Inside one founder’s experience with the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service

By Mary Johnson, INCLT VMS Mentee

In building my business, my business has always come last.

Mary Johnson, INCLT Mentee

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, when you think about it. If I want growth and scale in my venture, shouldn’t all my energy be focused on achieving those two goals? 

The short answer is, yes. But it’s not that simple. I run a marketing agency called Brave New Word. We provide content strategy and creation for brands that are looking to make a statement, to become thought leaders in their respective fields, to be brave. And in pulling out all the stops to make our clients sound good, I routinely put Brave New Word last on my list of priorities. 

I know that’s the wrong approach, and yet I also know I’m not alone. Entrepreneurs and small business owners are told this all the time: If you want to grow, you’ve got to work in the business less and on the business more. Figuring out how to do that has always been the challenge. 

If I have learned anything about myself over the past three-plus years as an entrepreneur (and a dozen or so more in journalism), it is this: I need deadlines and accountability to get anything done. And so it would stand to reason that I need some external force holding my feet to the fire when it comes to putting my business first. 

Enter the Innovate Charlotte Venture Mentoring Service. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve come into the INCLT with more than a cursory understanding of the process. For the past few years, I’ve been writing about its efforts, recounting for the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte the impact a team of skilled, seasoned mentors can have on a fledgling organization. And at first, I didn’t think it was for me. I’ve always thought mentorship works best when the mentor/mentee relationship takes shape organically — when you just-so-happen to meet someone who takes a liking to you and your business and offers his or her wisdom for free. I’ve also steered away from situations that promise to put more work on my plate. Most weeks and months, I’m drowning. Do I really need someone else telling me what else I should be doing? 

But 2020 had a way of pushing me, and most others I know, out of our comfort zones. I knew I wanted more from my business. I knew I needed help, and I knew I didn’t want to wait for fate to put the perfect mentor in my lap. So I applied and, a few weeks later, found myself on a Zoom call with four mentors who wanted to know more about Brave New Word. 

The process of putting words around what you’re struggling with is powerful — the process of talking about your goals and big ideas, even more so. And that’s what I found myself doing in that first call. It was part therapy session and part business dissection. The mentors took turns asking probing questions about revenue streams and clients, pricing and services. They asked what was weighing me down and what got me fired up. They asked me to paint a picture of my perfect day in the business — and then challenged me to break down what it would take to bring that day to life. 

When you sign up for the INCLT mentorship program, you don’t choose your mentors; your mentors choose you, based on your business, your challenges and your goals. I had no idea what to expect in that first meeting, and yet I found myself pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of support, the pats on the back, the offers to provide more guidance in particular areas. I’m highly critical of myself — a quality I’ve often considered the secret behind much of what I’ve achieved — but my mentors took a decidedly different approach. They wanted to celebrate my wins as much as they wanted to pinpoint the work that still needs to be done. 

I walked away from that first meeting inspired, with a renewed commitment to dig in and focus on the business. I had a long list of to-do’s, which my mentors quickly walked back to a much more manageable list of two key deliverables for the next time we met. I had no doubt I could carve out the time to give them the effort they were due. 

Then, I went back to my day to day — and those deliverables once again fell to the bottom of my list. 

That’s right: All that inspiration meant nothing when the realities of life as an overworked entrepreneur (and wife and mom of two small kids and dog parent) once again settled over me. And isn’t that so often the case? We read that motivational quote or that bestselling self-help book, and we resolve to be and do better. But without accountability, our best laid plans fall flat. At least they do for me. I’m only as good as the people who are keeping me honest. 

While I fell off the wagon and focused solely on my clients for the next three weeks, the approach of my next mentor meeting snapped me back to reality. I knew I was facing another Zoom call with four experienced, busy leaders who were carving out an hour and a half of their day to make me and my business stronger. I couldn’t show up empty handed. 

So I found the time. I carved out a few hours to give my homework assignments real, intentional brain power. And when my second meeting rolled around, I was ready. More than that, the work I did has legs. It has the potential to focus and hone my business, my client base and our approach to the work we take on. And quite simply, it would not have happened without my mentors — at least not any time soon. 

When you sign up for the INCLT mentorship program, you commit to the program for a year. Some companies stay in it even longer than that, and I can see why. It’s not just the expertise and experience you can leverage; it’s the accountability, the sounding board, the team of people who want the best for you and understand that the path there requires a push to focus on you. 

I’m ready for the next step in my business, and I know I can’t get there alone. Now I don’t have to. 

Stories like Mary’s are what make Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community so strong. It’s an ecosystem built on helping each other in the interest of helping the community as a whole. “All the research shows how important mentorship is to people at all stages of their careers, and founders are no exception. If we want them to succeed, we’ve got to invest in their professional development, starting now,” said Olga Muller, CEO at Kepler Team

INCLT is looking for more founders and mentors to do just that. If you’re an organization in need of help, apply. If you’re a business leader looking to give of your time and expertise, become a mentor today. 


McKinsey provides support to INCLT mentees

The Day of Service is a company-wide initiative at McKinsey in which employees are given opportunities to make a positive impact. There are inspirational speakers, volunteer opportunities in their local communities and chances to learn from those creating meaningful change around the world. 

McKinsey chose INCLT as one of the recipients of that service, specifically two participants in the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service: Kevin Giriunas, who owns Advent Coworking, and Wendy Hickey, the founder of ArtPop Street Gallery. Both have been long-time mentees, working intimately with their mentor teams and using their experience, knowledge and advice to make better informed decisions as entrepreneurs. 

For Giriunas, his mentors have helped him make data-driven decisions and organize his finances. He said they have also been helpful in navigating the chaos of running a coworking space amid a global pandemic. 

For Hickey, her mentors have helped her navigate ArtPop Street Gallery’s long-term success, creating a strategic, five-year plan and helping her meet her goal of three years of organizational sustainability. 

Given the success they’ve had with mentorship so far, both Giriunas and Hickey were excited to speak with outside consultants at McKinsey and hear their perspective on how they can amplify their efforts.

