What does a successful serial entrepreneur, a founder of (at least) five companies, share in common with a retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant?
Gregg Pollack, our serial entrepreneur, is the founder of StarterStudio in August of 2013. Yes, that’s right, nearly a decade ago.
The retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, Suzette Kachmaryk, is a recent “graduate” of StarterStudio’s ten-week Idea Stage Accelerator.
In Suzette’s case, she recently participated in a program partnership between Groundswell in Melbourne, Florida, and StarterStudio. A hybrid learning cohort delivered in-person and online for residents of Brevard County
From startup to sustainability
Just so you know, Gregg and Suzette are, of course, boosters of the startup ecosphere in Central Florida and beyond. And boosters of StarterStudio and its four different accelerator stages: Bootcamp, Idea, Build, and Seed.
Despite these commonalities, Gregg and Suzette have never met. Yet they share a singular commitment to support StarterStudio. In a very important way.
Recently, both Suzette and Gregg opened up their checkbooks to write checks to StarterStudio. Having spoken with both of them, I can attest they opened up much more than their checkbooks with their gifts. They opened their hearts, too.
We don’t usually talk about the dollar amount of donations. In this case we will. Gregg gifted StarterStudio with $20,000! We so appreciate the financial support we receive from individuals like Gregg. Candidly, $20,000 is HUGE to us! I guess we’ll say it again right here: “Thank you so very much, Gregg.”
For the record, Gregg donated the same amount last year, and has made other financial donations over the last many years. This year he also personally reached out to other area entrepreneurs he is involved with to ask them to make their own donations. [If you are in Gregg’s inner circle, please check your email inbox now!]
Gregg’s donation this year is a kind of vote of extra-confidence in the success and sustainability of StarterStudio. In his own words:
“It's incredible to see how far StarterStudio has come. More recently I've been impressed with its progress to sustainability which is essential as a nonprofit. Lilian [Myers, current Executive Director] and Donna [Mackenzie, former Executive Director] have done a great deal to improve the program. One example is how other cities pay to use our programming to improve and grow their startup ecosystem. Other funding sources include sponsors, government funding, and startups themselves. I have hope that StarterStudio may last for another 10, 20, or 30 years.
“This improved sustainability, plus the impact I can see on the Florida Startup ecosystem, makes it easy to make a personal donation.”
Another angle on impact
Suzette Kachmaryk, our retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, has a unique story to tell about her own donation to StarterStudio. When she was accepted into the Idea Stage Accelerator, she already had one business formed. In addition, one that was created in a mobile apps programming class at Eastern Florida College, where she recently received her degree.
While Suzette has loads of leadership experience, is a member of Toastmasters International, and has pursued educational opportunities her entire life, she was not an experienced business person.
At one point when she was pursuing a business loan, she was introduced to Groundswell which then led her to the Idea Stage Accelerator supported by StarterStudio and Groundswell.
You’ll see in Gregg’s story above, these kinds of partnerships are part of an overall strategy for StarterStudio. An “outpost strategy” that brings facilitators, curriculum, and tools to other areas that have a need to support their entrepreneurs, but don’t have these finely tuned resources in place.
StarterStudio has brought accelerator programs to Groundswell, several Bootcamps to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, and has plans to bring its resources to rural areas of Florida.
The latter is aimed at agriculture, farmer entrepreneurs, if you will, who can benefit from the “lean startup” methods that StarterStudio has shared in its own co-working space for many years. To give you an idea of the legacy of these programs, the 19th Idea Stage Accelerator will commence in early 2022.
Back to Suzette, as a 100%-disabled veteran she has encountered challenges before.
Suzette’s paramount goal was to learn more about “customer discovery” and focusing on “solving a problem.” Suzette is a poster child for these two important footings in the foundation of the curriculum.
As Suzette says, “The service I was trying to develop wasn't necessarily solving a problem. But I did one of those famous pivots during the cohort. And so now I think I'm on the right track, I'm solving a problem.” It doesn’t hurt that she did nearly 50 customer interviews to solidify her ideas.
An irony of Suzette’s story is that her main company, Blesstify, is all about helping entrepreneurs to bring their technology-related ideas to market. The student becomes the teacher!
At the end of her program at Groundswell, she, and her husband Paul Esche, who is a manager of a local trust, decided the program had been so valuable to Suzette, they wanted to give it a boost, a financial shot in the arm.
One of the founding principles that drives the success of StarterStudio is “entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs.” That extends from the days when Gregg Pollack founded StarterStudio to the many successful business-savvy mentors we rely on across all our accelerator programs today.
