“Our motto is ‘Keep Showing Up’” declared Andrea Hansen, CEO and Co-Founder of Venuefox, in answer to an audience question regarding how she perseveres down the arduous start-up path. “We know we are going to suck at whatever we do until we get good at it, so we keep trying,” added Co-Founder Jerod Mollenhauer admitting that this keen insight might be slightly plagiarized.
Hansen and Mollenhauer were guests of Mike Colwell, Executive Director of the Business Innovation Zone at the February edition of Start-Up Stories, where they shared insights and lessons learned, now in the third year of their entrepreneurial adventure, before an interested audience which included the inaugural class of Des Moines’ Global Insurance Accelerator.
Appearing as Co-Founders in this monthly gathering, which typically sees single founders, Mollenhauer and Hansen could bear witness to the importance of recognizing the inevitable result of partnerships and planning for it. “We had heard enough founder stories that we went in with our eyes wide open,” explained Hansen of the simple truth that all partnerships are going to ultimately dissolve and that it is best to have a clearly defined equity relationship and plan for dissolution going in. “We signed the pre-nup,” joked Mollenhauer, explaining they had established both a vesting schedule and specific milestones for each to meet as they moved forward. Both however concurred that this partnership, facilitated by Hansen’s hair dresser who is also Mollenhauer’s brother, is going very well so far.
Venuefox, was initially the brainchild of Hansen, birthed by her 15 plus year career in development which meant she was often planning events. It’s an online marketplace to discover and connect with venues and vendors for corporate events. Intended for small and medium sized businesses, it allows executive assistants and other part-time event planners to review available venues while serving as a 3rd party marketer for those partnering venues. Of course, like many start-ups it took a while to discover the actual niche they wanted to serve and as Mollenhauer told the group — that was their first and perhaps largest mistake. They started out serving virtually every conceivable event from children’s parties to weddings to corporate meetings because they didn’t invest enough time into market research before committing to a platform they would ultimately abandon. “We were too broad in our focus and we built something that the market eventually told us they didn’t need,” Mollenhauer observed, while Hansen added that they could have tested the market in a much easier way, with much less and found the answers that would help them narrow the focus to where they are today.
After scrapping the website on which they had literally spent thousands of dollars, opportunity came knocking. Accepted into the inaugural class of the Iowa Start Up Accelerator in Cedar Rapids they temporarily relocated to Eastern Iowa and went all in, submitting themselves to the whirlwind experience that some of their audience members were just beginning; life at an accelerator.
Characterizing the experience as tantamount to acquiring an MBA, the co-founders listed knowledge, particularly focused upon their specific business, along with connections and advisors among the greatest values they found within the accelerator experience. “Having all these mentors lined up, knowing they were committed to the accelerator and that you could call on them saved a ton of time trying to network,” Hansen recalled. In addition, the presence of the other teams made the experience more collaborative and allowed even further leveraging of expertise within and among the participants.
In response to an audience member’s request for advice, the duo encouraged them to ask for help. While the mentors and advisers are there for that very purpose, the start-ups need to be proactive and express the help they are looking for. At the same time Mollenhauer cautioned, “You don’t have to act on all the advice you get because you’re going to get a lot, and some of it needs to be filtered out.”
Providing a periodic status update e-mail to mentors and advisors as well as investors and potential investors was cited as a good means to both keep open communications and remain top of mind.
Hatchlings creator Brad Dwyer, asked the pair to compare and contrast the start-up scenes. As they had already alluded to, the physical space of the accelerator in Cedar Rapids was impressive and there isn’t an equivilent in Des Moines. “I loved the Cedar Rapids start-up community,” said Hansen who has previously expressed her respect for the Corridor entrepreneurial ecosystem and her hope that Iowa’s various hotspots of activity can grow more close and collaborative in the future.
Acknowledging that the smaller size of Cedar Rapids, plus the relative proximity of Iowa City created a unique scenario, both expressed a hope that the Des Moines community could find a way to welcome new blood, perhaps expanding the focus to include a broader segment of the entrepreneurial community while also identifying a larger pool of early stage investors.
Meanwhile, happy to be back in Des Moines, Hansen and Mollenhauer are focusing on their Minimal Viable Product as they construct a unique referral platform that fits a market demand they have well identified. Toward that end they plan to keep showing up.