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Q&A: Entrepreneurs Unpluggd founders share their stories, goals

Entrepreneurs Unpluggd comes to the Silicon Prairie today with an event in Kansas City featuring a fantastic lineup of speakers.

Behind Entrepreneurs Unpluggd, a Chicago-based blog and event production company, are co-founders Tim Jahn, who has been a regular at Big Omaha, and Stella Fayman, who is also the founder of Chicago-based Fee Fighters.

Tonight’s event features Bo Fishback of Zaarly, Tyler Prochnow of Think Big Partners and Debra Ellies of OsteoGeneX speaking on the topic of “How To Find Your First Customers.” If you are also interested in attending, tickets are available at entrpreneursunpluggd.com for $10.

Recently, I conducted an email interview with Jahn and Fayman to learn more about their entrepreneurial stories and the history and goals of Entrepreneurs Unpluggd. (Left, photos from entrepreneursunpluggd.com)

Willis Jackson: You started Fee Fighters right out of college. Did you think about getting a regular job?

Stella Fayman: When I graduated from college, I knew I either wanted to start my own company or join an early stage startup. I met two guys who had just graduated from business school who were working on this idea to help business owners with credit card processing and the value proposition struck me from the beginning. As someone who comes from a small town that thrives on local businesses, I was shocked to learn how badly business owners were being ripped off by these huge financial institutions. It immediately struck a chord and I knew I wanted to be involved in growing this business. Now, we’ve raised over $1.5 million and are a team of eight people … being part of a startup whose mission is to genuinely help others is very rewarding, as is watching it blossom and grow.

Jackson: You have been to Big Omaha a couple of times. What keeps bringing you back to the Silicon Prairie?

Tim Jahn: Since first visiting Omaha for Big Omaha in 2010, I fell in love with the area and the people. I live in Chicago and am a huge fan of the Midwestern work ethic, but I have to admit – before my first Big Omaha, I had no idea there was anything going on over there.

I learned pretty quickly after meeting all sorts of creative entrepreneurs and thinkers at Big Omaha that there was a lot going on, not only in Omaha, but in the surrounding areas of Des Moines, Kansas City, etc.

With Entrepreneurs Unpluggd, I want to help support and grow those ecosystems. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. With sites like Silicon Prairie News and conferences like Big Omaha and Thinc Iowa, the spotlight is drifting toward the silicon prairie more and more these days.

Jackson: Why did you guys start Enetrepreneurs Unpluggd? Where did the idea come from?

John: Stella and I met at the beginning of 2010 when we partnered up to organize Ignite Chicago. Near the end of that year, after organizing a few successful Ignite Chicago events, we came up with the idea for Entrepreneurs Unpluggd.  The goal was to provide an intimate event along the lines of the old VH1 show “Storytellers,” unlike the giant speaking events most people are used to.

We seek to create a raw, candid environment where our speakers share real stories from the heart, rather than canned company talks that don’t provide any real actionable value. We strip away the fancy screens, lighting, and backstage, leaving just the speakers, their stories and a microphone. Attendees have left our events with a page full of notes and ideas for their businesses.

Jackson: You are involved in quite a few community-based projects. What motivates you to spend your time mentoring and putting on events? 

Freeman: My own success has been largely contingent on help I’ve gotten from the community, therefore it’s really important for me to give back and help others. One of my goals is to motivate younger folks who don’t know anything about entrepreneurship, because I wish I had known more earlier in life. It’s not all altruistic though, being active in the community positions me as a resource for others and therefore helps me promote my startups: FeeFighters and Entrepreneurs Unpluggd. Honestly, I just love meeting new people, getting excited about their passions, and seeing how I can help.

Jackson: You have a pretty amazing lineup of speakers for the upcoming event. Is there a particular trait that you look for in speakers? Alternatively, how do you find people to speak?

Freeman: We try to highlight both entrepreneurs who are famous and can share the inside story behind well-known companies as well as founders who are lesser known but have really interesting stories. Here we also rely on local community partners to make suggestions as to who might fit the bill and provide the most value. It’s also important for us to make sure our speaker selection is diverse in terms of industry, gender, and company stage. Basically, we want the audience to walk away with advice they can implement in their lives and companies the next day.

Jackson: The theme for the KC event, “How To Find Your First Customers,” is a great topic that doesn’t get much exposure. How do you guys come up with your event themes?

Jahn: We generally try to think of common problems entrepreneurs face at various stages of their business.  Finding your first customers is a problem we all face, and it’s often ongoing, even after those first customers.  In addition, we survey attendees after every event to see what topics they’d like to hear about at future events. We want to cover topics that our attendees will truly get value out of and be able to act on with their own companies.

What does the future look like for EU? What is the long-term goal?

Jahn: We want to help entrepreneurs. Right now, we’re doing that through unique events that contribute to communities around the country and through interviews and online content that help entrepreneurs all over the world. We’re expanding our events to cities beyond Chicago, with the goal of having one event a month in 2012.

Long term, we’re looking to grow our efforts to more cities and help even more entrepreneurs. We also might experiment with other unique event formats down the road.