The Cedar Rapids entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial scene is accelerating


I’m not the most qualified to write about the acceleration of the startup scene scene in Cedar Rapids, let that be clear. But dabbling on the fringe while taking an intrapreneurial approach in my day job for awhile has me excited for the growth and creativity happening here.

The acceleration was on display recently with more than 100 people playing some role in Startup Weekend Cedar Rapids. It will only gain momentum with the launch of the Iowa Startup Accelerator in August and the expansion of the Vault coworking space, both of which will call the new Geonetric building home.

It was hard not to get caught up in the emotion and excitement of Startup Weekend. It’s been more than a week now to let the high fade a bit to reflect on what’s happening here and the possibilities.

Since then, I’ve had conversations on an intrapreneurial track for EntreFest 2014 and met with startup weekend team members on Major Trading Cards. I’m currently taking in all that is SXSW Interactive, including a meetup of Iowa entrepreneurs.

Three things in particular stick out from my experiences the past two weeks that apply to both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs that speaks to the heart of the acceleration process I mentioned earlier.

Create a culture around solving a problem – Fear is a big thing to overcome in a 130-year-old media company. I see this mentality in the small team I work with everyday and it’s one of the reasons Startup Weekend was an invaluable experience for me. Solving a problem is fun and it brings people together. The question for me to help answer is how can we spread that message by example at the enterprise level.

Experiment fast and cheap – The digital world gives us access to real-time data and feedback. What more do you want? There is no more waiting six to nine months to launch something and hoping it’s perfect. Think Launch. Test. Iterate.

Celebrate success and failures – It’s that Midwest humble mentality that bites us sometimes. The more we talk about the good things (and the bad) that are happening in the startup and intrapreneurial community in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City the more it will spread and create the kind of high I came away with from Startup Weekend.

More of my thoughts on Startup Weekend Cedar Rapids

A fresh look at ecommerce and marketplaces

This is a list of 10 things that should be included in the next wave of ecommerce, according to Ethan Song, CEO and co-founder of Frank & Oak.

I attended his session/meetup at SXSW Interactive on A New Dialogue: Your Input Is Changing E-Commerce. Even for marketplace products I work with, these all apply.

Bring customers into building the brand

Stand for something – You can’t be everything to everyone

Make everything personal – Understand every customer. Be a uniquely value driven retailer.

Be inclusive and transparent

Build and inspire communities – It’s not about the product. It’s about the story and the experience.

Understand the technology – Personalized experiences

Turn the product and the experience into one – Become a media company. Product + The Experience + Content

Build new bridges with customers – Mobile is not just a channel

Refresh your organizations – Learn from Google

Read more explanation on each of these at the Bigcommerce E-Commerce Blog.

Best quotes I’ve heard at #SXSW


This is a roundup of the best comments I heard while at SXSW Interactive so far. I attended sessions and met people related to ecommerce, mobile, digital marketing, company culture and media.

“Over and over no one spends money on basic customer research. We are guessing. And I think we our terrified of what they’ll say. Start talking to your customers. We have to find out what their real needs are.”

– Kristina Halvorson, telling marketers to “Fix your shit.

“A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is.”

– Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit on Create Awesome: Empower Teams to Change the World

“Old habits and outdated expectations are holding us back. We shouldn’t be limited by physical shapes. It’s not our screen size that needs to expand. It’s our mind to adapt to new models. This is possible today.”

– Sung Kim, The Next Mobile Experience

“Trust behaviors, not surveys. We’ve lost a lot of money on surveys. Run an experiment fast and cheap.”

– Scott Cook

“The customer lifecycle is replacing the funnel.”

– Andrew Hanelly, Staying Ahead of the Consumption Behavior Curve

“Every company is a technology company now.”

– Steve Case, in his Q&A session titled The Rest is Rising: Entrepreneurship in America.

“It’s magical.”

Gina Bianchini, on what happens when enterprise organization open up to work with startups

“I don’t think anyone in high school seems presidential.”

– Steve Case, on attending \high school with President Barack Obama. Case a senior, Obama a freshman.

“How much does a hipster weigh? An instagram.”

– Joke from random dude

Random musings on product development from my first SXSW Interactive experience

sxsw_jason_1I am one of the thousands of people in Austin this week for SXSW Interactive thanks to Fusionfarm sending me down to take in the expertise, networking opportunity, beer and food.

For background, my approach to SXSW is to focus on ecommerce and marketplace strategy, development and implementation. Fusionfarm is an integrated marketing agency. I work with clients who want digital marketing services, as well as focus on marketplace and ecommerce new product development.

I’ve met a number of great people so far. The real examples people use in the sessions have been inspiring. Here are a few random thoughts that have stuck out so far:


Norman Winarsky, the vice president of Ventures at SRI International – the nonprofit institute behind such things as SIRI –  gave three simple considerations that drive new product development:

  • A real market pain
  • A great team to work on the solution
  • A differentiated value proposition

An interesting fact Winarsky shared was that SIRI came about while trying to solve this problem: How do you access web services without clicking? Twenty percent of potential customers are lost with every click.