“They have zero skin in the game,” Giriunas said. “They don’t know who I am, so it’s a fresh set of eyes on some of the problems and ideas. It adds a different perspective to the mix.”

INCLT mentor Mark Steinman agreed this fresh set of eyes from a completely unbiased perspective was a unique opportunity for the mentees. 

“Not only did they get the chance to hear different ideas, but they were also able to receive validation of their current approaches,” Steinman said. 

Before the session, the consultants asked Giriunas and Hickey to provide a problem statement outlining the current state of their venture, the desired future state and any gaps between the two. 

After a particularly unprecedented and challenging year, Giriunas was most focused on finding a way to increase his revenue back to where it was pre-COVID-19. In response, the consultants advised Giriunas on what to focus on — and what to avoid — amid a time of uncertainty. Specifically, they cautioned him that not all of his ideas for potential revenue streams will make sense after the pandemic. Right now, long-term planning can wait. Instead, they advised, he focus on the short term.

“I felt oddly reassured and calmed afterward,” Giriunas said. “Several of the individuals said I need to focus on the next six months from now — and know that the next six months are still going to be very challenging financially. But there is hope on the horizon.”

The consultants also advised Giriunas on the next logical step for a new market he plans to tap into. While he had already discussed it with his mentors, hearing it from an outside perspective gave him the extra push to get started.

That outside perspective also provided meaningful insight and an extra push for Hickey, whose primary focus was to figure out a strategy for ArtPop Street Gallery’s corporate partnerships. Hickey was able to obtain high-level ideas on target markets that she could connect with and insight into exactly what companies in those markets would look for in a nonprofit to support.

“With their huge portfolio, being an international company connected to companies all over the world, we wanted to know what they are seeing in the world of corporate partnerships and if they had suggestions of how we can improve our corporate partnership offerings,” Hickey said.

When one consultant in the session was puzzled by the nonprofit’s mission and goals, it was a wake-up call for Hickey to refine ArtPop Street Gallery’s message. If one consultant didn’t understand it, she said, there could be others in major companies who don’t understand it, either. 

“He was so helpful at making sure that was clear at inception so that we didn’t come across someone like him and they don’t know what we’re doing,” Hickey said. “We’re already working on fine-tuning our corporate partnership packaging, taking that advice of getting crystal clear on our message.”

Hickey’s goal of creating meaningful relationships also came to fruition on the call, as two consultants with interest in the arts mentioned they were willing to spend some additional time with Hickey to provide support beyond the conference call.

Participating consultants were impressed with their sessions with both Giriunas and Hickey. But what stood out was the entrepreneurs’ commitment at the local level.

“The entrepreneurs we spoke with displayed passion for their work and a true focus on building the community in Charlotte,” Harrison said.

For Giriunas and Hickey, these sessions left them feeling motivated, with action plans to move forward.

Beyond the direct impact on local founders, the interest McKinsey has shown in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is a sign of the growth and impact this community has achieved in recent years, said Olga Muller director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team. “I have been part of the Charlotte startup community at every stage of its development, and this interest from a global organization like McKinsey confirms what we already know: Now is a fantastic time to be an entrepreneur in the Queen City.” 

For more information on the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, visit our website. We are currently accepting applications for both mentors and founders looking for guidance. Apply today!

 


From hopeless to hopeful: An INCLT Pivot Story

At the beginning of the pandemic, “survive” was the word on everyone’s minds. 

Six months later, we now know survival isn’t enough. We must rethink our old ways of doing business. We must pivot.

That doesn’t mean the process of shifting course is easy. That’s why INCLT is sharing the stories of local entrepreneurs who have been forced to change their fundamental business models. We want to shed light on the transformation process and the role mentorship can play. 

Last month, we told the story of Macie Mata, former founder of MAZE Services. This month, we interviewed Samie and Ryan Roberts, the husband-and-wife team behind Charlotte-based startup Bustld, which makes the wedding planning process easier for both couples and vendors. 

The startup launched in 2016 after Samie, a wedding planner, worked with a client who wasn’t the right fit. The wedding itself had been a success, but Samie wanted to find a better way to serve both sides of the wedding marketplace so that couples could find the right vendors to bring their dream weddings to life. Her husband and co-founder, Ryan, brought his data and technology background, as well as his entrepreneurial spirit, to the conversation and got to work figuring out the analytics and algorithms to take the idea from concept to reality. 

The result was Bustld, and it wasn’t long before the business had gained traction in Charlotte. That inspired Samie and Ryan to expand their services to Raleigh in 2017. After more than 100 people attended their Raleigh launch party, the two knew they were onto something big. Then, in 2019, they joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service. 

“One thing that’s missing when you’re bootstrapping is the guidance that you can get from your investor,” Ryan said. “We were in our own little bubble, but to get that outside perspective is incredibly powerful. Innovate Charlotte allowed us to get that level of mentorship without the financial obligations or bias that an investor can bring. Especially when you come from corporate, you remember what it’s like to have access to everything — an HR department, a financial department, accounting and sales department, leadership and all these different things. [When you’re a startup], it’s really just a handful of us. It helps to have that guidance.”

With the INCLT mentorship program, that guidance comes from a team of mentors, which has provided significant value for Bustld as it has grown. 

“Having multiple perspectives is really nice because everybody comes with their own perspective of what their work life is like and what they’ve done in their past, and they can provide us that insight,” Samie said. “It’s nice to hear different things and take that back and use that information to make our own decisions.”

Samie and Ryan’s mentors have helped them consider possibilities and ask questions they may not have thought of before to make more informed decisions. The mentors also helped the two network with other INCLT mentors and local business owners. In February 2020, just over a year after the couple joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, Bustld saw its most successful month in the history of the company.

Then, the pandemic hit, and widespread panic ensued. States across the U.S. went under lockdown. Paper towels flew off the shelves, and hand sanitizer was out of stock online. But it didn’t become real to Samie and Ryan until weddings started to get postponed and then flat-out cancelled. 

