When I built a business all on my own

I recently received an invitation to a breakfast meeting of local conservative group.  Though I wear my political affiliation on my sleeve, on Facebook and voter registration clearly, the invitation wasn’t unusual because it came from a long-time friend who is deeply involved in the community.  What was unusual was how the invite ended —
“If you are a small business owner, remember:  You did not build your business, somebody (ie. Government) did it for you ????????”
The surprise wasn’t that the email contained the above rhetoric that has been emblematic of current politics.  The surprise is that it came from someone I hold in high regard for helping me build my business 17 years ago.  I’d left the protections of the large corporation and its benefits and had worked in my basement, writing software, for 6 months.  When a second big customer came through, I approached a prior co-worker to help with the new work.  His core requirement for moving was, even then, insurance so I went looking, unsuccessfully for insurance.  When the large insurers in town scoffed at our small group size of two, one small, family owned business accepted the challenge.  He went to bat for us with Principal Financial, Blue Cross Blue Shield and others and found our tiny group of two a policy that was acceptable, affordable and competitive.  We stayed with his brokerage for the next 15 years.  His and his team’s work helped attract future employees to the company and helped us grow.
He was not the only one who helped, but was one of the few.
Similarly, customers like Terry DeRoin of Nestle Food Company, helped me grow.  I had been doing contract coding work in 1994, when a chance referral from Microsoft Solution Provider program landed a fax at my desk.  Terry, a controller for the Waverly plant, had looked at software developers in Iowa before and was largely unhappy.  When he came to my house in March of ’94, I happened to be in sweats and a t-shirt (him in a suit!).  He did hire me after looking at sample code and gave me months and years of work that took me from tiny revenue to significant amounts.  Without his initial work, who knows if I could’ve even hired employee #1.
Leaders of Federal and State government agencies helped my previous company grow when they selected a company from Des Moines, Iowa for their critical projects over much larger companies in the US and abroad.  Today, StartupCity exists because local, state and corporate leaders have lent their support behind a mission and dream we shared with them.  Government agencies — Des Moines Councilmembers, County Supervisors, Director of Economic Development or the Governor’s office — all contribute heavily to our existence.  Mentorship from leaders of the Des Moines Partnership (indirectly the Des Moines business community) remains critical in our beginnings and current work.
My work today is that of a mentor and advisor to nascent companies.  I do it voluntarily, with no promise of income or revenue, not because I have nothing else to do.  I do it because since my arrival in the US, people like Elaine and Ralph Jaarsma of Pella instilled the volunteer spirit in me.  They spent extremely valuable time on me, a foreign student, to enter the Iowan work ethic.  They showed me how a tiny bakery in a town of 8000 people had national reach, how their work from 2:30 every morning till the end of the day, and their dedication to their community defined their success.  Despite their successes and life’s challenges, they continue to embody the volunteer spirit of helping others.
Dozens of new entrepreneurs benefit from the numerous city and business leaders who give up their personal time, early and late on weekdays and weekends to help companies.  In Des Moines, watch Bankers Trust CEO Suku Radia, for example, challenge and guide entrepreneur after entrepreneur in his office, coffee shops and city spots, and you’ll see the tireless spirit adding value to companies.  Watch the dozens of meetings Mike Colwell at the BIZ arranges in the city to supercharge people’s businesses, and you’ll know it takes a village.  Ayn Rand followers know that every Howard Roark has a Mike, a Cameron and a Dominique who challenged him and, in turn, guided him.
Business owners know who helped them along the way – from teachers, spouses, family, mentors, employees and customers.    I don’t know what selective listening candidate Romney was practicing that made him miss the boldfaced text below, but I stand with the President’s speech –

“Let me tell you something. There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

I was inclined to go to the breakfast meeting tomorrow and make a snarky remark about the irony of the message.  But that would be disrespectful to someone I hold in very high regard; I hope he knows how many tiny businesses he helped grow over his remarkable career and continues to support daily.