To paraphrase: “The key is to overcome the thought that it starts with a technology. First, ask yourself if you have the means to solve the problem. Are you willing to invest money and, more importantly, your heart?”

In another session, Ram Menon, who’s Responsible for TIBCO’s Social Computing Division, said if you want technology to be adopted for a product or service in this environment is must contain these three things:

  • It must be mobile
  • It must be easy to use
  • It must be beautiful


I live and work in Iowa where adoption of product and services that utilizes digital technology can be a challenge. A theme I’ve encountered a few times is that if you swing for the fences with a new technology venture it will be very difficult to succeed. Instead focus on a minimum viable product to prove the service in a limited fashion.

There are two reason for this:

  • If you have a small team trying to go after a large market opportunity it will likely suck the life out of you
  • It’s easier to find and utilize the early adopters and treat them like gold

“Find a few key people with vast networks who see great value in what you are offering. Your best customers are your best marketers.”

More on my SXSW experience will be coming soon.


It was pitch day for six startup ecommerce businesses

Will Lentzen, a social media account manager for Fusionfarm, pitches an e-commerce business idea. (Photo by Kelly Homewood)

Will Lentzen, a social media account manager for Fusionfarm, pitches an e-commerce business idea. (Photo by Kelly Homewood)

Today more than 40 people on six teams that I work with at Fusionfarm, a digital marketing and creative services agency, pitched their startup ecommerce business ideas to a local panel of people involved in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids startup community.

I’ve written about my involved in the project here and here.

You can read more about today’s pitches and view each of them on the blog.

Roughly 12 weeks ago 40 members of the Fusionfarm staff launched a project called Ecommerce Camp. Six teams were each given $5,000 to launch, market and run a startup ecommerce business. The goal is to increase the ecommerce acumen within the agency and to increase collaboration between product, sales, technology and creative people.

The startup funds are spent however each team determines. The only caveat is that everyone involved meet weekly to share insights, lessons learned and obstacles overcome.

Today, each team pitched its idea and business model to a panel of six people actively involved in the local startup community. Each pitch was limited to five minutes, five slides, one handout and five minutes for questions from the panel.

An interview on current projects

Every couple of weeks my employer in an effort to continue to evolve the culture and be transparent puts together a video interview with people involved in various aspect of the business. This week it was my turn.

The segment is called Blue Talks. The host is Paul Nus. We discuss what’s happening at the agency, Fusionfarm, and other projects we’re working on including moving more into the marketplace arena. And, of course, we talk about E-commerce Camp.

Lessons learned after two weeks of E-commerce Camp

The second week of E-commerce Camp has concluded and I am happy to say all six teams are heading in positive directions. That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

A quick recap: The local media company and the marketing agency associated with it – where I work as a digital product manager – has awarded six teams $5,000 each to start an e-commerce business. I and others act as advisors to provide research, background and knowledge to the teams.

We broke the process of creating an e-commerce business into 10 steps, which is outlined in more detail here. The goal is to increase the e-commerce and marketplace knowledge of the organization and to increase collaboration between people in product, sales and technology and creative departments.

The e-commerce ideas

After two weeks, each team was put on a path to select a niche market, research and choose products to sell, create a brand name and purchase a URL.

Four teams have chosen to explore partnerships with Iowa businesses to sell goods online. The products include popcorn, salsa, coffee and wine. Each team is now wrangling with the details of the business to business relationship.

Two teams have selected business opportunities that require a relationship with at least one drop ship supplier. The current business paths are around do-it-yourself wall art and drinking game supplies.

What we’ve learned

When the curriculum was formed it was intended to push teams down a certain path. Select a product, select a drop ship supplier, pick a shopping cart platform, build, launch and market. We’ve quickly learned that the teams used those steps as a guide but navigated their own path, which is good.

As advisors, we now have to shift the curriculum to fit the needs of the teams and the direction they’ve chosen. For example, we need to up our game on B2B contracts and get legal advice on forming those types of relationships.

We’ve also learned that some teams moved quickly to a new idea after realizing a path wasn’t working financial or logistically. That is good to see.

Finally, we’ve seen and heard that teams are creating synergy amongst themselves.

A recap of the project so far:

The future of media companies

Two reads in the past two days have me thinking about the future of media companies and helped me reached a conclusion.

Both pieces were written in the wake of the examination of the 2012 Presidential Election results. They are:

My conclusion: Newspaper companies are out of touch with the communities they serve. The impact is felt tangibly: shrinking audience, less revenue and lack of innovation.

Mutter’s focus is on newspaper endorsements. I could care less about who a newspaper endorses or if it reflects the majority opinion of voters in its readership. Media companies should take a stand and converse openly and collaboratively about it with its community. It’s the latter that rarely occurs, however. It remains the one-way megaphone form of communication.