“It was really scary,” Samie said. “We only had this one product, and it’s all based on wedding vendors. We started throwing around all these different ideas of what we could do to generate money and keep the business moving, given the state of weddings.”

Samie and Ryan put together a long list of ideas — one that included concepts like Bustld merchandise and a “wedding-in-a-box” concept — and brought that list to their mentors. Their mentors then helped them refocus their efforts and advised the two to pick one idea out of the many.

The question was, which one had the most potential? As the couple debated, INCLT Executive Director Keith Luedeman stepped in to offer his perspective: virtual weddings.

“He kept texting us both, telling us that we had to do virtual weddings,” Ryan said with a laugh. “Samie and I, being the romantics of weddings, were like, ‘No. We don’t like that.’”

The founders had seen the challenges that came with Zoom weddings: issues downloading the app, problems logging on, bad WiFi connections and an overall loss of the magic that comes with a wedding day. They knew what didn’t work, and they started to wonder, what could? 

“At that point, we thought, ‘We don’t like it, but we’re going to figure it out. But it can’t be Zoom,’” Ryan said.

Ryan started researching and reaching out to different producers at ESPN and NASCAR to explore how virtual weddings could happen without standard video conferencing software and offer couples the same special experience of a wedding. 

The result of all that research and repositioning became LoveStream, a new product that turned Busltd’s romantic founders from hopeless to hopeful.

LoveStream allows guests to stream weddings from any device just by clicking a link — no apps required. To get the footage, the bride and groom set up their phones on tripods, and Bustld takes over to control the camera angles and add slideshows, videos and music to give guests the full wedding experience from their screens. A live chat feature is available for guests to offer congratulations. Every couple gets their own wedding website, which includes the wedding video, a virtual guestbook and more. And the video is available on demand, which means guests in different countries and time zones are able to watch the wedding when it is convenient for them.

“It was so important to make it easy,” Samie said. 

While April and May were tough months for Bustld, LoveStream reignited the spark in the company. In August, as a global pandemic continued to batter the wedding industry, Bustld celebrated its most successful month to date. 

Looking ahead, Samie and Ryan are confident virtual weddings are here to stay as an important component of planning a wedding.

“It’s not going to have the same growth trajectory that it has now, but it’s going to be one of those things where you have a photographer, you have a caterer, and you have a livestream,” Ryan said. 

Now, Ryan and Samie’s mentors are challenging them to look ahead and prepare their team for the new roles that have come with the pandemic. As the company continues to grow, it helps to know there is a group of mentors guiding them and cheering them on through their success.

“Having someone who is unbiased, who truly just wants what's best for us and guides us there is just so important,” Samie said. “I feel so grateful that we have found that in our mentor team.”

Creating opportunities for collaboration and guidance is core to INCLT’s mission, and it’s a critical part of building a more robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial community in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.

To learn more about Innovate Charlotte and how you can get involved, visit www.inclt.org.


Finding beauty in the pivot

In many ways, “pivot” has become the defining word of the pandemic.

We’ve had to pivot the way we parent, the way we work, the way we learn, the way we lead. While change has always been constant, it has never — at least in our lifetime — been so rapid and so intense. 

But, while larger companies have struggled to embrace that change, entrepreneurs have been uniquely suited to the challenge. Pivoting is par for the course for the vast majority of startups. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Ideas are like babies. When you have one, it can be hard to see its flaws. That’s why INCLT is beginning this series of conversations with local entrepreneurs to break down the process of changing your fundamental business model and the role mentorship can play in the process. 

First on our list is Macie Mata, the former co-founder of MAZE Services and Curl Lounge. Mata joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service in the thick of building MAZE, a mobile beauty concept that brought hair stylists, manicurists and other beauty professionals straight to the client, whether they were at home or the office. It was born out of a very real problem Mata had encountered as her finance career took her across the country, forcing her to abandon relationships with professionals she liked and trusted. She and her co-founder, Samonica Ngo, had been building the platform and the business behind it. They had gone through what Mata jokingly calls a “dummy round” of fundraising (during which they raised nothing), and they realized it was time to come up for air — to get plugged into the Charlotte startup community, to get more educated on fundraising and to get help. 

“We were right around beta phase when we decided to join INCLT. We had our heads down for so long building this technology and doing case studies and research, and it was time to resurface and look around,” Mata said. “We needed to dive right into this startup community and surround ourselves with people who challenge our thought processes. We had been so embedded in our business, we knew we needed someone from the outside looking in.”

Mata is one of those people who welcomes feedback. She craves it and credits it with helping her build a successful career in finance. But feedback on your business is different. It hits harder, and as a result, she describes her relationship with her group of INCLT mentors as “a love/hate relationship.” Her mentors asked tough questions that forced her to rethink aspects of her vision. More than once, she and Ngo would leave mentor meetings fired up and frustrated.

“But the majority of the time, our mentors were right. I might not have wanted to hear what they had to say, but I realized pretty quickly that it was something I needed to look into,” Mata recalled. “You should always want to have someone on the sidelines who you can go to with questions. I believe so much in the mentorship program because of all the things they did to challenge us.” 

And it was working. Mata and Ngo went in pursuit of a seed round and soon found themselves in negotiations to raise $350,000. 

“We were ahead of schedule, so we decided to hold off on the funds. For one, if we were to hit these awesome milestones, we knew it would give us more negotiating power in a few months. Two, we were informed that we were breaking the law,” she said. 

In North Carolina, each cosmetology license must be tagged to a salon location so the state Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners can ensure all necessary procedures are followed. The license cannot be mobilized, meaning that hair stylists, manicurists and other beauty professionals can’t take their services on the road, unless it’s to serve someone with a special need. Mata can laugh about it now, but at the time, that realization posed a very real threat to the business she wanted to scale, fast. Overnight, she went from founder and CEO to lobbyist, fighting in Raleigh to change the law that stood in the way of MAZE’s success. 

