Faith in startups: Ocean Accelerator nurtures entrepreneurs' ventures, spirit

Increasing 'God's presence in the marketplace'

CINCINNATI - Most business accelerators try to do one thing — help startup businesses refine their business plans and their pitches to potential investors.

Ocean Accelerator Inc. does all that and more. It also aims to give entrepreneurs a spiritual foundation for their business, and to “increase God’s presence in the marketplace.”

The Oakley nonprofit, which bills itself as the country’s only faith-based business accelerator, just closed applications for its second class, which begins Jan. 11 and lasts through May. One hundred and 45 businesses applied for the six to 12 slots available, said Ocean CEO Scott Weiss, the former CEO of Evenflo. (The size of the class will depend on the quality of the applicants.)

Last year, he said, half the applications came from outside Ohio and 20 percent from countries outside the United States.

“This combination of economic-development startup and spiritual development is very appealing for people who want that,” Weiss said. “We are the only one.”

Ocean was conceived by members of Unpolished, a group of entrepreneurs who attend Crossroads Church in Oakley and who meet monthly to network with and encourage one another. (They’re on Facebook, too.) The group also put on the Unpolished Conference for entrepreneurs, as WCPO.com reported.

The group was considering other areas in which they could pursue entrepreneurship and faith when the accelerator idea came up, said Unpolished co-founder and Ocean board member Tim Metzner. The founders wanted to equip entrepreneurs not to “gain the whole world and lose their soul,” in the words of Jesus.

“In any business, the normal narrative is that, if you want to do stuff, you have to put your head down for five to 10 years,” Metzner said. “You can’t care about friends, family or anything else. If you do that, you might find success.”

That can be a recipe for business success, he said, but also for personal failure. He has seen too many entrepreneurs who created successful businesses and sold them, but then just felt lost. “All they knew to do was start another company,” he added.

Another reason to create Ocean was to build a network of mentors who could show entrepreneurs how to succeed as both people of faith and business people, he said. “There’s no badge on LinkedIn to help you identify those people,” Metzner said. Ocean now lists 89 such mentors on its website.

There’s no easy way to balance starting a business with starting a family, Metzger said, but being intentional helps. “At Ocean, we talk about scheduling ‘rocks’ on the calendar,” he said, events such as Wednesday dinner with the family that can’t be rescheduled.

Ocean classes typically include talks from business people, venture capitalists and pastors. Participants are encouraged to ask of themselves questions about God and what God wants them to do, Weiss said.

Last year, the first six weeks were filled with very helpful information about starting a venture-capital-backed company, finding the right product and testing it with potential customers, said Ocean alumnus Tim Sinclair, owner of Ringr, an Illinois company that can record conversations. The next six weeks were spent preparing the pitch for investors, he said. The last month was spent trying to get funding and creating a plan for going forward.

The class helped him understand that creating a business didn’t go against his beliefs, he said, but was something he was put on earth to do. “Often we have the ill-conceived notion that going out and trying to be successful, to make something, to make money is somehow not OK in the Christian culture,” he said.

The speakers did a great job helping participants see how their beliefs shape who they are and what they do, he said, without telling them what to believe.

“We don’t screen people based on their beliefs,” Weiss said. “I’m not here to proselytize.”

On April 28, the participants will make pitches for venture capitalists during the accelerator’s demo day. More than 1,500 people, including representatives from 35 venture-capital funds, attended last year.

Eight of the 10 businesses in last year’s class have received funding, Weiss said, and have raised $1.4 million. The 10 have hired more than 40 employees since graduation.

The applicants chosen for the class of 2016 will receive $35,000 apiece from Ocean Capital LLC, a for-profit made up of private investors. In return, Ocean Capital LLC receives from each a promissory note that it can later convert to equity, Weiss said.

Ocean Capital has raised enough money to provide at least that much money for the class of 2017 as well, Weiss said. Many of the investors are retired people who want a return on their investment, he said, but who also want to make a difference.

As for the accelerator itself, a grant from Crossroads provided its start-up funding, Weiss said, and the church has continued to donate. Other funds come from foundations, grants and demo-day sponsorships. This year he expects to raise about $250,000, he said, and next year close to $400,000.

The plan is to raise enough so that the accelerator can pay an executive director — Weiss now volunteers in that role — and add to its paid staff of several part-time and one full-time employee. If it could hire a professional education specialist, Weiss said, the accelerator could package its programs and offer them to churches in other states, so that Ocean wouldn’t be the only faith-based accelerator around.

At a glance: Ocean Accelerator Inc.

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