Mutter’s money quote: “The fact that so many newspapers were not on the same page as the majority of voters in several swing states in this election suggests they may be dangerously out of tune with the communities they serve.”

Doctor focuses on demographics saying “the people creating the news look less and less like the communities they cover.” He offers three approaches to solving that issue: people, products and position.

I don’t have the answers. There is still much talk about digital first and creating content differently. Good things are happening, but it’s not enough.

First week of E-commerce Camp is in the books

Drinking game supplies, local salsa, cubicle windows and wine baskets are just a few of the niche product ideas to come out of the first week of E-Commerce Camp.

As I described last week, the local media company that I work for in Cedar Rapids, Iowa has invested time and money for six teams and more than 40 people to start an e-commerce business. Each team has $5,000 in seed money and a basic curriculum to follow each week.

The assignment for week one was to select a niche product to sell via a dropshipper and report how the decision was made. The teams also had to provide reasons to believe they’ve could turn the idea into a profitable business.

E-commerce assumptions

During the kickoff event last week, two assumptions circulated. First, selecting a niche product would be easy and, secondly, it’s likely that some of the teams will select the same product to sell.

If you have some knowledge of e-commerce businesses, you already know that those assumptions didn’t last long. Selecting a niche is likely one of the hardest and most important decisions that help determine the success of the business. We found that each team would like more time and, as you can tell from the list above, the diversity of the business ideas is quite varied.

Selecting a niche

As we hoped, each team took a different approach to selecting a niche. Teams were quick to eliminated ideas for seasonal products. Some considered partnering with an existing Iowa business. Others looked deep into the passions of its team members. Certain teams made contact and pitched potential solutions to existing business as part of the research phase too.

It was interesting to see and hear the conversations that occurred throughout the week. Most teams took a ‘secretive’ approach to selecting a product at first not wanting someone to steal the next great idea. As the week progressed and the enormity of the decision settled in, the collaboration opened, which was great to see.

Act like a start-up

The E-commerce Camp curriculum is set up that decisions points can be adjusted. We encourage each team to act like a start-up. Pivot points will occur, so the decisions reached during week one may not be the business idea that comes to fruition in a couple of weeks.

For example, some of the niche ideas that were tossed aside, at least for the moment, include creating a senior dating website and selling hunting bows.

And most of the teams still have key business questions to answer. What are the licenses needed to ship wine? What’s the cost and process to ship fresh salsa? Some questions are more broad. How can we create a business with more than a single point of failure?

Next phase

Week two of E-commerce Camp is set up for each team to determine the brand and purchase a URL. They have a week to make some more decisions and report back.

Each team is off to a good start. As and advisor it will be my role to counsel each as best I can to give them access to information and resources that will help them make the best decisions possible.

I’ll continue to update our progress.

Iowa media company gives employees $5,000 to launch e-commerce business

The local media company I work for – The Gazette Company –  and more specifically the agency formed within called Fusionfarm launched today an internal project awarding teams of employees $5,000 to start an e-commerce business.

The company has agreed to invest $30,000 for six teams to plan, launch, market and maintain each business with an offer to share in the revenue over a period of time.

The goal is to increase the e-commerce knowledge within the agency and to increase collaboration between product, sales, technology and creative resources.

That’s pretty darn cool. We’re calling this process E-Commerce Camp.

Three people, me included, have worked for more than a month to gain as much e-commerce acumen as possible to create a core curriculum each team can use as a guide. In return, each team will report weekly on the progress and lessons learned.

Each team was required to have at least one representative from each area of expertise listed above. The only limitation is that teams cannot use a wholesaler supplier. We ended up with six teams of seven people.

That equals 42 people, or approximately 10 percent of the entire company who will collaborate to deploy a start-up e-commerce business. The curriculum calls for launching in the first couple of weeks of January 2013.

The curriculum, in simple form, includes 10 main steps:

  • How to choose a good niche
  • How to find a URL and brand name
  • How to find dropship suppliers
  • How to set up a merchant account, tax ID and credit card transactions
  • How to choose a shopping cart platform
  • How to design your storefront
  • How to optimize your site for search
  • How to build and execute an e-commerce marketing plan
  • How to monitor your site and transaction performance
  • How to tell if you’re making a profit

The idea came from Tim McDougall, the Vice President of Products, Publisher of The Gazette and a main partner with Fusionfarm. He, myself and Aaron Frerichs, the Manager of Digital Production, formed the curriculum and will act as advisors to the teams. Our Vice President of Sales and Fusionfarm partner Chris Edwards and Fusionfarm’s Director of Product Development Kelly Homewood will also act as advisers.

Not every detail is finalized and we’ll all be learning and adapting throughout this process. I’ll update the progress here and on the Fusionfarm blog.