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Cincinnati's path to fostering entrepreneurship

Wall Pockets by Ampersand, part of the Losantiville Collective
Wall Pockets by Ampersand, part of the Losantiville Collective -
Entrepreneurial ecosystems spur important advancements in communities, including job creation, better neighborhoods and greater collaboration among businesses, artists, inventors, educational facilities and investors.

From Hoboken to San Francisco—and even in “fly-over” cities such as Boulder, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Omaha—entrepreneurship and “maker culture” are changing the face of business and the shape of cities in significant ways not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

Cincinnati has long-embraced entrepreneurs. They include William Procter, James Gamble and Carl Lindner and generations of farmers and butchers at Findlay Market, to name a few. The city has a chance to build on that history with start-up incubators like The Brandery, business development opportunities like SpringBoard Cincinnati and Bad Girl Ventures (just for starters) and respected universities in the Queen City.

San Francisco-based writer David Pescovitz is also co-editor and managing partner of Boing Boing and research director at the nonprofit Institute for the Future. A Cincinnati native and graduate of the University of Cincinnati, Pescovitz has written extensively on maker culture and emerging technologies, among other topics. Pescovitz defines a vibrant maker culture as one in which “like-minded, curious people share similar values around creativity, ingenuity and openness.”

“It’s astounding what people can do without any money or without management, if given the freedom to follow their passions and connect with others,” Pescovitz says.

“The old model of tech innovation used to be about solitary inventors hiding in garages or research facilities, but now it’s about opening the doors and engaging with others. We are shifting from research and development labs to research and development communities.”

Where we are now

Cincinnati may be in “fly-over” country, but a growing number of startups see the city as a welcoming and supportive place for innovation and entrepreneurship. They point to Cincinnati’s extensive urban renewal, especially in Over-the-Rhine, as one reason to settle here, but they also cite a low cost of living, generally low unemployment rate and access to major educational institutions and entrepreneurial-friendly big businesses as more reasons to set up shop in the Queen City.

One long-established player in the field of local entrepreneurship is Norwood's Hamilton County Business Center, which has been home to more than 260 business startups since 1989. HCBC is a mixed-use, technology-focused incubation program that caters to entrepreneurs and innovators in Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Warren counties. 

Patrick Longo has served as HCBC’s director for 17 years and has seen a lot of change in the business environment during that time, but has “loved the last three years in Cincinnati” with its increased entrepreneur initiatives. 

“I never thought that entrepreneurship would be sexy,” Longo says. “But it is, and Greater Cincinnati has grasped on to this.” With a success rate of nearly 70 percent, HCBC has graduated 110 businesses from its incubator program to the southwest Ohio marketplace. 

“We work with the companies,” Longo says. “We are not an investor and have no ownership stake. We work for their best interests, period.” That said, Longo sees more opportunities for collaborations and partnerships between cities, businesses and others in the region. “There’s good work being done, but there’s more to do,” he says. “We’re on our way up.”

Cincinnati’s entrepreneurship culture is diverse, including the usual IT technologies, but the city also harbors product design, invention and marketing in its maker culture. 

One example is Rhinegeist, the most recent of seven craft breweries to open in Cincinnati in the last year, reclaiming a long and proud Queen City tradition of beer brewing. Co-founders Bryant Goulding and Bob Bonder are both transplants to Cincinnati—they met in San Francisco, and they agree that they could have opened a brewery anywhere. The fact that they didn’t says a lot about the Cincinnati market, Bonder says.

Perhaps nothing defines maker culture as much as the work being done by the nine artists that together make up Losantiville Collective, which is located on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine and is a graduate of SpringBoard Cincinnati.

Started by Matt Anthony, Dixon Branded and Chris Heckman, the Collective comprises six companies that pool their funds and resources while working under one roof. Almost all of the artists are academically trained in industrial arts so the products that emerge range from furniture to wooden ornaments and signs to urban art. Losantiville Collective has been in business for three years and continues to thrive.

The Collective epitomizes the spirit of SpringBoard, an innovative business development program for craftsfolk, artisans and other creative entrepreneurs whose success stories fill storefronts downtown, Covington and Northside, among other locations. Since its launch in 2011, the program has helped 20 businesses get started. Classes fill up faster with each offering. 

Successful startups do two things well: they build a product their users love and they make sure the right people know about that product. The city's best-known destination for startups, The Brandery, is a seed-stage startup accelerator whose four-month program focuses on the importance of consumer marketing and branding, helping startups in Cincinnati achieve those goals. 

With Cincinnati ranked as a "Top 5 Consumer Marketing Region" in the world and with 10 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the city, The Brandery can draw upon the agencies and market research firms that focus on branding, marketing, advertising and design to assist its clients. Collaboration with public-private seed-stage investor CincyTech adds to the incubator's appeal to creative thinkers from around the world.

By any standard, The Brandery is doing quite well for its clients. Eighteen of its companies—70 percent—are still in business months after leaving the accelerator. A 19th has been acquired by new owners. In total, those companies have created nearly 100 jobs and have attracted over $20 million in funding. Alums like Choremonster and Roadtrippers have set up headquarters in the city's core and serve as creative examples of how attracting and nurturing entrepreneurs can turn into long-term success stories for urban development, job growth and community revitalization.

Some of those connections have been made at Demo Day where, at the end of the accelerator’s four-month program, graduates pitch their businesses to potential investors. Last year’s event, held in Great American Ball Park, attracted about 125 investors from around the country.

In 2012, the creation of Cintrifuse brought together business leaders who are working to expand the city's stake in entrepreneurship. As the organization builds out space in OTR, hopes are high for its impact on the city's startup culture.

Demanding better: key points to follow to foster entrepreneurship

• Develop strong “open government” initiatives, especially open-source data, to give innovators the kind of information they need for problem solving, which can result in exciting new businesses and as well as growth and improved quality of life.

• Capitalize on the startup energy already building in the city by creating a position or making room for an executive-on-loan type of collaborator to serve as an entrepreneur advocate at City Hall. This person would be the one-stop shop for all things a startup needs, encouraging collaborations between existing programs around the region and the country to facilitate more leaders from Cincinnati. The leader could also host regular summits of local entrepreneurs to get at the heart of what they need to work, live and grow inside the city.

• Develop a program to support entrepreneurs by providing health care and other benefits through the power of the city’s administration. Some of the biggest barriers for entrepreneurs hoping to make it on their own stem from their need for security. The city has experimented with extending limited health insurance options for sole proprietors, but it needs to make a concerted effort to make the act of jumping from corporate manager to entrepreneur more appealing to residents with great ideas and a lower capacity for risk-taking.

• Offer tax breaks, abatements and incentives for entrepreneurs, not just big businesses that are threatening to leave town. Better yet, how about an incentive for business owners who also choose to live within the city limits? Consider creative alternatives, from discounts on municipal services to free Metro passes or parking for employees.

• Show leadership by having an official presence at events like The Brandery's Demo Day and SpringBoard's graduations. Political leaders and city employees need to make the most of chances to mingle with investors as well as support local entrepreneurs and thought-leaders who are poised to invest their most precious assets—their ideas and talents—in the city.

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