As Brandery gets ready to head to a new sandbox, the state of startup play remains serious, mostly

CINCINNATI - They are brief, audible firecrackers, these “Quacks” that jump from smart phone to smart phone, table to table, providing location-based, anonymous play in 400-ft. wide circles. 

These “Quacks” also spark a deep sense of teamwork and show how one startup idea can quickly ignite another among the 2014 class of 12 incoming entrepreneur teams at The Brandery, Cincinnati’s top-ranked business accelerator.

Quack cofounders Connor Bowlan, 24, and Rhett Rainen, 23, and their Brandery classmates, Steve Caldwell, 28, and Patrick Henshaw, 28, of the wearable tools platform, Strap, call “Quacks” true exercises in Brandery-style collaboration.

Bowlan and Rainen are Cincinnati transplants (from San Francisco, no less) and Brandery class members for the next four months thanks to LookIt, a fashion-oriented, strawberry sugar-colored, social media startup that allows brands and retailers to access real-time, one filter feedback on their products.

The Cincinnati brand of collaboration

Brandery GM Mike Bott and his Operations and Marketing Manager Emily Cooper huddle for a meeting.

In just their first weekend at the Brandery’s Over-the-Rhine co-working space, Bowlan experiences what it’s like being a “Brandery kid.” His playful, side project enjoys a technical boost from classmates and before long Quack gains a wearable tech component and fast entry to app marketplaces.

Rowlan and his 2014 classmates are fast fans of The Brandery, founded in July 2010 by J.B. Kropp (now an employee of WCPO parent company, Scripps), Dave Knox, Rob McDonald and Bryan Radtke.

Quack is one of 12 company teams receiving $20,000 in seed funding and four months of mentorship with area branding agencies as well as an October demo day to pitch to investors. It’s a little sad to share with them that they’ll be the last class to call the gritty building their startup home away from home. 

Gaze out of the Brandery's Vine Street windows and see OTR glitz like Kaze and development still to come.

“Coming from Silicon Valley, I’m surprised by the collaboration spirit here,” Bowlan said, leaning back on his first-floor worktable as “week one” inches to a close.

“Competitiveness is replaced by co-creation in Cincinnati. When you think about startups in Cincinnati, you think about your company as part of the larger startup movement and how to move them both forward. In Silicon Valley, it’s more inward looking. You think of yourself as competitive with those around you instead of cooperative.”

Bootstrap spirit at work

Brandery General Manager Mike Bott and Marketing and Operations manager Emily Cooper couldn’t agree more.

Bowlan, Rainen and Quack make up their last Friday meeting and the start of happy hour around a nearby beer keg. Bott and Cooper pass on the beer to continue talking in the building’s lone conference room.

They point to a top national ranking for industry specific mentorship and an overall top ten national ranking thanks to their class of 75 professional mentors and $20,000 in seed funding for six percent equity in each participating startup.

View at the End of the Clutter. First Floor Workspace, The Brandery, Over-the-Rhine.

RELATED: Calling all startups to help WCPO build the region's most complete record of startup activity

Bott also emphasizes the authentic, bottom-up bootstrap spirit confirmed by the Brandery’s intentionally ramshackle building located at the tip of Over-the-Rhine’s bustling restaurant corridor.

Since day one, startup teams have worked at white tables in two parallel rows on the first floor along walls covered with white boards and pushpin surfaces.

“The Brandery space is purposefully low-fi and true to the startup spirit of innovating on limited resources,” Bott says between gulps of water. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

A track record of success

Bott, a Notre Dame Business grad and former Procter & Gamble employee, is still collegiate and boyish with close-cropped, sandy hair and a prep-leaning wardrobe. He looks every bit as youthful as his Brandery class members.

His Cincinnati accelerator peers and soon-to-be office mates are cut from different cloths. The deep staffs at Cintrifuse and Cincy Tech claim tailored business suits and corporate wear. They’re ready for the boardroom, whereas Bott looks true to the Brandery’s bootstrap spirit.

Still, Bott is walking tall these days due to recent successes of Brandery alum companies:

  • Choremonster, a 2011 Brandery graduate and an app that rewards children for completing their chores, is one of 11 companies to take part in this year’s Disney Accelerator.
  • Modulus, a 2012 Brandery graduate that helps companies manage websites and apps, is a separate division of Progress Software Corp. after a successful sale.
  • Roadtripper, the digital road trip planner founded at the Brandery in 2011, continues to grow.
  • Frameri, the interchangeable, fashion eyewear and online retailer from Brandery circa 2013, has $100,000 in new funding thanks to winning the pitch contest at Steve Case’s recent Rise of the Rest tour.

Evening crowds fill Over-the-Rhine bars and restaurants and Bott and Cooper soon leave to meet up with friends and families, but many of the startup teams remain. The remaining class members step up to pitch their startup and wow you with their B2B2C models.

Bringing the “classic,” Monday through Friday, workweek to a close are William Blum, the 22-year-old COO of Lagoon, the maker of a consumer, water flow sensor and smartphone app for measuring water usage, and Rodrigo Galindez, CEO and product lead of the translation marketplace company Keego.

We talk about how they want to land on the cover of Fast Company or Wired and wow the tech world with the next big disruption. We also talk about being the last class in the Brandery’s solo building.

They also share their goals: obtain funding; bring on smart people; and develop and sell their products or services.

