort closed Nov. 1.
The 12 selected fellows will move to Cincinnati to participate in an intensive MBA-like crash course in product validation, legal, presentation, skill coaching, cash flow management and legal preparation. They will work with mentors from a variety of companies and industries, from Procter & Gamble to Fifth Third Bank to Silicon Valley’s Google.
Midway through their fellowships they pitch to funders; cohort graduates have raised some $5 million to date for their startups at Demo Day, a hot ticket attended by 1,500. In addition to the $50,000 in seed funding, fellows receive pro bono legal, HR, accounting, marketing and management support, plus 6,000 square feet of dedicated office space.
Kamil, a founder of five tech startups with 19 years of experience on the front lines and an OCEAN fellow in the class of 2015, shared the story of a fellow founder who spent all of his startup money on staff and went under. “The guy was so embarrassed he disappeared,” Kamil said, shaking his head. “Wouldn’t see anybody. Connecting with others is critical." He shared how founder fellows rallied around the discouraged fellow, modeling true community which builds the resilience to bounce back.
Creating community for those in an all-consuming, often isolating career is the mission of Unpolished and OCEAN, which is why Agora will serve both, Weiss said.
And indeed, the founders seemed hungry to connect as the taps were opened and happy hour commenced. A mid-life business coach, Andrea Ward, leaned in to encourage a young millennial dreaming of opening her own business to share her story. A second generation entrepreneur, Ward said her father had founded several businesses in Lansing, Mich., while she was growing up. “I do it to honor him,” she said.
“Whether you want to start a food truck or a tech company, people are your most important asset, community is required for success,” Kamil concluded. “Society would have you believe that you win at all costs, treat people poorly and get away with it.” By contrast, he explained, OCEAN and Unpolished focus on building relationships for the long haul.