From startup “why” to startup style, speakers cap day with lively Q&A

To close the first day of Thinc Iowa 2012, four speakers took the stage at The Temple for Performing Arts for a 40-minute question-and-answer faciliated by Antonio Neves, the event's emcee. Gentry Underwood of Orchestra, Ron J. Williams of Knodes, Brian Spaly of Trunk Club and Tara Hunt of Buyosphere, all CEOS, chatted about networks,

Thinc Iowa 2012 emcee Antonio Neves (far left) poses a question to four of the lineup’s speakers.

To close the first day of Thinc Iowa 2012, four speakers took the stage at The Temple for Performing Arts for a 40-minute question-and-answer faciliated by Antonio Neves, the event’s emcee.

Gentry Underwood of Orchestra, Ron J. Williams of Knodes, Brian Spaly of Trunk Club and Tara Hunt of Buyosphere, all CEOS, chatted about networks, fashion, admirable CEOs and family, among other things, making for a frank and honest conversation about startup life. Here’s what they had to say.

What is your why?

Hunt spoke about Buyosphere, a project she’s currently championing, and how it’s all about fixing the consumer-brand relationship. For Spaly’s Trunk Club, the why is simple: “People don’t like shopping,” he said. “Not that it’s an acute pain like losing a loved one, but ‘I don’t want to go to the store.’ ” He said he just wants to delight people with something to make the process of buying clothes far more fun and interesting.

Building outside of traditional entrepreneurial hubs

Hunt moved from San Francisco to Montreal to do her startup, so she was a definite yes to building outside of the coasts. “There are some limitations about your area depending on where you’re moving,” she said, “But moving out of the hot spots can move you closer to your customers. And the cost of doing a startup went down significantly in leaving the Bay Area and going to Montreal.” She and Underwood both spoke to building up local resources and making them known. “So events like this are important to build and sustain relationships,” Underwood said, adding a challenge to find ways to do that in one’s own area.

The founders also touched on talent acquisition. They said it can be more difficult outside of entrepreneurial hubs, but “it takes a village,” Underwood said. “You need people that are out in front.”

Williams said there is definitely value to building a business in unexpected places, because often you’re building for people that are overlooked by companies on the coasts, who tend to build for people on the coasts.

Spaly’s perspective was that building in an area that has fewer startups makes a company unique — it can stand out more. “We have had amazing support from bar and restaurant community, the brewery community,” he said. “But we don’t have to share that spotlight with that many other people, even in a big town like Chicago. There’s something really special about not having to compete with all these other people for the village support.”

On leveraging networks

The founders all agreed that asking big favors from your network was the difficult way to go about it. Instead of going to an “amorphous, nebulous network” and “to go beg for stuff with a cup,” as Williams said, he advised entrepreneurs to have one very specific favor for someone you know — like finding one person who runs one nonprofit who knows development. He said that will give you more success in getting help — and often, your connection will do the work for you.

Spaly told the audience that tending the network constantly is important. It doesn’t work to ask for something after five years of absence. “You have to stay on top of your network all the time,” he said.

Though she admitted she is bad at asking people for help, Hunt rounded out the conversation by saying that you have to believe in your product before going to your network. “This is your baby, and if you don’t believe in it enough to leverage your network and go back to people for help or feedback, then you’re not going to succeed,” she said. “If you can’t believe in yourself, no one else is going to.”

On admirable CEOs

The panel was asked about their CEO idols, and their answers were as varied as their businesses.

Underwood: “I probably answered mine, with how much I was dripping love for Steve Jobs.”

Williams: “I actually kind of have a CEO crush on Jeff Bezos. I feel like he’s playing chess not checkers. He’s thinking steps ahead.”

Hunt: “Yeah, I don’t know if she’s the world’s best role model, but Sandy Lerner. She was one of the founders of Cisco but then also went on to found Urban Decay, a cosmetics company. Her diversity and ability to run a company no matter what the circumstance is pretty awesome.”

Spaly: “The guy who runs Netflix … Hastings.” Spaly also mentioned Steve Case. “He seemed to have a singular focus on making our country a better place.”

Always have a sport coat in your wardrobe

When asked about startup attire, Spaly (above) raised a chuckle from the crowd with a suave, “I feel like I should take this one.” He said there’s always a risk of not fitting in culturally, but there are ways to upgrade a wardrobe without sacrificing comfort. “Whatever you do, always be sure you like the way you look in the mirror,” he said.

The other founders agreed that there are cultures and places where you’ll want to look nice, whether it’s in or out of the workplace. Hunt mentioned weddings and christenings. Williams said you have to know your culture.

“Fashion is going to be really important to the actual ‘fabric’ of your company,” Williams said. “Rock your personal style to show up and kick ass.”

On keeping family first

For all of the founders, it was about choosing a life partner that understood what they do and spending quality time wherever possible with those they love. Or in Spaly’s case, it was about understanding that he couldn’t do what he wanted with a family or a serious relationship. Hunt challenged the audience to ask, “Am I ready to sacrifice my family for something that’s not moving where it should be moving? It helps you make a decision because there are others involved.”

On building human capital in an area

Underwood said that access to talent is extremely valuable. “When I stepped away from SIlicon Valley, the piece I found myself missing most — and the piece that is the hardest to replicate — is the collaborative culture,” he said. He spoke highly of the Valley’s environment where entrepreneurs lift each other up, helping them and hoping they’ll be helped in return. The more collaborative versus competitive a culture can become, the better it will be.

On awesome startup events

The speakers shared their favorite hometown startup events for anyone interested in going.

Hunt: “Definitely the Montreal Startup Fest next summer. People come from all over, not just Montreal; it’s a really great event; there are really great speakers like this one sort of three days, a lot of cultural activity.”

Spaly: “Tech Week this year was really solid in Chicago. I’d say that’s definitely something worth checking out.”

Williams: “New York Tech Meetup. There’s a show once-a-month that brings in 800-900 people. You can usually get a ticket — and if you can’t, talk to me.”

Underwood: “If you want to tap into the Bay or San Francisco, the best thing to do is pick a week, plan to go to SOMA and write as many startups ahead of time and piece together your time to see them, because there’s so much going on.”


Credits: Photos by Anna Jones and Phillip Harder.

Thinc Iowa is a premiere event produced by Silicon Prairie News. For live video of Thinc Iowa 2012, tune in at from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Oct. 10 and 11. For more on Thinc Iowa, check out the conference on Twitter and Facebook


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