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The Brandery: Local impact, national attention

The Brandery, Cincinnati, OH. Photos Joe Simon and submitted
The Brandery, Cincinnati, OH. Photos Joe Simon and submitted
A year ago, Danny Stull was one of a handful of entrepreneurs chosen to take part in the first-ever program offered at The Brandery, Cincinnati's brand-oriented business accelerator.   He was hoping to attract venture capital to take his social networking site for outdoor lovers -- Venturepax.com -- to a national audience. 

Today, Stull is seeing his dreams realized and recently received $200,000 in early funding from CincyTech and $50,000 from private investor Steve Clark. 

Venturepax is attracting attention from retailers who will use the site to promote their gear and services.  In turn, these businesses would generate revenue for Venturepax in the form of kick backs as its users buy the retailers' products through promotions offered on the site.  Venturepax users earn points towards discounts on stuff by posting details of their adventures online. 

He credits The Brandery with helping him get this far.

"Getting into The Brandery was a shot in the arm," says Stull, 26, who founded his site in 2008.  "I knew it was real now. They helped me craft my message and hone my financial projections."

Their vote of confidence was equally important.

"To get some very smart people to say your idea is good makes you feel great."

Smart people -- especially in the world of branding -- is exactly what makes The Brandery a unique option for start-ups like Venturepax. With a roster of powerhouse talent in the marketing and branding world from giants such as Procter & Gamble, Rockfish Interactive and Bridge Worldwide, The Brandery gives consumer-focused internet companies some solid mentoring to get their brand established in a fast moving global marketplace.

During the 12-week Brandery program, these mentors guide the budding young business owners in how to identify their customers' needs and wants and then hone their brand to meet those needs.

Dave Knox, a co-founder of The Brandery who spent seven years as brand manager, digital innovations for P&G Productions, and is now vice president, chief marketing officer with Rockfish Interactive, says he knew this accelerator concept fit a need.  He also saw how Cincinnati could benefit by luring these young companies to stay here.

"Time and again we've seen that companies that break through the pack, it was in how they approached their brand," says Knox.  "It's why Facebook flourished and MySpace struggled."

This mission capitalizes on Cincinnati's strengths as a consumer marketing leader with names like P&G, Kroger and Macy's.  It also makes The Brandery stand out among the many accelerator programs across the U.S., most of which focus on high tech companies, not those targeted at the consumer.

"I think our approach is unique and that's what got us noticed," says Knox of The Brandery's listing as a top 10 U.S. accelerator in a joint study by the Kauffman Fellows, Tech Cocktail and the Kellogg School of Management.  "Our partners and mentors have helped us achieve a high success rate in our first year.   We want to continue to prove that this can be done in Cincinnati."

Bringing business and jobs to Cincinnati has been a key component of the program from the start, says Knox. As part of their agreement with The Brandery, the young companies agree to move to Cincinnati and grow their businesses there.  They also agree to give The Brandery a six percent equity stake in exchange for mentoring, $20,000 in seed money and office space.

"Getting businesses to move here is part of the goal," he says.  "Hopefully this will lead to many more start-ups coming to town."

Jim Fisher, founder of RoadTrippers, an internet travel business that gives users a chance to plan an entire trip from one on-line spot, and one of the current "class members" at The Brandery, says that the requirements for admission to the program are a small price to pay for the invaluable support.

"It's been hugely beneficial for the business contacts we've made," says Fisher, who re-located to Cincinnati from Germany.  "Working with everyone from legal advisers to start-up mentors to big ad agency executives has been so helpful."

"If we stopped tomorrow we'd still be ten times better off then we were before."

The class of 2011 will hold its Demo Day, the end of the three-month Brandery program and a final pitch to venture capitalists and business executives in the hopes of getting early financial backing, on Oct. 25.  After last year's Demo Day in November, three out of six businesses received venture funding and two are nearing agreements on funding.
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