Entrepreneur Town Hall

With 68 influential people – entrepreneurs, investors and economic-development leaders – and 68 strong opinions, it could have been a volatile Entrepreneurial Town Hall.

Instead, it was an hour of collegial, constructive exchanges; No one talked out of turn, interrupted or hogged the pulpit. And there was a great deal more agreement than disagreement.

The general consensus: Louisville’s entrepreneurial and investment communities have come a long way in a short period of time, but we’re not “there” yet. And there’s some debate as to where “there” is.

The event was put together by Greater Louisville Inc.’s EnterpriseCorp, Insider Louisville and Leadership Louisville to allow community members to give feedback and suggestions to EnterpriseCorp as it goes through the strategic planning process with Market Street Services. (See a related interview with GLI CEO Craig Richard here.)

There was still some skepticism in the room. Daniel Johnsen voiced what a lot of people seemed to be thinking, which was that Louisville is a huge fan of strategic planning.

“I’d like to see us stop studying things,” Johnsen said. Every two or three years we create a plan, spend a ton of money and “get excited for two to three weeks.”

“Silicon Valley did not have a plan,” he added.

EnterpriseCorps' Tendai Charasika

EnterpriseCorps’ Tendai Charasika was the moderator.

EnterpriseCorps Executive Director Tendai Charasika opened the town hall by saying that he really believes “right now its a fantastic time … to be building something sustainable.” GLI, in general, is “building a great core,” he said, a nod to the massive restructuring that his office has seen lately.

“This is bigger than us,” said Charasika. “How do we help build something for the future?”

The five-year strategic plan, called Advantage Louisville, said Charasika, will focus on “leveraging the strengths that we have.”

Christa Spaht of Market Street Services

Christa Tinsley Spaht of Market Street Services

Christa Tinley Spaht, project manager with Market Street Services, based in Atlanta, said “You have a really interesting eco system,” with U of L and large corporations tied into the larger entrepreneurial community.

(That last bit would be contradicted by the community again and again.)

“I see plenty of people here with opinions,” said Charasika upon opening the floor up for comments and suggestions. “Keep the hat of general helpfulness on.”

• Jackie Schwartz with Planet Einstein has found that her voice hasn’t been heard by organizations like GLI. That the small entrepreneur that’s not 100 percent tech-focused, has a disadvantage. She described her experience with GLI as being a “lost ball in high weeds.” She’s had much better luck with the small businesses associations in town.

“We didn’t fit into one of the neat categories,” she said. Her company is a “boot strapped” company. She said, “The problem with bootstrapping is the money runs out.” Schwartz said that Louisville needs better programs for micro loans.

Paul Sizemore, who left Louisville and lived in DC for a year and a half, and has now boomaranged back to V-Soft Consulting, said he was stunned by the progress that the community has made in interim. When he left, he had “pretty much written off Louisville” and now that attitude has changed completely. There’s community involvement from entrepreneurs. There’s a realization of what Louisville is good at. We are not Austin or Silicon Valley, and we realize that and mitigate that and go with that.

He said we have a housing problem in Louisville, and that the market is geared for people looking to buy, so people can’t come to Louisville and just “try it out.”

Sizemore also said that “one of our key competencies is our low cost of living.” He said that people here can survive here working 20-30 hrs a week. That allows them to build something else.

Stacey Servo, of New2Lou, suggested that last fall’s visit by Brad Feld spurred us into being that community. She later said that new people in Louisville have a tough time making connections. “I hear this all the time,” she said. “Being an outsider you have no idea where to start.”

Suzanne “I don’t need a mic” Bergmeister, Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Louisville’s eMBA program, said that she came to Louisville after time on both coasts, “kicking and screaming” 11 years ago. “I am the poster child for transplants,” she said. “The shift started before Brad Feld; I think it started five or six years ago.” Louisville has more angel groups, more students and a wider spectrum of business available.

