2017: The Year of Travel

Want to compare where I am now versus where I was one year ago? Check out 2016’s Year in Review.

What better time than the end of the year to take a step back and look at the progress made over the past 12 months? This is the third “year in review” post I’ve done, and this blog’s third birthday will be comping up in the first half of 2018. I might buy myself an ice cream cake to celebrate!

First, let’s take a look back at this year and run down all of the events and big moments that have taken place. Be prepared – more has happened this year than even I realized before began compiling this list, so this is going to be one of my longer posts. Then, to round out the year in review, I’ll be publishing a second post with my plans for 2018 and some thoughts for the entrepreneurial ecosystem here in eastern Iowa. I’m breaking this thing into two posts, because there’s just so much to cover. I hope you’ve enjoyed following my progress, and here goes nothing!

The first trip of the year was to Decatur, Illinois, to participate in Startup Weekend Decatur. Since this was scheduled in the middle of February, I was worried about the weather interfering with travel to or from the event. It ended up being so warm that we were able to be outside without any winter gear! It was my second time getting up and pitching an idea at a Startup Weekend – the first being my idea at Startup Weekend Iowa City 2016 for a crowdsourcing platform to help the fashionably-challenged find something to wear. My teammates on that project were the people running Startup Weekend Decatur, which is how I ended up attending. My friend Ian was facilitating the event, so we were able to carpool there and back. I got up to pitch an idea because I wasn’t really into any of the other ideas, and Cider Finder was born.

I was surprised that I could form an idea around my original idea – finding the beverages you like at local watering holes without having to leave the comfort of your home. We did a bit of customer discovery and a few iterations later, we settled on cider as our beverage of choice. No apps were focusing on craft cider, a $2 billion industry. My team and I are still working on the idea to this day, as we build out the assets we need to put together a minimum viable app. The team that formed around the idea included myself and three guys from Fairfield who were originally only attending Decatur to see how a Startup Weekend ran, so they could run a similar event in September – more on this later in the post – and were not planning to join any of the teams. They ended up really liking my idea and stuck around as long as they could before they had to leave midday Saturday as they originally planned. It was an interesting experience running a remote team during a Startup Weekend, but it turned out really well. We ended up winning second place, and I gained some great contacts in southeast Iowa.

The weekend after Startup Weekend Decatur was the 48 Hour Phones Only Film Festival in Cedar Rapids. Trevor Carlson was putting this event on, and I thought I’d lend some support by participating. I went into the weekend thinking it was going to be a Startup Weekend for short films, but it ended up being significantly less stressful that any Startup Weekend that I’ve attended. My team’s film received a couple of awards, including best use of the creative criteria and crowd choice. Trevor and I have talked briefly about running the festival again, but nothing has yet been planned.

Things got busy again mid-April with several events: the Hawkeye Innovation Expo, the Young Entrepreneur Convention, and the InnovateHER Pitch Competition. Over the course of a few days, I pitched Sexy Life (we hadn’t changed the name of the company yet) three different times, in front of three different judging panels. The Hawkeye Innovation Expo was the first time we’d pitched our company since Chris left the team in 2016 and David and I had taken a bit of time away from the project. Thinking back to that first pitch, I feel like I’ve become much more comfortable pitching our company in front of audiences. We really weren’t ready to be pitching the project at that point, and it was nice to relaunch with the new name later in the year. However, the experience was a great benefit for me, to have a bit of experience in front of judging panels.

We also had a display table at the “expo” portion of the Hawkeye Innovation Expo, and we were able to connect with lots of people who wanted to learn more about what we were doing. We collected dozens of e-mail addresses for our monthly newsletter, and most of those people have stuck around from April through to the present. I think that 2018 may be the year of display tables – we aren’t planning on entering more than one or two pitch competitions next year, as we focus more on connecting with potential customers and loading up that customer acquisition funnel with people who might consider trying out our product.

I had to leave the Hawkeye Innovation Expo early to travel to Des Moines for the Young Entrepreneur Convention. The event overall improved in its second year, and I enjoyed much of the content from this year’s speakers. The organizers are revamping the convention for 2018, including moving the convention downtown from the state fairgrounds and splitting the entrepreneurial content from the online influencers (less Jake Paul – you’re welcome, everyone.) I already have my ticket for 2018, and I’m looking forward to seeing several of my friends there. I’m also planning to spend all of Friday working from Des Moines, so if you want to connect on April 20, let me know!

Shortly after the pitch competitions, David and I put together the first couple of activities we created for then-Sexy Life and sent the boxes to interested couples throughout the country. The feedback we received was critical in tweaking the product before we launched our public sales. At this point, we were also starting to trial new names for Sexy Life. We knew that it was going to be tough to sell something called Sexy Life, but we had no idea that we were hitting workplace content filters until we participated in Startup Weekend Cedar Rapids’ Side Hustle Saturday and ran into problems accessing our Web site inside the Iowa Startup Accelerator space.

David and I had a great time working alongside regular Startup Weekend participants to develop our idea further during Side Hustle Saturday. I was also able to get up at the end of the weekend and give a more-refined version of the pitch I’d given at the pitch competitions earlier in the spring. This was the point where I really felt as though I was starting to hit my stride giving our pitch in front of an audience. You can only learn so much giving a pitch in front of a mirror, and having the opportunity to pitch in front of a crowd of any size is an incredibly learning experience.