“This is an industry that needs to change and needs to be disrupted, but the process to get a bill passed is pretty brutal. At that point, the burnout was different for me. Every entrepreneur experiences burnout, but it was draining my passion,” Mata said. “I’m not a lobbyist. I wanted to build this company and scale it. This put my scaling model from five years to 10, and it was no longer intriguing to my team or my investors.”

Mata and Ngo started hashing through options for the business. 

“Our mentors were a huge part of this. We went through multiple ways to pivot our company, to see if it was something to pivot into something else in the beauty industry or a completely different vertical — and then what is the right dollar amount for us to walk away,” Mata recalled. 

In the end, they decided to shutter MAZE and sell the technology they had built to a couple in Canada, where it’s being used in a completely different industry.  

“In those moments, we were moving so quickly that my emotions were removed,” Mata said. “We voted on it, and we felt good about it. A few months after it was over is when I started having this extreme identity crisis. This was my identity for the past two and a half years. What is next?”

For Mata, it was a new business — a salon concept called Curl Lounge focused specifically for women with curly hair. The idea was to franchise the business from the start, allowing it to scale with speed. Mata raised $350,000 within the first 30 days. She pitched it to her mentors, who agreed to help her through the process. She was in negotiations on a lease for her debut space. 

Then, the pandemic hit. 

“That’s where I’m not alone in saying things got a little weird,” she said. “But in the end, it was almost a blessing. I was going through some initial growing pains of trying to find the right business partner or co-founder, and I had some really high expectations. Also, this was a very specific target market. It was a curly-hair salon, and I don’t have curly hair. As much as I believed in the mission and that this demographic deserved this type of diversity in the space, it would be 10 times harder for me to represent that brand.” 

Before anything was signed, Mata decided to give the money she had raised back to her investor. Once again, she was an entrepreneur without a startup. But she didn’t stop working. 

Mata believes there are many more businesses in her future. It’s part of her entrepreneurial mindset and drive. She thinks in business ideas, beyond the beauty space, and it began almost immediately after she shuttered the salon concept. 

For one, she started working with other founders who were involved in the fundraising process, helping with due diligence and investor connections. In the past year, she’s helped startups raise $5.5 million. 

She has also ventured out into the real estate space. Mata and her new business partner are building 14 townhomes that will become workforce housing. She’s also interested in affordable housing, and she’s contemplating the creation of a real estate fund in the Queen City that will focus on both. 

“The community impact is really what we get the most excited about. Being able to provide this type of product and do it well is what we want to become great at,” Mata said. 

She left the INCLT mentorship program after the salon concept fell through — the program requires founders to have a business concept in progress — but she came away with an ongoing mentor relationship, ironically enough with one of the mentors who challenged her the most. 

“He became an individual mentor to me, and he’s brought extreme value because I'm all over the place,” Mata said. “He’s still challenging me to see what’s most important to me, and when I figure out what that is, we can dig deep on these specific projects.”

Now, she’s paying that forward. 

“I am now mentoring two different people a quarter,” Mata said. “I let them know, ‘You have three months. What are your goals, and what do you want to learn?’”  That commitment keeps the cycle going, and it helps keep Charlotte’s startup community growing, in powerful ways. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.” 


Devin Collins presenting

Ventureprise — Helping Founders with Customer Discovery

At INCLT, we’re committed to connecting entrepreneurs to all the helpful resources the Queen City has to offer. One such resource is Ventureprise — UNC Charlotte’s entrepreneurship and innovation hub, which was designed with a laser focus on customer discovery, with programs for students, faculty and the community at large. And our work often goes hand in hand.

Devin Collins presenting
Over the last couple of years, quite a few ventures that graduated from Ventureprise Customer Discovery programs went on to join the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service:

Graduates

Ascend GoalsGig Connected
Genubot.
BovaMetrics
Vizlatech

 

Current INCLT Ventures

BatteryXchange
Dormitory 101

Smart Girls HQ
Pollination Apothecary

Ventureprise helps founders lay a strong foundation for their business. Then, our mentors have helped them to grow and scale.

To illustrate the impact of Ventureprise, let’s take the story of Dr. Margaret Kocherga, Ph.D. As co-founder of Light & Charge Solutions, she knew a market existed for organic light-emitting diode technology, but she didn’t know how to break through and connect with the right customers. Then, she found Ventureprise. 

Kocherga, Margaret

Kocherga participated in the Spring 2019 cohort of the Ventureprise Launch National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program for her venture. Through Ventureprise, she received funding to travel to trade shows on the West Coast to network with potential customers and learn more about how her materials could help. 

Then, in April 2020, she was selected for Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI), an entrepreneurship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, where she’ll take part in a two-year fellowship. 

“Margaret came through these programs and discovered that she was very entrepreneurial and she wanted to be in the startup world,” said Devin Collins, interim executive director of Ventureprise. “She wanted to continue to take her technology out of the lab and not just be a professor but go start a company. Now over the last year, she's worked towards that.”

Ventureprise played a critical role in that process. 

The program is one of the oldest programs in Charlotte’ entrepreneurial ecosystem. It began as the Ben Craig Center in 1986 and was one of the nation’s earliest small business incubators. Now funded through the university and grant programs, Ventureprise hosts a variety of launch programs for early-stage startups. For science-based startups, there’s the I-Corps program, which equips students, faculty and staff with customer discovery knowledge so they can introduce research-driven projects to the marketplace and prepare for the national I-Corps program.

Similar to the I-Corps program, the Ventureprise Launch NC IDEA Program helps startups both on- or off-campus test their innovations with the goal of assessing their commercial viability. Both programs take place in six-week cohorts of eight to 12 teams. Ventureprise accepts applications on a rolling basis and is free for participants. 

We have a variety of stages,” said Laura Smailes, assistant director. “Some people have revenue. Some people are fleshing out their idea and building something that may not be finished at this point. Everybody’s able to relate to each other.” 

Idea-stage ventures are also eligible, as long as participants have made progress or gained traction. Customer discovery can be equally important for funded ventures, too.