Moving to a new sandbox

Listening to the startup teams, it’s clear that they and the Brandery share some goals. Perhaps, just perhaps, Brandery brain trust members have enterprise benchmarks of their own that are drawing them to a shared space inside three buildings at 1311-1315 Vine Street. 

Two blocks south, on the site of the former Warehouse Dance Club, where a college pal of mine once summoned enough courage to ask visiting actress Sara Gilbert to dance, crews continue to rehab the space into Cincinnati’s tech hub.

The new offices, to be shared by the Brandery along with Cintrifuse, an innovation network, and CincyTech, a public-private seed investor, will be just two blocks south from the current Brandery space but already feels worlds apart.

Future Innovation Hub for The Brandery, Cintrifuse and CincyTech at 1311-15 Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine.

Right now, the space still looks like an abandoned disco. Yet, with each passing week, the structure begins to take form and it’s easy to picture the renderings from developer 3CDC and office owner Cintrifuse that the Brandery is destined for plusher digs. The space will be ready in June 2015.

“The building won’t be called Cintrifuse,” Nancy Koors, Interim Cintrifuse CEO, says by phone. “This is about creating a seamless environment for entrepreneurs like 1871 in Chicago, which houses numerous organizations. We’re still trying to figure out a name for the space and design agency LPK is helping us out.”

Innovation without distraction

One thing is clear. Despite bringing world class entrepreneurs to Cincinnati since 2010, this new home won’t be called the Brandery either. Still, no matter what or where it may call home, co-founder Rob McDonald believes the sustainable success of the Brandery points to two things: the strength of the Brandery’s founders and its best-of-the-best mentors.

“We need to be sure to provide an environment for our companies and mentors that provides them with all the tools they need to innovate without distraction,” McDonald says. “Our current space is so special to us because our companies work shoulder to shoulder with some of the best and brightest. We are confident that we will have this magic in the new space.”

Some eight city blocks away, Mercury Fund Managing Director Blair Garrou gives an afternoon talk on venture capital.

Garrou is also a mentor at the Brandery. For him the 1871-inspired, shared space is an opportunity for the Brandery to sharpen its focus by being surrounded by other startup development organizations.

“I would hope the Brandery becomes more vertically focused,” Garrou says via email. “We at Mercury are big believers that the seed accelerators that will have lng term sustainability will be those that vertically focused on their region’s core ecosystem. For Cincinnati, that is brand/retail technology, specically B2B2C and not necessarily direct to consumer.”

Different thinking, underdog spirit

Far below Vine Street, the sub basement of the future homes of The Brandery, Cintrifuse and CincyTech will house a restaurant and bar.

Cooper opens the Brandery front door on a Saturday morning and enthusiastically shows off the number of team members already busy at work. There are no night crawlers here--or, if there are, they have amazing stamina.

For Cincinnati to reach its potential and surpass Pittsburgh and Detroit as the leading Midwest tech hub, the Brandery will have to surpass new enterprise benchmarks including landing a new generation of veteran investors like Kleiner Perkins and Bain Capital.

Granted, Cincinnati has not experienced corporate canyons like its Rust Belt neighbors Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh but its need reinvigorating just the same.

Perhaps, sharing space with other accelerators, balancing the beer keg vibe with groups that emphasize cap tables, market-driven politics and cutthroat competition can be a positive thing.

After all, the goal is to foster different thinking than what their startup teams would normally find. The key is to keep the underdog spirit that has become something of a Brandery trademark and support a community that embraces both enterprise and creativity.

There’s no doubt that residents will meet and mingle in the new, shared startup campus. Will they co-create? That’s a different matter.

“The two main things that define a startup to me are that they are working to innovate and doing it with incredibly tight resources,” says Roadtrippers founder James Fisher. “I believe the space around them should reflect exactly that. It shpuld be a monument to what can be achieved with clever thinking and hustle vs. pure cash. It should differentiate from other spaces around it as differentiation is fundamental to innovation.”

Mentoring and tough love

Saturday morning flows into afternoon and it seems right to leave the Brandery classmates to their own devices.

The popAD team stays busy creating their user-generated advertising platform and slips upstairs for a private meeting. Peerio CPO Ian Donahue teases about the “tough Love” Knox gave the Peerio team when they presented their app for finding the best local places for meet ups. He wanted to make sure they weren’t a marketplace company.

C.J. Acosta talks about choosing the name Shelfie for his marketing research app with the help of Brandery classmates.

Adam Cooper, CEO of the mobile photo app Pixifly talks excitedly about possible partnerships with Instagram; more than making up for the absence of the teams at ShoutOut, a chat app; the social music apps Lucky Pennie and MusicPlay Analytics and the review app HireWheel.

Every year, or at least for the last five years, a group of talented and ambitious young people come to the Brandery building for a shot at changing the world.

Next year, the sandbox will be different and, arguably, the experience will also transform into something different both for the next class as well as Brandery founders and its two-person staff. 

Think about what Pixar executive Ed Catmull says in his recent book Creativity Inc. First, you build the train. Then, you lay the track. Finally, there has to be something more to life than simply driving the engine over and over again.
One thing is clear. Big changes spawn other changes and the Brandery is poised for its biggest change yet.

Steve Ramos is Cincinnati writer whose work has appeared in Fast Company, Co. Create, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, New York Magazine and Salon, among other outlets. He writes frequently about innovation, culture, branding and design. Connect with Steve on Twitter: @steveramosmedia.

(Photos by Steve Ramos)


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