Startup Community Spotlight: Cincinnati


The Cincinnati startup community may not be mentioned in the breath as Boulder or Austin – yet – but it’s a well rounded and underrated ecosystem. I recently traveled there to lead a “Group Therapy” event at Union Hall. My friends at Cintrifuse brought 15 founders together with myself and Brad Zapp, Managing Partner at local fund Connetic Ventures. The founders were super engaged and asked great questions about raising capital in the Midwest, bringing on co-founders, and scaling.

After the group therapy session and catching up with awesome Cintrifuse CEO Wendy Lea, I attended a startup happy hour at Connetic’s office where I reconnected with local founders from companies including CompleteSet and FamilyTech. Afterwards Brad and his business partner Kyle took me out for a great dinner at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse which turned turned into a long night of eating, drinking and talking – not just with them but also a steady procession of their friends who stopped by to chat.

It was my third visit and like my previous trips I was impressed with the quality of startups I met, the buzz of energy inside Union Hall, and everyone’s hospitality. They’ve been deliberate in building out their ecosystem with some very enviable resources:

Union Hall – It’s been called the “center of gravity for entrepreneurs” and it’s easy to see why. It’s home to Cintrifuse, nationally ranked accelerator The Brandery, one of the Midwest’s most active funds CincyTech, as well as co-working and events.

Cintrifuse – A vital resource for both startups and big corporations, Cintrifuse is many things: education, coworking, connector, fund of funds. Wendy Lea was the driving force in bringing the Techstars FounderCon conference to Cincinnati last year, marking the first time it was held in a city without a Techstars program.

Investors – CincyTech, Connetic, Vine Street Ventures, Queen City Angels, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting. For a community their size they have an enviable array of experienced investors.

Accelerators & Incubators – The Brandery, UpTech, Ocean, and others including Aviatra (formerly Bad Girl Ventures) and HCDC.

Universities – Innovative and engaged universities are essential for any startup ecosystem. Theirs include the University of Cincinnati, Xavier, Miami U., and NKU.

Corporate Engagement – Other communities can learn from how they’ve successfully engaged large companies such as P&G, Kroger, American Financial Group, Cincinnati Bell, and many others.

Identity – Cincinnati is known for CPG, marketing, and branding companies. The startup community itself has built their own brand, StartupCincy, complete with its own website, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and swag. The #StartupCincy hashtag is prevalent on Twitter.

Midwest Benefits – Like other Midwest communities, Cincinnati has that wonderful combination of low cost of living, friendly, welcoming people, and excellent support organizations. The interactions are genuine and not transactional – I feel like the relationships I’ve built there are real and lasting.

Cincinnati has become a special startup community for Firebrand and me. Brad Feld‘s book Startup Communities describes the “leaders” and “feeders” that participate in successful ecosystems – Cincinnati has many already in place. Even better, the people making it all happen are doing it for the right reasons and use the “Give First” approach. I’m very excited to continue supporting them as their ecosystem flourishes in the Midwest.

Firebrand Kicks Off 2017 with a Bang!


We’ve had a busy 2017 at Firebrand Ventures and the year is only 24 days old!

First we announced tech pioneer Brian McClendon joined the Firebrand team as advisor. Brian grew up in Lawrence, KS, went to KU, and eventually founded Keyhole whose main product became Google Earth after Google acquired them in 2004. As their VP of Engineering Brian went on to lead the development of Google Maps, Street View, and Earth for almost 11 years before joining Uber in 2015 as their VP of Maps. Although he’s based in SF he frequently visits Lawrence. Brian is an awesome addition to the world class team we’re building.

Then we finalized a partnership with the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Universities should be the primary feeder of talent and tech into any great startup ecosystem. I’ve gotten to know the great folks at UMKC and they want nothing more than to help their entrepreneurs succeed. We can’t wait to invest in exceptional student entrepreneurs right here in KC!

