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Mike Figliuolo: Angel funder, entrepreneur, thought leader

Mike Figliuolo, Web and Mobile app entrepreneur. Photos Ben French
Mike Figliuolo, Web and Mobile app entrepreneur. Photos Ben French

You might say Mike Figliuolo is in the IT space. Only it's not that simple.

Yes, he's CEO of TiXiT, a Columbus web startup that helps entertainment venues fill the house by offering discounts for unsold tickets.

Yes, he is a principal of the weBuild accelerator, which he co-founded to help fledgling web and mobile app developers connect to funding and other needed business assistance.

He's a founder of FreakJet.com, an app that allows mobile phone users to upload humorous photos of airport craziness.

And of SimpleMile, an Android-based app, now in beta, that simplifies the tracking of mileage for business travelers.

As a member of the Ohio TechAngels, he's also an investor in new technology ventures.

But 70 percent of his time is spent with thoughtLEADERS, a consulting firm of working practitioners which he founded to teach companies leadership methods as practiced -- and taught -- by real-life, working business people.

"Most of our clients are Fortune 500, so when clients talk about their issues, invariably our instructors have experienced something similar and can help them bridge from that situation to the method we're teaching," Figliuolo explains. Clients have included Oracle, Heinz, Discover Financial, Abbott Labs and ServiceMaster. thoughtLEADERS has taken him to Vietnam, Colombia, Ireland and across the U.S. from Boston to San Francisco.

"I've run that full time since 2008, and the business has grown tremendously," he says. "2009 was up 20 percent from 2008, 2010 was up 200 percent and so far this year, we've got 50 percent of last years results on the books."

When asked what someone should make of his career, Figliuolo smiles.

"I'm a parallel entrepreneur. Which has its ups and downs."

One of the ups: The breadth of Figliuolo's business dealings in central Ohio puts him in a prime position to understand the business and technology networks that weave through the region -- as well as what it takes to be successful in that ecosystem.

"It's getting there," he says of Columbus's technology environment. "It's a much smaller community than people realize. I think there's a lot of desire to foster that environment, which is great. People want to help entrepreneurs. The technology community, and I'm talking developers and coders, is very small. It's growing, but it's a very small handful of folks, and they're very busy."

Figliuolo believes that the relative newness and size of that community has sometimes hindered the availability of local capital for tech startups, especially for those whose primary focus is web and mobile app development.

Investors "are very comfortable with medical devices, advanced materials, things you can touch and manufacture, because that's what Ohio is, and it requires a certain mindset in how you invest and how you build that company. Web and mobile are completely different in terms of how you build those companies, how you scale them, develop products and how you fund them, govern them and invest in them. They are fundamentally different, and I don't think a lot of people understand that yet."

For example, successful web and mobile app companies are often the ones that figure out their "minimum viable product," build it, put it out into the consumer space, see what happens and "pivot, iterate, pivot, iterate and go again. And you're not investing $200,000 in one shot to build the all-singing, all-dancing platform. You spend five grand to build your prototype, launch and see what happens. Another five grand for version two. You spend 10 grand, 20 grand for version three and more robust platforms because you've learned enough from those first two."

That understanding is lacking in too much of the Ohio investment community, Figliuolo believes.

"When you launch a new website a lot of people ask 'who writes the purchase order?' There are no purchase orders! Investors aren't there yet, or the vast majority of investors aren't there yet. The vast majority want to see metrics or want to do a big market research study."

While the web and mobile app industry is growing stronger in central Ohio, Figliuolo says many such startups need help to become successful. That's one of the reasons Figliuolo and partners Brian Link, Mike Sheehan and Nick Seguin founded weBuild, he says.

"Three colleagues and I got together and said, 'you know, there's an absence of infrastructure from a network and capability and people standpoint,'" especially in the web and mobile app space, "to help an entrepreneur who has an idea on a napkin, a cube dweller at one of he big companies who wants to be an entrepreneur but has no idea how to go from that cool idea to turning it into a company with a platform technology."

While he continues to pursue new business ideas, Figliuolo recently diverged a bit to become the author of One Piece of Paper, due out in October and published by Jossey-Bass.

"I'd been writing a thoughtLEADERS blog for about three years, and we'll get about 15,000 and 25,000 unique visits per month," he says. "And a literary agent found me last August and said 'hey, I found your blog, have you ever thought about writing a book?' So we went from a conversation in August to a book deal last October, to a first draft by January and publication this October."

The book draws on the methods taught by thoughtLEADERS' team members.

"The book is about how do you articulate your leadership philosophy on one piece of paper and do it in an emotionally powerful and resonant way," Figliuolo explains.

It includes sections on "leading yourself," "leading the thinking" of an organization, "leading your people" and "leading a balanced life."

With everything Figliuolo has going on in his own life, one might wonder how he manages that last one -- balancing business obligations with those to his wife, three children and three dogs. But, as he reminisces about the fishing trips he's taken with his 14-year old son, you get the idea he's doing just fine.

"Last year, we went to Colorado, we went to Hawaii. He and I went bass fishing for my birthday in Florida, and we caught 180 largemouth in two and a half days," he says smiling. "The largest was one he caught -- eight pounds, six ounces."

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