Business Brown Bag chat transcript

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Brown Bag Business Chat: Entrepreneurs/ Dec. 19, 2013

Michael Sanserino: Hello! We will start chatting at noon today, but I've opened the chat room early so you can start submitting questions/comments/etc. This is our FIRST brown bag, and I'm looking forward to it!
Michael Sanserino: OK, we'll get started in the next couple minutes!
Michael Sanserino: Let's get started. Thanks for joining us this (now) afternoon. To give a brief primer ... the Post-Gazette Business Department is launching a series on entrepreneurship this Sunday. During the next couple weeks, we are going to explore some of the biggest issues facing entrepreneurs -- financing, information, networking -- as well as profile some of the entrepreneurs in Western Pennsylvania.
Kim Lyons: I can't wait to read the rest of the stories in the series; the one I wrote is about the Pittsburgh Pie Guy.
Michael Sanserino: The first series in the story is about the economic impact of entrepreneurs. How many jobs do they create (Hint: a lot). They employ 49.2 percent of the U.S. labor force and are responsible for 63 percent of all new jobs since the recession.
Michael Sanserino: But they also drive the economy in other ways. For instance, 67.3 percent of all outstanding commercial business loans are small business loans.
Mila: What about Pittsburgh?
Michael Sanserino: Entrepreneurs are a huge economic driver in the region, though the presence of large companies (Westinghouse, UPMC, USX, etc) means their ratio of jobs created is a bit smaller than nationwide.
Bobby Zappala: Hi all! This is Bobby Zappala, CEO and cofounder of Thrill Mill, a startup incubator in East Liberty. Just received a tweet to jump on!
Michael Sanserino: Bobby, can you share with us some of your impressions of Pittsburgh as an environment for entrepreneurs? A lot of economists are impressed with the amount of support startups receive in the Pittsburgh area.
Kim Lyons: Bobby the deadline to apply for Thrill Mill is coming up, correct?
Bobby Zappala: Kim -- yes, the deadline to apply is midnight tonight...applicants should go to to complete their submissions
Bobby Zappala: Michael -- there's so much to be said on this topic, but I will start with one of the fundamental drivers I see as to why entrepreneurship is so "hot" in Pittsburgh right now
Bobby Zappala: With 18 major colleges and universities in our geographic region, we have TONS of talent...and not just tech-focused, but across all domains and industries. What's changed in Pittsburgh as I see it as a 31 year-old is that while as recently as 10 years ago, young talent looked to other cities to thrive and build careers, now everyone is looking for the opportunity in Pittsburgh
Kim Lyons: v. cool-- do you have a lot of applicants so far?
Kit Mueller: Agree w/Bobby. FurthterPgh's startup commnity Second, the people have to stay involved for at least 20 years, riding out the cycles and reinvesting in that community. This is why Silicon Valley has stayed on top for so long: One generation's success funds the next generation. Third, the community has to be inclusive, no matter what a person brings to the table. The community will find a role for that person: development, marketing, design, manufacturing, etc. Last, there needs to be a regular and reliable schedule of activities, events and projects to bring the community together to work on stuff. I'm talking about accelerators, startup weekends or a monthly meet-up where entrepreneurs can find mentors to help t Read more:
Michael Sanserino: Thanks, Kit!
Bobby Zappala: I am never satisfied with the number of applications haha...but we're getting steady traffic. Last year, we received more than 150 applications, and more than 100 of them turned out in the last 6 hours! So, there's a steep jump generally as the window closes
Kim Lyons: "one generation's success funds the next generation..." kinda the biz equivalent of "paying it forward." Nice.
Bobby Zappala: Kit! On Kit's third point.....obviously he and I are playing in the same sandbox. To either of us see that as a drawback? Absolutely not. 1 + 1 = 3 (or more!). This is about focusing on creating an accessible landscape for the entrepreneurs. They are the ones who will create the disruption...people like Kit and myself are just trying to do our best to set the table and provide the right tools.
Kit Mueller: Anyway, we're more poised than ever to leverage all the great assets (talent, quality of life, cost of living, livability) this city offers because of a) the founder leadership, b) the give forward attitudes, c) the ever increasing opportunities to connect, d) revised visions
Mila: Some prominent success stories of entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh?
Michael Sanserino: Where to start, Mila?! One that I'm featuring in Sunday's economic impact story is Eyetique - founded in 1979 in Squirrel Hill. Today, they are making plans to expand to 20 locations, including one out of state.
Kim Lyons: the sense I got reporting this story was that small biz people are optimistic about the Peduto administration
Bobby Zappala: From my own short-lived experience at Thrill Mill, we have already seen half a dozen literally ideas transformed into businesses that are raising capital and have no desire to live this city.
Bobby Zappala: College Prowler (now, 4moms, Showclix....there are so so many
Kim Lyons: ...but the economic climate is tough all over. Takes some determination to start a business right now
Kit Mueller: While many startup onlookers still cite the successes of FMKT and FORE Systems, we're lucky enough to work around world class folks like Louis Von Ahn (who just won Apple's app of the year, today), John Dick at CiviciScience, Eric Silver at Webkite, and so many others. *admittedly tech startup biased