Finally we announced our investment in Des Moines-based Dwolla. Every investment we make is special. Right off the bat this one was special because I’ve known Ben for about 5 years. Dwolla was also the first Midwest startup I engaged with after reconnecting with the regional startup community in 2012. I’ve always respected the culture of building he created there and the scope of their mission. The fact we got to co-invest alongside top tier VCs such as Foundry Group and Union Square Ventures made it even more appealing. To top it off, Brad Feld has been a valued mentor for me so doing a deal together was fantastic.

As for the rest of 2017, I don’t know what other news we’ll have to share but I promise to continue doing everything I can to help founders all over the greater Midwest!

Why I’m So Excited about the Firebrand Ventures-Plexpod Partnership


My new venture fund Firebrand Ventures and KC-based coworking company Plexpod recently announced a partnership. The Plexpod Westport Commons (PWC) space will be the biggest coworking facility in the world! It’s also adjacent to Westport, a vibrant KC entertainment district. Here are some of the reasons why I’m so excited about this partnership:

Providing Key Programming and Access

It’s often hard for entrepreneurs to find high quality, in-person content that can directly help their startup. I’m going to take the best content I’ve curated from my experiences as an entrepreneur and investor and provide it to the companies at PWC. These will include talks, workshops, and panels. I’ll deliver some of it, and will also bring in other experienced folks. Programming will be delivered to additional Plexpod locations too.


During my 25+ year career I’ve learned how valuable mentorship is. Most successful entrepreneurs have had mentors and advisors to help guide them. I’m gotten to know many fantastic mentors through programs like Techstars and look forward to connecting them with Plexpod companies.

Being a Visible and Accessible Investor

I’ll be based at PWC so it’ll be home base for Firebrand Ventures. One of the values that makes Firebrand different is our pledge to be accessible and visible to founders. What better way to demonstrate this than work from the world’s largest coworking space? Plus as a former founder myself I really enjoy being around entrepreneurs!

And Yes, Investments

A natural result of building relationships with founders is I’ll want to invest in the ones that meet our criteria in a very compelling way. I’ve talked and written about how critical it is for entrepreneurs and investors to build real relationships, and I’m really excited to get to know plenty of founders at PWC.

An Ecosystem within an Ecosystem

Anyone who’s read Brad Feld’s Startup Communities knows it takes several types of participants working together to create a well functioning startup ecosystem: entrepreneurs, universities, government, investors, mentors, service providers, and corporations. Just as the greater KC startup community is making progress engaging these different participants, the sheer number of companies working from PWC makes it an ideal place to bring all these parties together. It’s a mutually beneficial dynamic so all participants will get something great out of it, especially when using the “give first” approach.

Startup Density!

Startup density is critical to building a great startup ecosystem. In this case startup density is defined as having a large concentration of startups in a physical area. A central coworking space or neighborhood is key – just look at Boulder (downtown/Pearl St.), Chicago (1871), and Austin (Capitol Factory). The KC startup community has been fairly spread out with pockets of activity in the Crossroads, Startup Village and even Overland Park. PWC will quickly become that central hub our community needs to take it to the next level.

The Bubble of Support

When you get a group of hustling founders working in close proximity they often start helping each other in meaningful and unexpected ways. I’ve seen this first hand while running Techstars programs. Just as community is key to the Firebrand Ventures platform, this spirit of collaboration and “give first” will be hallmarks of PWC.

A Big Milestone

I’ve visited many startup communities across the U.S. and Plexpod Westport Commons is a very big deal for Kansas City and the Midwest. David Brain (SDP) and Gerald Smith (Plexpod) made it happen. As I got to know David and Gerald it became clear we all share a passion for building our community through action and collaboration.

The past four years have seen great advances for Kansas City including Google Fiber, the Startup Village, Techstars, and the Smart City initiative. Plexpod Westport Commons is the next big milestone and I’m proud to be a part of it!