Entrepreneur Panel Discusses Startups in Columbus

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On Thursday, August 6 a panel of five local entrepreneurs gathered at the Athletic Club of Columbus to discuss the ins and outs of doing business in the city, and just what you’re getting yourself into when taking the calculated leap into the world of entrepreneurship.

ACC Member Jim Coleman moderated the panel discussion featuring:

  • – Zach Weprin, CEO & Co-Founder of fast-casual sushi concept Fusian
  • – Joe DeLoss, Founder & Head Fryer of social enterprise Hot Chicken Takeover
  • – Brian Zuercher, Founder & CEO of marketing software platform Seen
  • – Tanisha Robinson, CEO & Co-Founder of self-expressive e-commerce apparel company Print Syndicate
  • – Greg Lehman, Founder of Watershed Distillery

The first round of questions focused on Columbus, highlighting both the city’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to startups.

Fusian decided to expand to Columbus after starting three successful restaurants in Cincinnati.

“Columbus is a gateway to America,” Weprin says. “If you can figure out a way to create and sell a product like sushi…If it works here, it’s going to work everywhere.” Fusian wants to create an experience in different types of locations to gain their proof of concept.

“There’s a lot of everybody here,” Weprin says.

They’re also eager for feedback from “everybody” saying, “We’re not chefs so we look from a business perspective, so we want you to be hard on us and make us better.”

Watershed faces a unique challenge in the spirits market – how do you overcome Columbus bourbon?

Lehman says that when they got started, they were wondering the same thing, “But what we found out was people in Columbus, love Columbus. It doesn’t matter what you’re making here, they want to try it. People are excited to support Columbus.”

Robinson faces a different challenge as her business is not as Columbus-centric, with Print Syndicate’s various e-commerce platforms selling goods all over the world.

“One of the biggest challenges is fundraising,” Robinson says. “There’s great seed capital and very, very early stage stuff.”

Print Syndicate went outside of Columbus to raise their Series A, and will likely do so again when they go for a Series B. It can be a tough market for high-growth companies.

“That lack of capital here, the consequence of that is there are companies that do get funded that have a lot of potential and they get moved out to other places by their investors,” Robinson says.

Robinson has no plans to move Print Syndicate out of Columbus, finding there are other pluses that outweigh the lack of capital. The lower cost of living does present a big advantage for companies in terms of real-estate prices and paying liveable wages.

For Zuercher and the Seen team, while they love Columbus, they don’t often talk about how the city impacts their business.

“You can believe the labeling that everyone else puts on you , you can buy into your own bullshit sitting around here talking about how great Columbus is, you can do all these things but at the end of the day, you’ve got to go make it happen,” he says. “And you can’t wait on anyone else, you can’t do anything else, and that’s kind of what we’ve done.”

It’s not about buying into the “Columbus” thing or “Silicon Valley” thing.

“There’s no secret,” Zuercher says. “It’s just run into a wall and decide that you’re going to keep running into it until you break it down.”

Pivots have been a part of Hot Chicken Takeover’s road to big-time popularity. Before the chicken, DeLoss had a startup committed to solving the labor crisis through second-chance employment. They built a model and a team, but got too far down the road without validation. HCT is now providing that validation.

“If nobody else is going to believe it, we’ve got to prove it and validate it ourselves,” DeLoss says.

That willingness to learn and pivot – that’s a huge part of being involved in a startup.

Although they’re on track to double their revenue yet again, the purpose behind Print Syndicate hasn’t changed, but the execution and the business model have evolved over the first few years.

“They’re all non-linear paths,” Zuercher adds. The media often portrays the best-case scenario  start-upward movement-explosion path, which generally isn’t close to what actually happens. Zuercher knows that first hand. Seen was supposed to be a travel software company for consumers.

“We were really committed to this concept of learning,” he says. He calls it essential for survival. “It’s probably not going to work out how you thought it was going to.”

Being an entrepreneur is all about solving a problem. There are problems that you can solve and problems that need solved. Zuercher says customers are going to pay the most for a solution to a problem that hurts them long-term.

And often that solution doesn’t involve totally reinventing the wheel. Robinson says there’s a lot of great business models that are a slight iteration of something else.

“It’s amazing how obvious they become after the fact,” Zuercher says.

Being a successful entrepreneur is often completely consuming. There’s never a right time to take the risk and start something. If you spend all your time hung up on risk, you’re likely to fail anyways. So instead of asking what happens if I fail, the entrepreneurs ask, what if you kill it instead?