Joe Dover, of OPM Financial, said that Cincinnati is about double of the size of Louisville and “they look at us with jealous eyes.” For example, Venture Connectors– Cincy wants to model venture group after ours.

Kent Oyler, OPM Financial founder, who had one of the longer histories with Louisville’s entrepreneurial scene in the room said, “It’s better today.” And he gave Gill Holland “some props.” This may be perception more than reality, he explained, but he feels like in NuLu there is a critical mass of innovators. This leads to chance happenings. “It helps that Insider Louisville is there,” he said.

He said that he’d like to see that atmosphere get even more palpable, that people get on E. Market Street and there’s “20 more restaurants and places to live.”

Alex Frommeyer agreed and thinks we should use San Francisco’s University Avenue as a model. “It’s in the air,” Frommeyer said. He started his company, BEAM Technologies, in 2008 and feels like there’s been a huge paradigm change in Louisville. He said he would like entrepreneurs to think, “it’s obvious that we need to be in NuLu.”

Ty Adams, of A:K Design, explained that people developing hardware need a tech shop at a higher level than LVL1.

He also said that we need to do a better job of celebrating our successes. We have multi-hundred-million dollar companies in our midst: Appriss, Samtech, Cafe Press. We should hear more about them.

Adams also said that we should be looking more closely at our big industries to identify “intreprenurs”– innovative people within companies– as mentors or potential entrepreneurs.

Tendai asked, “How is our brand doing?”

Devin Ellis is visiting from Dallas and he says that the “community” thing was missing for them as well, in that sprawling space. Now more central places entrepreneurial places have taken Dallas to the next level.

He said that more seed accelerators in Dallas have brought in more companies from outside of Dallas and that’s “really elevating the Dallas brand.”

He said of non-Louisvillians, “People either think Louisville is nice or have NO idea about what Louisville is.”

Suki Mulberg Altamirano, of Lexington PR, agreed. She’s been here since May and has lived “all over.” “From a coastal perspective,” she said, “people don’t know what to expect.” She said that the food scene here is respected on the coasts. She said she’d heard about the Louisville food scene when she lived in San Francisco.

Bryce Butler, of Blue Sky, said that some participants in Jeffersonville, Ind.-based Velocity and the Village Capital/Venture Well accelerators, agreed to participate despite the fact that the program was in Louisville. He said a lot of them said, “I know it’s in Louisville, but we’re going to do this….” But when they got here and discovered the level of access entrepreneurs have geographically and to resources, some are actively considering relocation to the region.

He also said, “Our thought stops at the river.” When we talk about Velocity, we always mention that it’s “across the river.” And that extends to our community’s alignment with University of Louisville. Two of the top engineering schools are across the river in Indiana, he said.

He also said, “We don’t hear enough about what our pains are.” It would help to have more communication from the city about areas that will bring us problems down the road and raise alarms. This will give people problems to fix.

Johnny Allen, of DCS Corp, said that the city has a lack of corporate buy-in, into the startup community. And there’s a gap in the funding levels; there are a lot of angel groups and Chrysalis, and a huge gap in between.

John Guthrie, development consultant, suggested that GLI could do more to help “one person shops” with access to shared workspaces, access to services thru GLI, and other kinds of support available to those individuals.

Vik Chadha, of Nucleus, thinks crowdfunding will be a huge asset to the community. Because as an investor, you are connected to the enterprise you support. It will bring more people to the community. He said, “Crowdfunding democratizes enterprise.”

Lynn Quire, of Good Garbage, said that in other cities there are accelerators for non-profits. She said that Louisville has very little to support small non-profits.

Charasika concluded the hour long discussion by promising that this wouldn’t be “just a lot of talk.”

“What’s going to come out of this?” asked Bergmeister.

Charasika said, “We will have a report that we will share with the community.” And they will take into consideration where EnterpriseCorps’ resources best fit.

“We’re all here because we want to help, said Servo. “Please, put some action into each of us.”

To which Charasika replied, “Stay tuned…”

And we will.