“We’ve had teams that have raised $800,000 and then come to participate because they built the wrong product to begin with for the wrong customer,” Collins said. “Now, they have to pivot to a new customer.”

Customer discovery requires some pounding the pavement and cold calls, which can seem frightening on the surface. Collins has enjoyed watching participants’ mentalities shift over the course of the six-week program. He has also seen the outreach result in students landing jobs. 

“After 30 interviews, students are suddenly surprised that people will talk to them,” Collins said. “It’s like muscle memory. Once you start and become comfortable, it becomes much easier.” 

Ventureprise also helps eligible startups lay the groundwork to compete for additional funding. Like Kocherga, several participants have gone on to receive $10,000 microgrants from NC IDEA. 

Once the cohort begins, participants take part in weekly lessons — most recently, in a virtual setting — with a discussion of topics such as value propositions or market size. Then, teams will present what they’ve learned from the exercise. Participants are encouraged to push boundaries and consult with industry experts, potential partners and customers. Each week, participants walk away with a more fine-tuned idea of their target customer and the questions they need to keep asking. 

“People really enjoy the camaraderie and networking with the class,” Smailes said. “They even said this about the virtual cohort, as well. They meet people who are going through the same processes they’re going through.” 

Ventureprise has approximately 250 alumni from its cohorts. Those alumni then become eligible to participate in Ventureprise Launch 2.0, an accelerator program focused on developing business models. The 2.0 program explores funding sources, cost structure and other resources while preparing participants to submit for NC IDEA seed grants. Ventureprise also hosts the Charlotte Venture Challenge, an annual innovation showcase where teams can pitch their big ideas and win prizes. 

In the future, Collins expects Ventureprise to focus on providing more opportunities to students and faculty, pending grant developments. With about 30,000 students, UNC Charlotte is practically a city within a city, and the work of Ventureprise goes a long way toward nurturing promising entrepreneurs.

“We want to give all our students an opportunity to be introduced to entrepreneurship, to actually go practice so they can learn by doing and creating,” Collins said. 

Customer insights benefit entrepreneurs at every stage. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has experienced that value firsthand. “Customers are an entrepreneur’s best teacher. We are grateful that Ventureprise has equipped so many business leaders to think collaboratively about customer interactions.” 

To learn more about Ventureprise or apply for an upcoming cohort, visit entrepreneurship.uncc.edu 


Meet Summer 2020 Class of INCLT Mentees

There’s a story behind every startup. 

The highs and lows each founder experiences has a tremendous impact on their vision and, ultimately, their success. At Innovate Charlotte, we see that firsthand, in the startups that enroll in our mentorship program.

Now, during one of the most challenging times in recent history, we’re welcoming a new class of mentees to the program, which connects startup founders with mentors to guide them through the early stages of their businesses. And we’re introducing them to Charlotte’s startup ecosystem here, with a look at their journeys so far and how this community can support their evolution and growth. 

Summer 2020 INCLT Mentees

You can learn more about our new class below.

  1. Lawpods (lawpods.com) helps law firms create engaging, professional podcast content that speaks directly to potential clients in a friendly and informative way.
  2. Plush Lifestyle Management  provides luxury high-rises with 24/7 luxury front desk concierge services.
  3. Genisys Renewable Energy helps solar developers have prime land that is ready to be leased and is permitted.
  4. Treehab (https://treehab.co/) offers a convenient way to access medical marijuana in your local area.

    If you’re interested in becoming part of the program — either as a mentor or mentee — you can find more information
    here

Robert Ingalls, founder of Lawpods

Robert Ingalls wanted to be a dad, and he knew long hours as a lawyer weren’t going to cut it. So, he started reading money management books. Soon, he progressed to podcasts and fell in love with the medium. 

“A month later, I owned $1,000 worth of podcast gear,” Ingalls said. “Thankfully, it worked because I didn’t have to go sell that stuff on Craiglist like most people do.” 

He started his own podcast out of his law firm in June 2016, right before he found out he was going to be a father. Podcasting took off for him, and he soon launched Lawpods, a podcast production company dedicated to working with law firms that want to position themselves as thought leaders. 

“We wanted to make sure we could build a company that was sustainable,” Ingalls said. “It was going to be easier for me to build and defend that niche when the time came. That strategy has already helped us get in the door, and some of the biggest law firms in the world are on our client list.”

Through the INCLT mentorship program, Ingalls is looking to learn about business development and marketing from seasoned mentors. 

“The mentors that have stepped up and chosen to work with me all have a solid background in those areas, so I’m really excited,” Ingalls said. 

Alex Pascal, founder of Plush

Alex Pascal has had a hustle going for most of his life. He grew up in Brooklyn and started bagging groceries with his brothers at the age of 10 until one day when he broke someone’s pickles.

 “I was so embarrassed that I never went back,” Pascal said. “Still, that was my first taste of entrepreneurship.” 

Since then, Pascal has made a career out of it. He managed a smoke shop, opened an Internet café and eventually started his own dog walking company. Then, he was approached by a high-rise building that needed black car service. Pascal didn’t have a black car, so he bought one, and Plush, a luxury transportation service, was born. Now, he has three drivers working with him.

“The car smells new every time you get in it, and that’s what my clients like,” Pascal said. 

Pascal is looking to his INCLT mentors to help combine his natural business instincts with formal knowledge. He wants to grow into a lifestyle management brand with front-desk concierge service. 

“The best room to be in is with people who are smarter than you, people who have been there, done that and have wisdom and guidance,” Pascal said. “I come from the school of hard knocks.”

Daniel Rusu, founder of Genisys Renewable Energy

With renewables coming into their own, the 2020s look to be a landmark shift for the energy sector, and Daniel Rusu has been planning for that reality.
Rusu has worked in land acquisition for seven years. His speciality has been land leasing for both oil and gas and renewables such as wind and solar. It was through this work that he came across an opportunity for his own venture. 

“I worked for a developer, and we had a tough time leasing land,” Rusu said. “A lot of the renewable energy incentives would get lost because it would take time to make an acquisition or to close a deal. So, I saw that opening.”