Michael Sanserino: Kim brings up a good point. It takes determination. And a healthy tolerance of risk. For Kit and Bobby (and anybody else), what would you suggest someone who has a great idea but a healthy dose of fear about starting a business?
Bobby Zappala: BodyMedia was recently acquired by California-based Jawbone, but continues to operate here in Pittsburgh
Kim Lyons: Kit do you think people with non-tech biz ideas might feel crowded out of the space?
Mila: Look forward to reading about Eyetique. Can you give us a hint on their 'recipe for success'? Agree with Bobby about 4moms; they have quite a story and remarkable marketing efforts.
Bobby Zappala: I'd say....come find us! Email me -, or call me on my cell: 412.726.2386. I think I can speak for Kit when I say that we want to help, and we're not the only ones. Thrill Mill supports VERY early stage/idea stage startups and we have built a core curriculum to equip or entrepreneurs with the necessary tools
Kit Mueller: the truth is more companies are started during economic downturns, though I wouldn't figure now to be one. There are certainly always headwinds when it comes to fundraising, but solid entrepreneurs with good ideas get funded.
Michael Sanserino: Mila -- Norman Childs (owner and founder) believes that his aggressive and creative marketing campaign and his selection of lenses helped separate him from other opticians in the area.
Kim Lyons: (resisting the urge to make a pun abouv eyetique having "vision")...
Michael Sanserino: (Sounds like the Pie Guys didn't bite off more than they can chew...)
Bobby Zappala: To piggyback on Kit's point...the millenial generation doesn't feel the same sense of security in a job at a large corporation as did past generations. In an economic downturn, taking matters into your own hands provides a better sense of "job security"
Michael Sanserino: That's a great point, Bobby. Is there a latent sense of loyalty to large corporations in Pittsburgh because of how this city's economy was built?
Kim Lyons: yeah, I wonder if that idea is counterintuitive, that branching out on your own = more job security.
Kit Mueller: Kim - in our office alone, we've got a former event planner building Lily & Strum, a world renowned clinical psychologists building Emodt, a former PSU music teacher now building startups with Thinktiv just to name a few "non-tech" people have success in the space.
Mila: Kim, you said that small biz people are optimistic about the Peduto administration, perhaps Kit or Bobby could weigh in on that? What's your sense? And what does Peduto adm need to do to make the optimism reality?
Michael Sanserino: One of the more interesting things I've found in my research is the idea of the entrepreneurial spirit, which can't really be supported by metrics. But, essentially, the idea is entrepreneurs add to the economy by injecting new ideas that might have been dismissed at large companies.
Kit Mueller: From the feedback we're hearing, there's a great sense of optimism about the new administration.
Bobby Zappala: I think EVERYONE should feel a sense of optimism. The foundation has been laid to create amazing growth. Look at East Liberty, where both Kit and I work. We couldn't have been here 10 years ago. The development in this area has laid the foundation for substantial growth for sure.
Michael Sanserino: Kit and Bobby - What are some of the limitations of the region in terms of supporting entrepreneurs?
Bobby Zappala: We need the city to continue to help us locate the sources of local, state and federal money that exists to support startups. That money is out there, but often times difficult to track down, especially for young entrepreneurs who have enough trouble finding time to sleep.
Bill: I know health care reform is daunting for current business owners. What about would-be entrepreneurs? Does the wider availability of health insurance (and the ability to obtain that insurance outside of the traditional employer-employee model) make starting a business a bit easier? Or is health insurance the last thing on a person's mind when he / she is about to start a new business?
Bobby Zappala: I don't think we have any serious impediments right now. It just takes time....the ingredients need to simmer.
Mila: Bobby -- How could that challenge of locating the sources of funding be less of a challenge?
Kit Mueller: We'd benefit from more mid-tier funding for startups, greater cooperation (and general awareness) between the region's major stakeholder companies and those at the nascent level, and hopefully more supportive efforts along the lines of what Bobby and I are working on.
Michael Sanserino: That's a good question, Bill. How have changes in the availability of health care affected would-be entrepreneurs?
Kit Mueller: To be sure, nothing will drive increased access to capital more than successes in the region. That's why we spend our time giving entrepreneurs 'swings at bat' with the hopes that increased (supported) activity drives more wins.
Kit Mueller: I never met an entrepreneur who cites the availability of healthcare as the reason moving forward on her/his company.
Bobby Zappala: All - thank you so much for letting me jump on here. Unfortunately I have to head out. I'm happy to continue any conversations offline with anyone crazy enough to think that I have some useful insights. Happy holidays to you all.
Michael Sanserino: Same for us here at the Post-Gazette. Hope you enjoyed our first Brown Bag lunchtime chat. Somebody should order pizza next time.
Michael Sanserino: Thanks to our readers and our expert commenters for taking time to chat this afternoon.
Michael Sanserino: And be sure to read our Entrepreneurship Series, starting Sunday in the Post-Gazette Business Section.

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