Before we eventually changed our name, there were a couple more events and one more pitch competition that we’d decided to enter. The John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers were running a statewide pitch competition at EntreFEST back in May. I had missed out on the last EntreFEST back in 2015, as I was just entering the entrepreneurial ecosystem at the time – I didn’t have the people in place to help out with my daughter during the week (just had the one at the time), and I really didn’t have the money to spend on a ticket for the event, since I was putting what little money I had completely into equipment for my freelancing business.

EntreFEST was a great event and was a great way to connect with entrepreneurs from all over Iowa. I’ve had a chance to reconnect with some folks I met during the event as I have traveled around the state this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them at the event in Cedar Rapids this coming May. It’s going to be interesting how they organize the event in Cedar Rapids as opposed to Iowa City – whether or not the event is based in the NewBo neighborhood or in downtown, or possibly a combination of the two. I hope they release more information soon!

Flyover Fashion Fest picked up at the end of EntreFEST, and I thought was a great complement to the programming from the previous two days. It would have been great to have the two events more integrated, since they were using some of the same spaces during each of the events. Nevertheless, it was fun to be around people much more fashionable than myself during Flyover. The talks I attended were more design-based, rather than the entrepreneurial focus of EntreFEST.

At the beginning of EntreFEST, I received an email from an accelerator out in Colorado inviting Cider Finder to apply for their program. It turned out that the email was automated, but it got our team thinking about how to get Cider Finder out the door faster, to see if we can get any sort of traction on our idea. As the craft cider market grows over the next few years, we’d like to be the first cider-focused app connecting the over 600 craft cider makers to the masses of people looking for something new to try and are turned off by other craft beer apps. We applied to a couple of accelerators, including the one who had emailed us in the first place. We weren’t accepted to any of them, but we were given some great advice from accelerators who turned us down. As I’ll discuss in my plans for 2018 post, next year is going to be critical for Cider Finder’s growth and traction.

Deep in the middle of summer, I drove the five hours west to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the Inside/Outside Innovation Summit. I’ve had some experience with corporate innovation, and I wanted to see how large corporations are trying to interface with startups and small businesses. These sort of relationships are going to be the key for continued economic growth in the next decade. It was also great to visit the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the coworking space in Lincoln, and make a few connections along the way. I haven’t heard anything about this event happening in 2018. I’d be willing to attend again, as long as it doesn’t conflict with anything I’m planning for this coming summer.

One key takeaway from the Inside/Outside Innovation Summit was a new name for Sexy Life. I was able to interview nearly 100 people at the convention and gave them the four different new names we were considering. Nearly 80 percent of the people I talked to wanted us to change the name to BondingBox, and so the name was changed! As Team BondingBox, we made the trip to the Secretary of State’s office in Des Moines and filled out the paperwork to become BondingBox, LLC! I didn’t realize how easily it was to set up an LLC. Now that I’ve seen how it’s done, I’ll be incorporating Cider Finder when I’m in Des Moines in 2018.

As summer transitioned into fall, I began traveling around the midwest pitching BondingBox in front of as many audiences as I could find. And what way to find an awesome audience than to apply to present at 1 Million Cups locations within a 3-hour radius of Iowa City. I took the show on the road to Des Moines, Rockford, and Cedar Falls, in addition to presenting at home here in the corridor. As BondingBox gains more traction, I’d like to take the show on the road again during the warm weather of 2018. I’ll talk more about this in my plans for 2018 post.

One of the biggest happenings in the fall was moving Iowa City Open Coffee to MERGE. Since 1 Million Cups had moved from FilmScene to MidWestOne Bank, there wasn’t a convenient place to have Open Coffee at the same location as 1 Million Cups. I had moved the location to T.Spoons in the Old Capitol Mall, across the street from the bank. However, I was finding it difficult to attract people to the event, since there was no free coffee and a location change between networking and the main event. Once the MERGE space was ready to go, I started working with Nick (who runs his business Agiloak out of the MERGE space) to bring the program to MERGE. We now offer free coffee again, and starting on January 3, we will be colocated with 1 Million Cups once again. We had a great turnout before Christmas, and hopefully the momentum will continue in the new year.

The biggest event of the year was my 9-day entrepreneurial extravaganza, traveling from eastern Iowa to Denver for Denver Startup Week, and then back for Startup Weekend Fairfield. The trip to Denver and back was amazing! I connected with so many new people, was able to explore Denver during the week, and learned a great amount during all of the sessions I attended. I was able to participate in an elevator pitch competition (in an actual elevator) and learned things that can benefit all of my different projects and businesses. I’ve already carved out the last full week of September for Denver Startup Week 2018, and I’ll be looking forward to reconnecting with folks there along with meeting brand new entrepreneurs in the Denver startup ecosystem. Plus, the beverages out there are amazing.

My biggest disappointment this year was not getting Startup Weekend Iowa City off the ground. I’ve been over why it didn’t happen this year, so rather than dwelling on that, I’m focusing on getting 2018’s event off the ground as soon as possible. I’ve begun talks with the folks at MERGE and with a couple of potential sponsors about the 2018 event, scheduled for July 13-15. The Facebook event is now online and ticket sales will begin as soon as possible. Early bird tickets will cost $15, and last-minute tickets will cost $20. This is a significant departure from previous years, where tickets have run $80-100. We want to bring in as many people as possible, especially those who may not have considered attending with prices as high as they were. By our estimates, if we can raise $5000, a ticket price of $15 is more than enough to cover costs, and might leave us with a tiny nest egg for 2019. Having a small nest egg will allow us to keep ticket prices down for the foreseeable future.

I accomplished a lot and learned a great deal over the past twelve months. So, what do I have on my plate for next year? Check out my next post for the details.