He began working on the concept in 2018 and ultimately launched Genisys Renewable Energy in late 2019. The company offers land brokerage for wind and solar developers. Rusu specializes in the Southeast, and he has been working on a database of tracts well-suited for development. 

Now, Rusu is looking to INCLT for help with business development. He believes the company is at a pivotal point.  

“If I can get some professional advice from successful entrepreneurs, I think that would help me a lot on how to get that first contract,” Rusu said. 

 

Brandon Terrell, founder of Treehab

For Brandon Terrell, the road to a startup began with helping a relative.
Terrell, a marketer by trade, had a family member who was looking to find physicians willing to discuss alternative medicine. It took several months to find the support they needed, but Terrell didn’t stop learning about the industry. 

“I was very fortunate that I was able to travel the country and go to markets such as California and Colorado, where I had firsthand experience about the blossoming cannabis industry,” Terrell said. “I began to identify individuals who had the same problem that my family experienced with finding a doctor.” 

To fill that need, Terrell found Treehab in 2017. Treehab is a network of experienced physicians, mainly in the Georgia market, that advertises to consumers who may be interested in learning about medical marijuana. The company launched a new website this year, and it has experienced an uptick in demand during the pandemic. 

“Last month, we had over 10,000 inquiries from individuals who wanted to request an appointment to meet with a doctor,” Terrell said. “That was a milestone we are very proud of.”

Terrell understands the value that outside input can bring, and he looks forward to hearing the insights of INCLT mentors.  

“I’m really looking for mentors who can help identify the next phase of development, and it may come from something outside of my wheelhouse, which is marketing,” Terrell said. 

When businesses like INCLT’s new recruits get the opportunity to grow, the entire Charlotte community benefits. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.”  

To learn more about Innovate Charlotte and how you can get involved, visit www.inclt.org.


Getting to know Mark Steinman

When Mark Steinman retired from corporate America, he wanted to give back to the business community. He just didn’t know where to begin. 

“I began looking around town, and I was just astounded by the vibrant ecosystem in the startup community,” Steinman recalled. “One of the first things I did was go to a meeting for startup ventures at Packard Place. I had worked at the corner of Trade and Tryon — two blocks from Packard Place — for 17 years, and I didn’t even know it existed.” 

Over the next few months, he found his way to other Charlotte entrepreneurial organizations, including INCLT, where he became one of our organization’s first mentors. 

Mark Steinman with two founders Sam Ngo and Macie Mata

“I realized as I got further in my career that my responsibility as a leader was to coach and mentor the people who worked for me on how to grow their own careers,” said Steinman, who spent 20 years working for General Electric and 17 years at Bank of America. “Now I’m doing the same thing with our startups." 

We spoke with Steinman recently about his work with INCLT and the projects he’s taken on as he eased into retirement. Below are excerpts from our conversation. 

Let’s talk about the work you’ve been doing with INCLT. What has that looked like from a mentorship perspective? 

Recently, I’ve been working with three young entrepreneurs in their 20s with limited business experience who required a lot of guidance in how to approach the design of their product, the testing of their product, some of the go-to-market strategies of their product — things they haven’t thought of because they haven’t been through this experience before. 

We meet with them about once a month, give or take. My process is to listen, listen, listen, and then ask questions. It’s not my role to direct them what to do. We are mentors, not decision makers. Instead, we ask questions to help them figure out the right path forward. 

What has it been like to work with a team of mentors, rather than one-on-one with a founder? 

It’s no different than working in a large company with executives and managers who have a variety of backgrounds and experiences. It’s an opportunity to tease out the strengths of the different mentors and how they could best help the founders — what I find is, people who have had long and varied careers can provide valuable insight in most situations. 

You joined INCLT fairly early on in its existence. How has the organization changed since then? 

At the time I joined INCLT, it was a startup itself, with the same growing pains that the companies we were mentoring had. One of those was that we kept saying we were founder-centric, but how do you know until you measure it? So we started measuring how engaged our mentors were. 

We started rather simply  — measuring whether mentors were attending meetings with our founders  — to give us a gauge of whether we were truly founder-centric. There are other critical metrics, but just measuring this one aspect of engagement, as we came through our own maturity as an organization, allowed us to see whether we were adhering to the values we espoused. 

Tell us about the mentors who helped you throughout your career. Who stands out in your memory? 

I had one mentor who was a great leader, and his great expression was “role and goal clarity”. He used the analogy of a football team where, if everyone doesn’t play their position on the field or know what the goal is, you can’t score. He used to hammer that home, and I really took that to heart as a way to run an organization. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the companies you’re working with? 

I’ve been working with each company that I mentor on how the pandemic specifically impacts their business plan and business model. For the most part, companies are finding their way through it. I don’t believe any of the ventures in INCLT have shut their doors because of the pandemic. It has affected the business plans of most and it can breed opportunity. One of them, a wedding planning startup called Bustld, has pivoted to launch a virtual wedding planning platform. Another company that was providing cleaning services for homes and apartments, Whystle, has pivoted towards commercial cleaning. 

One of the benefits of being small is that you can be nimble. When you’re in a large company, it’s a much greater challenge to be nimble when something like this happens.

Now that you are retired, what does day-to-day life look like for you? 

I just enjoy myself. I knew that when I got to retirement, I wanted to be able to do what I wanted when I wanted. Now I am. 

As one example, I'm second-generation American. My paternal grandmother immigrated from Europe under very challenging circumstances. Her father came to America, leaving his wife and seven children in Europe. His plan was to earn enough money to bring them all over, too. Two years into those efforts, his wife died, leaving seven orphans in Europe. There is a tremendous story of perseverance about how they all eventually found their way to America and prospered. I heard the story as a child and spent six months of my retirement documenting it for our family and for future generations so the story wouldn’t be forgotten. 

Mentors like Mark Steinman offer critical support to businesses in their earliest stages. When those businesses get the opportunity to grow, the entire Charlotte community benefits. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.”  

