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Entrepreneurs Share Startup Advice at TBEIC Event

WARREN, Ohio – Adam Keck was advised early on not to give an opening date for his Modern Methods Brewing Co.

Don’t put a date out there,” professional brewers told him when he sought their advice, because “it never works out like that.”

Keck didn’t listen and his planned opening in the spring has come and gone. “We’re now going to be opening sometime during the holidays,” he said.

Keck and Courtney Gras, co-founder of Design Flux Technologies, shared their startup experiences Monday evening at the first Founders Exchange hosted by the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center.

The event is designed to bring the public and entrepreneurs together to discuss ways to collaborate to improve the community and create more businesses, said Rose Saborse, manager of business development and marketing at TBEIC.

Keck, a native of North Jackson, recalled that his plan after he graduated from college in 2009 was to return to the Mahoning Valley, work in a nonprofit organization for a few years, then get a “real job” or go to law school. He came to Youngstown to work in community organizing but soon shifted to Warren.

Within a year I was hooked on this place,” he said. When he decided to scale up from brewing beer in his father’s garage to starting his own craft brewery, he chose downtown Warren, which “is on the cusp of something big,” he said.

When I look at Warren, I see a lot of things happening and people in this room making things happen,” affirmed Rick Stockburger, TBEIC’ chief operating officer. Stockburger interviewed the entrepreneurs during the program.

Modern Methods will open in TBEIC’s warehouse off David Grohl Alley. Buildout of the space admittedly took longer than Keck expected.

My only experience with build-out was renovating a Victorian home on Washington Street, so I came into a commercial renovation with that expectation,” Keck recalled. “It’s, for good reason, a lot more complicated. The Warren building department has been incredible to work with.”

In addition to serving its beer, Modern Methods will sell it to other venues. The brewery won’t have a kitchen so as not to compete with restaurants that might be interested in carrying its beers but will allow patrons to bring in food.

If I opened up a brewery and sandwich gallery, my friends at Lime Tree might be less inclined to sell my beer,” Keck said. He added that he is “humble enough to say” he isn’t going to make a sandwich as well as Lime Tree’s co-owner, Travis Taylor.

Other brewers have been very supportive in terms of offering advice and in some cases opening their books to him to get a better idea of how to successfully operate his business, Keck said.

Keck also meets each month with his junto, a group of professionals with different skills and backgrounds, based on Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron Club, to exchange ideas and share feedback.

The final state inspections are expected to take place in late November, he said. He plans to eventually offer 16 beers, beginning with six that he expects will be ready for Modern Method’s soft opening planned for late December.

Gras, originally from Aurora, is a former NASA engineer and was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 last year. Home-schooled from first grade through high school, she found her interest in technology sparked by the movie Apollo 13, as well as by growing up near the former Geauga Lake amusement park.

When I was very young, I had this crazy aspiration to design roller coasters,” she said. Being home-schooled, she said, helped her to “think outside the box.”

During her sophomore year at the University of Akron, where she was studying electrical engineering, a professor said that a project Gras and other students were working on as with a company in Tallmadge was “a lot like a product” and suggested they enter a student business pitch competition.

The night before the application deadline, “literally on a whim,” she and her colleagues decided to google what a business plan is, and they were selected as finalists.

That started us on a 7½-year journey working on the startup company,” she said.

The first pitch was “horrible,” she acknowledged, containing too much information. “We were engineers,” she offered. They continued to learn and people were very willing to provide information and advice. “Just because you don’t have a clue going in doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” she said.

Design Flux Technologies, a clean-energy startup, raised about $100,000 through pitch competitions, she said. Where the founders erred, she said, was in not pursuing larger strategic partnerships.

Choosing the right founders at the right time is perhaps the most important decision you’ll ever make when you’re starting a company and it’s a decision that we did not make properly, and ended up completely destroying our company,” she said.

Because the founders were insecure about their ability to run a company, they hired an experienced CEO, giving him a majority stake in the startup. None of the CEO’s promises in terms of securing contracts or funding ever materialized.

We realized we should have trusted our gut. We should have followed our own instincts with our company. This person didn’t really understand our technology and we ended up just butting heads,” she said. Deciding it wasn’t worth the legal battle, the founders decided to leave their company behind.

It’s a very painful story to tell but at the same time I’m very happy that we went through it because now I could help other founders,” Gras said.

As a result of her experiences with Design Flux Technologies, Gras discovered she enjoyed working with people more and became passionate about serving the startup community. She now is program director with Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub and recently wrote a book, Entrepreneur is a Verb.

Gras said she finds most people are reluctant to start a business, in part because the education system remains aligned with an Industrial Revolution mindset to train people to work for companies owned by investors. Schools need to “encapsulate the creativity that we’re all born with and teach people to take risks and be comfortable with navigating changes,” she said.

Sarah Gartland, owner of catering business Cast Iron and Lace and Heritage Oaks Farm, said the Founders Exchange is important support for small business. “We need community to make it and we need to support each other,” she said.

Gartland was impressed with Gras’ story about walking away from her business. “It was very different from anything I’ve heard at a small business event,” she said.

The monthly Founders Exchange programs will feature two entrepreneurs, TBEIC’s Saborse said. “It’s going to be a wide range of companies from the community,” she said.

About two dozen people attended Monday’s inaugural event, held at the Lime Tree downtown. “We want to get more people involved, learn what is going on in the area and get more people interested in entrepreneurship.”

Pictured: Adam Keck, founder of Modern Methods Brewery, and Courtney Gras, co-founder of Design Flux Technologies, speak at TBEIC’s Founders Exchange Monday evening.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.