We often talk about the time, treasure, and talent that builds this virtuous circle that sustains StarterStudio. Suzette is part of that circle now. At one time an accelerator participant, now a donor.
Imagine our staff’s reaction when Suzette and her husband handed them a check. It is not unheard of to have “graduates” donate to StarterStudio. Every dollar does help.
Most of the time these donations are small, but worthy. The engagement and commitment that these “student donations” produce is so important for StarterStudio’s future.
Talk about a shot in the arm. Suzette’s and Paul’s check for $5,000 from the trust caused us to blink. And blink again. And yet another blink when they wrote a second check to Groundswell for another $5,000. As some might say, we “plotzed” or collapsed with excitement.
Thank you, Paul, and Suzette.
“The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”
The bottom line? StarterStudio is in, as Gregg Pollack’s says, “its strongest position yet.” This from the founder and a current board member.
As a nonprofit that never takes direct equity from any of its startups and keeps the costs of its programs low, StarterStudio is in a unique position to fire up the economic engine for new companies. With its surest footing ever, it can sustain a pipeline of diverse ideas and companies to create startups that can succeed and scale.
We love what for-profit accelerators and incubators do to contribute to new business formation. The truth is that the for-profits tend to attract and retain the companies that fit their strategic portfolio for growth. Natch.
StarterStudio is more of a champion of diverse ideas--and diversity. Where else would you find alums of its accelerators that address challenges in raising the profile of women’s professional sports, disrupt payment systems, take back parental control over what kids learn and watch, and increase voter turnout in local elections?
The list does go on and on.
The key is to encourage and support a wide variety of ideas. All while helping to create higher-wage jobs, widen local economies, and perhaps most importantly, create companies that drive new, creative solutions to real-world problems. Not to overstate it, but the potential for the ”next big thing” is very real.
Nearly every organization we know has been impacted if not changed by the pandemic, including StarterStudio. In some ways though, StarterStudio, like a smart squirrel, has used the challenging times to dig up the acorns it secreted away. You might call them “strategic acorns.”
First up, and long planned for, our Executive Director (ED) Lilian Myers, will hand the reigns over to a new ED any day now. Lilian has said from day one, she was going to be an interim ED and had no desire to hold on to the title long term.
Her accomplishments in solidifying the infrastructure, programming, and systems of StarterStudio, as well as finding new funding sources, are legend.
It is because of Lilian that StarterStudio has executed on the “acorn” of taking StarterStudio programming to other communities and entrepreneurs. She was the champion of a conversion from a 100% in-person education delivery system to an online and online-offline hybrid.
Having a student of Embry-Riddle dialing in from Alaska as a Bootcamp participant speaks to the legacy she has created.
A new ED will have a challenge to innovate more than Lilian has in her short three years but will likely also have more experience with grants funding, donor development, and developing a StarterStudio endowment (a new “strategic acorn”).
Another huge bit of news--and change--is StarterStudio’s departure from the Church Street Exchange in downtown Orlando. Operating a 17,000 square-foot co-working space was often so convenient and rewarding, but never part of a long-term strategy.
Perhaps COVID hastened StarterStudio’s strategic move to become a much more virtual organization, but it was time to shed the large, leased space. StarterStudio is now co-located with UCF’s Downtown Incubator in a much smaller space inside the historic Kress Building, short steps from its prior home.
Impact, always impact
At this time each year, StarterStudio publishes its Annual Impact Report. The 2021 Report helps us to be accountable to ourselves as well as our myriad stakeholders. If you need any convincing of the impact StarterStudio has on our regional economy, we encourage you to read it.
A highlight of the Report shows:
181 companies have been supported since [StarterStudio’s] inception with 76% still operating. In the last year, seven accelerator programs were offered, which was a 75% increase over 2020 and 65 companies participated, which increased by 117%.
Those strategic acorns, and many initiatives in our history, have made a durable impact. Just scan the 2021 Annual Impact Report to learn more about the funding, unicorn status, acquisition, and more, that our accelerator grads have achieved.
You can join us in our endeavors to develop the startup ecosystem even more and help us in our mission to have local entrepreneurs start, scale, and stay here in Central Florida.
There are many avenues to support us and get involved including donating, acting as mentor or coach, leading a workshop, and more. Don’t feel like you need to write a check for thousands to support us. Every dollar has impact.
It’s all about the potential in those acorns--and startups. Help us grow these mighty oaks as we look towards a continuing bright future.