If you’d like to support entrepreneurs in our community, consider the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service. We are currently accepting applications for both mentors looking to give back and founders in need of guidance. Learn more here.  

 


Mentorship in a time of crisis: Our Q&A with David Jones

With the right mindset, a crisis can be an opportunity. There is no greater time to learn, plan and change. For David Jones, it was a chance to thrive. 

During the Great Recession, Jones was CEO of Peak 10, a data-center company he founded about a decade prior. While other businesses laid off employees and shut their doors, Jones stayed the course and Peak 10 turned the corner. In 2010, the business was acquired for $410 million, and the Charlotte Business Journal chose David as its “Business Person of the Year.”  Under his leadership the company had a second exit in 2014 and Jones had managed investment relationships with five private equity firms over the span of his Peak 10 leadership. He continues to serve on the company’s board of directors.

Today, David has remained committed to helping entrepreneurs chart a path for long-term success, and we’re proud to have him as chairman of the INCLT Board. With the COVID-19 pandemic bearing down on our community, we asked him to weigh in on the role of mentorship here and now.

Tell us about a time when someone offered you mentorship during a challenging time, or a time when you were able to offer critical advice and support to an entrepreneur or business leader. 

David Jones and Kevin Geriunas, founder of Advent Coworking

I have spent time with founders and leadership of several companies in the last 30 days related to perspectives in this time of uncertainty and instability. In essence, having guided my company (then Peak 10, now Flexential) through the downturn in the 2008 time period, I have been able to share insight about planning on a customer, employee and overall financial perspective. That boiled down to over communicating, listening intently and sharing the steps you are taking to protect each area. An important step is to gather your key players and engage them to think differently about the current state and future of your business. Throw out actionable ideas that will help formulate your next steps for the short and longer term. Keep your team close and focused.

What are your thoughts on the role of mentors in the current uncertain reality? Why are they important, and is now a time to engage your mentor/mentee on a deeper level? 

A mentor must take this situation very seriously and put his or herself in the shoes of the individual they are working with. I use the term “listen intently” because that is what you must do in order to be a guide and to have the full picture of the stresses the company leader is dealing with.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs in our community right now? 

Keep focus on your customers and employees and understand their needs. Take care of your best in ways that are meaningful as best you can, and that doesn’t mean just financially.

What's the most important thing you'd like to help INCLT accomplish in these uncertain times? 

Remain a resource for the members.

Being a resource for members will, in turn, support our community as a whole. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.”  

If you’d like to support entrepreneurs in our community, consider the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service. We are currently accepting applications for both mentors looking to give back and founders in need of guidance. Learn more here


The impact of COVID-19 on Charlotte’s entrepreneurs

On a mission to do what’s never been done before, entrepreneurs sometimes face obstacles they’ve never seen before. For many of our mentees, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic uncertainty associated with it have posed an existential threat to their ventures. 

At Innovate Charlotte, we are here to help. In 2017, we launched a mentorship program that provides founders with teams of mentors from all walks of life to offer guidance on everything from financials to marketing to strategy. We did that because we believe empowering entrepreneurs is crucial to fostering a vibrant and strong economy. 

It will be just as critical in bringing our economy back to life. 

The era of social distancing has made our work difficult, but not impossible. We’ve transitioned to virtual mentorship sessions. We’ve engaged in digital meetups and events. And we’ve kept tabs on our founders and our mentors throughout this crisis to determine when and how we can help.  

This is one of those efforts.

We’re opening up the floor to our entrepreneurs. In a series of interviews, they've shared with us their latest triumphs and their current struggles. We will post their stories in the coming days and weeks to give you a detailed look at what some companies are experiencing. To kick us off, here’s a look at what we’ve heard from a few of our founders.

What's your biggest challenge right now?

“Our paid customers are truly struggling as their entire spring season of events has been wiped out. For many of them, that means putting a stop to marketing. For others, they want to wait and see how long this continues before committing to any additional marketing spend.” — Samie Roberts, co-founder and COO of Bustld, an online wedding resource designed to connect couples with vetted local vendors and online resources.

“Driving revenue growth fast enough to fund tech updates.” — Jared James, founder of LottoEdge, which analyzes every scratch game and every prize to give lottery players an edge based on actual data. 

“Moving to a virtual platform quickly to access clients.” — Melissa Mehrlich, co-founder of MEAH Health Navigation, a healthcare consulting firm that provides care management, education and advocacy to families and caregivers.

What help do you need from the entrepreneurial community and/or INCLT mentors?

“In the coming weeks, our mobile app will launch on iOS and Google Play. We are going to need support from experts with an IT and software development background.” — Aubrey Yeboah, co-founder of BatteryXchange, a mobile phone charging solution with an IoT platform that enables customers to rent portable batteries and return them with ease.

Any relationships with commercial landscapers, grounds management companies, homeowners associations, townships and universities would be of great help to accelerate our pipeline of sales so that we can continue to hire more seamstresses, seamsters, screen printers and fulfillment employees right here in Charlotte. – Marc Mataya, founder of Leaf Burrito, an innovative and eco-friendly reusable yard-debris bag invented, designed and manufactured in the USA.

“Spreading the word about our disinfection services and connecting us with any essential businesses that can use our help. We are uniquely positioned with OSHA- and CDC-trained teams to provide disinfection that everyone needs right now. Anything helps right now!” – Chris Wright, founder of Whystle, a home cleaning service that allows customers to book disinfection and move-in cleanings through the company’s website.

Do you have any good news we could also share?

“We have pivoted quickly to connect members digitally, revamp our podcast program and are proactively pushing Advent to become a bigger/badder coworking space when the new ‘normal’ arrives.” — Kevin Giriunas, founder of Advent Coworking, a creative coworking community in Charlotte where artists, designers and entrepreneurs can come together and innovate.  

“This has been a great time to build plans and prepare. That time isn’t usually received. We have test clients for our desktop app who have to be at home, so we lucked out.” — David Hunt, founder of Framewrk, a consulting agency that provides guidance to startups and small businesses through its intuitive Q&A app. 