Entrepreneurship in the Arts

The Des Moines performing arts community grew an inch last week through the performance of the Wizard of Oz. Though the show came to life after a year of planning and design, it actually represented a multi-year milestone for Ballet Des Moines. Under Serkan Hasanusta’s passionate eye, the Ballet showed how entrepreneurship is alive in the arts.
 BDM re-launched as an organization in 2006 and has brought many performances to Hoyt Sherman and Civic Center. Though attracting dancers with national stage presence has never been difficult for the professional duo of Serkan and his wife, Lori Grooters, Des Moines hasn’t had a ballet company for sometime, with its own local dancers who produce, train and perform regularly. Serkan and Lori serve as creative director and ballet mistress for Ballet Des Moines and concurrently teach hundreds of dancers at their school, the School of Classical Ballet and Dance).  Working with the Ballet board and larger arts community, they have dreamt of and realized the possibility of a full professional ballet company in Des Moines. In 2011, BDM committed to and brought Alice in Wonderland to the Des Moines stage with 300+ area local dancers with professionals, sets and music coming in from outside Des Moines. The Des Moines community orchestra brought the music to life and Serkan knew he had the building blocks. He pitched the grand vision of the Wizard of Oz. It was an audacious goal, a serious investment, and a production worth calling our launch event.
The story of the Wizard of Oz was brought to American book lovers in 1909 and has captured the hearts and minds of children and adults since. It was natural, therefore, to involve young dancers, aspiring ballerinas, pre-professional men and women, and professional dancers. Serkan managed the cast through painstaking auditions supported by Lori and several instructors. He built a vision for the costumes during this audition and decided to build his own costume trove. BDM has been blessed with our own master costume mistress, Ashley O’Keeffe, who created, edited and designed many costumes. Serkan’s quest for costumes took him to his native Turkey where iPhone facetime based video conference calls between Ashley and Serkan facilitated live design meetings.
He built the sets here in Des Moines with craftsmen such as Felix, who have managed the sets for the Nutcracker, Alice and more. With significant support from Christine Branstad who donated the use of her family’s facility to build the sets elaborate sets containing Dorothy’s house, forest, Oz and Kansas were built and transported to the Civic Center. The show was boosted by the flying witch, the tornado, flying monkeys and lava flow – all created here in Des Moines under the watchful eye.
Naturally, last week on April 7th, I walked into the Civic Center a week ago with palpitation. I knew the show would be as good as I had seen rehearsals. From curtain up to curtain down, however, the show was magical. 150+ children ranging in age from 7 to 17 became munchkins, flowers, monkeys, guards, and more. There were farm hands, witches, Auntie Em and the Wizard. The Tin Man squeaked, the lion trembled in fear and the scarecrow was pliable like clay. Dorothy seemed to effortlessly float from Kansas to Oz and back. Lava flowed and the witch flew. When the curtain finally came down, the unprecedented crowd filling the Civic Center instantly rose to a standing ovation
Scenes from the Ballet (requires Facebook login)
Creative entrepreneurs can mold beauty from clay and Serkan has delivered just that. Watching him work from the sidelines has been pure joy for me, both as a parent of one of his pupils and as a board member for the Ballet. He outlined a big, hairy, audacious goal and executed. He didn’t have all the answers but learned daily and pivoted. The production had a bottom line with stakeholders who trusted and sponsored the vision, parents who drove kids back and forth, contractors who executed minutiae, and volunteers who ran the floor and backstage. Serkan knew these variables, managed these variables, and managed to inject passion at every step.
Des Moines is lucky to have visionary entrepreneurs in the arts who invest their passion in our communities.
Communities grow when they’re enriched by the arts and Des Moines has made significant commitments in venues, organizations, people and promotion of the arts. Ballet Des Moines is one such supported organization that brings its namesake dance form to area events. I am proud to serve as a parent of a young dancer on the organization’s board.

Our civic responsibility

As we discussed the SOPA and PIPA bills in front of the Senate and House on Silicon Prairie NewsPrairecast today, one of the viewers liked something I said and mentioned that I should teach civics. Though meant as a compliment, I found it intriguing that someone thought my read of and commenting on a couple of bills qualified me to teach civics.
We owe it to ourselves and our future generations to read more about what is being proposed for future laws. Even more, we need to remain vigilant about what the politicians say in public, sponsor in chambers and espouse in print.  No civics teacher needed in the days of Google, open government, public records laws and FOIA.

Every business doesn't begin with millions in cash

There is ample news about the idea that popped into an entrepreneur’s head in the shower, the demo was created by lunch, VCs lined up to lend money by dinner and acquisition happened in the quarter that followed.  Scant attention is shared about those who logged 60 hours a week developing a business while holding down a 40-hour square job, worked for years to build revenue, adjusting the model along the way until finding success in the trenches.
It is interesting to be surrounded by those who have done just that in the Des Moines technology ecosystem.  Des Moines’ dmJuice recently published an article about my friend, relative and partner, Erin Ginkens’ Entrepreneurial Technologies.  The article highlights the company’s evolution from a product company to service and now a hybrid.  Hard work is reflected remarkably in the creation of Tablenabbr, a mobile phone application that helps potential diners find restaurants with open tables in real time.
Similarly, the story of Brian Hemesath, the CEO of Catchwind and President of VolunteerLocal and involved in other endeavors, takes us through a decade of work.  Brian’s work has enriched the local technology ecosystem and his helpful presence at Des Moines startup events is inspirational to aspiring startups.  If you haven’t had a chance to hear his story, September 21st presents a great opportunity to hear him speak at the BIZ’s luncheon series, aptly titled Lessons Learned while Bootstrapping Business: The Non-Fundraising Path.
Bootstrapping is a strategy that works when designing a business driven by a need/desire for organic growth, a product that is largely service based with the entrepreneur’s expertise in delivering the product, secured by rock solid IP, and/or the unavailability of external money to fuel growth.  It rarely works when time to market is paramount and competition is circling your customers and employees.
Whichever strategy you choose — know that resources are available to discuss, quantify, qualify and critique your business model.  My local community is filled with events that support bootstrappers, angel funded and VC funded enterprises.  Find them, talk to them, share their experience and learn from their mistakes — I know that after 29 years in technology, 18 years in small-business and a year into a sabbatical, I still am.