“24/7, 365 days a year, we feature the work of local artists on billboards, newsstands and more and have been doing so for 7 years in Charlotte.” — Wendy Hickey, founder of ArtPop Street Gallery, a nonprofit organization that promotes the work of local artists on available media space — billboards, buses, news racks, airports — and turns roads, highways and thoroughfares into opportunities for artistic appreciation and discovery.  

“I was able to secure a one-year contract with UNCC.” — Domonique Boone, founder of Leslie's Laundry Care, which provides on-demand mobile laundry services and dry cleaning in Charlotte and the surrounding areas.

Thank you to Kepler Team for sponsoring our communications. If you’d like to help founders through this crisis and beyond, or you’re an entrepreneur looking for guidance, consider joining the INCLT mentorship program. Applications for both mentors and founders are now open at our website. Challenging times call for expert insight. Apply today.


INCLT’s Keith Luedeman on how COVID-19 is transforming startup life as we knew it 

Less than a week before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Charlotte Mecklenburg schools and pushed much of the Queen City into a new and uncertain normal, Keith Luedeman and I met for coffee at Amelie’s in Park Road Shopping Center. 

Signs of the crisis were already beginning to show. Amelie’s had forsaken reusable cups in favor of more hygienic disposable ones. The server behind the counter expressed concern over her daughter, who was off at college and had shared an ER with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus. But no one really knew how dramatically it was going to transform our lives just a few days later. 

So Keith and I talked about what he’d been up to over the past 18 months, since he took over as executive director of Innovate Charlotte. His list was full.

 

He was serving as a judge for the Charlotte Area Technology Collaborative’s Blue Diamond Awards, celebrating the city’s best in technology. The event was meant to be held April 7 and is now postponed until fall. 

He’s chair of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Circle at Queens University and is heavily involved in the Queens Pitch Competition, which gives undergraduate students from all majors the opportunity to compete for up to $5,000 in prize money for their innovative business ideas. That was meant to take place March 19. Now, that’s postponed, too.  

He’s been working with Bunker Labs, an organization dedicated to helping members of the military community start businesses. Keith served in the National Guard. The organization struck a personal chord, and as Bunker Labs set up shop in Charlotte earlier this year, he helped them find speakers and set up event locations. Now, any upcoming events are on hold.  

He won the Finsiders’ Dan Roselli Community Organizer Award for his work building the FinTech community in Charlotte, and now he’s faced with an interesting question: How do you build community when that community is quarantined, at least until the end of April?

But in many ways, Keith is prepared for this. For one, INCLT is strong — much stronger than it was when he took the helm. 

“Eighteen months ago, we were looking at whether we were going to survive. We had no sources of funding. The mentorship program was still very much in the pilot stage, and we had little diversity represented,” he said. “Now, our program is over 50 percent female and non-white among our founders and over 30 percent among our mentors. We have funding from NC IDEA and the city’s Economic Development group for the next three years. We’re stabilized, and now we’re at the stage where we’re figuring out what our path forward is going to be.” 

Keith is hard at work charting that path, even now, from his home office, which is saving him a ton on travel time and turning him from an amateur Zoom user to a power one. 

“I had a camera that I bought for my PC and never got around to hooking it up. Now I'm on my camera probably more than I'm on my phone during the day,” he said. 

He’s taken the current reality and restrictions and pivoted, not changing the work he does just shifting it to accommodate new needs in a new environment. 

He wakes up these days earlier than he did when he was running his business, GoodMortgage.com, which he exited from back in 2016. When we reconnected by phone recently, he had virtual meetings booked all day, from first thing in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. All INCLT mentorship meetings are continuing online, rather than in person, so the organization is now up and running virtually. The city’s startup ecosystem meetings, which Keith is a part of, have moved from quarterly to weekly so community leaders can brainstorm resources and ways they can support local founders.   

Keith has also seen a significant increase in requests for his time and counsel. The dot com crash hit a year after he started his company. He shepherded GoodMortgage through the Great Recession of 2008. He hasn’t experienced this kind of crisis — none of us have — but he’s had his share. 

“By no means does that make me an expert, but at least I’ve got experience dealing with brutal things that can happen to a business,” Keith said. “All these crises are different, so the one thing I can help with is making sure our founders go back to the entrepreneurial mindset. No idea is a bad idea. Keep your head down and fight like hell. In these moments, when you’re making decisions on expedited timelines and dealing with the stress of the world, you need somebody to talk to. I want to be that person, as much as I can.”

Even in these first few weeks, he’s been impressed — but not surprised — by how quickly Queen City startups have adapted in the face of COVID-19. One of the founders he’s mentored over the past few years — Aru Anavekar of the AI conversation tool botsplash — acted fast in the face of the pandemic. Her platform was already working with mortgage lenders, allowing them to communicate via chat or text, but over the past few weeks, she’s implemented video, too. 

“Now, those lenders dealing with the crush of people trying to refinance can talk to their customers face to face through the botsplash app,” Keith explained. 

Bustld, a local company that is taking part in the INCLT mentorship program, is another example. Founders Ryan and Samie Roberts built the platform to connect engaged couples with vetted wedding vendors. Now, with weddings at a standstill, they are selling products through their platform and using the proceeds to support their vendors, who are feeling the pain of the crisis acutely. 

“I’m seeing a lot of people helping other people. As a result, they will have customers for life,” Keith said. 

It can be hard to find good news in hard times, but in the case of Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community and INCLT, it could be this: The past 18 months were about laying a strong foundation, getting stable. Now, our entire community is being tested.  

And, as Keith will tell you, we’re ready.  

Thanks, as always, to the Kepler Team for continuing to support our outreach to the Charlotte startup community. Their commitment makes it possible for us to share our work and the work of others in the ecosystem. 

Whether you’re a seasoned leader interested in supporting local startups or a startup in need of advice and guidance, consider taking part in the INCLT mentorship program. We are currently accepting new mentors and founders. You can learn more here.