Looking Back: The Birth of The Brandery

This year The Brandery will welcome our 5th class of companies, a milestone that we could only dream of just a few years ago.   We didn’t expect to be looking back on our 5th Anniversary with 36 alumni startups.  And we for sure didn’t imagine that those companies would have raised over $45 million in venture capital.  Or that Over the Rhine would have been reborn on the back of these entrepreneurs.

So as this year’s applications start to roll in on AngelList and F6s, I find myself being a bit nostalgic in wanting to answer the question that I’m often asked:

“How did The Brandery get its start?”

To find the earliest seed of The Brandery, you have to go back to November 2009.  I was working at P&G in Corporate Marketing in a role where I was spending quite a bit of time in the world of digital marketing, venture capital, and startups.  It was in that role where I got to know JB Kropp, who as a serial entrepreneur was one of the Cincinnati-based employees for ShareThis.  JB and I often found ourselves talking about the Cincinnati startup community and what was holding us back.  One frequent topic was JB’s experience of folks wanting to grab coffee/lunch to pick his brain in relation to his SF experience in the dot com world.  It was in that experience that JB really thought we needed something like TechStars to support the ecosystem.  Supporting that point, two themes resonated in the conversation:  mentorship and focus.  We knew that Cincinnati had the people talent, but we lacked a place for entrepreneurs to turn for guidance and coaching.  Additionally, we were a startup community without an identity or really a focus.  With those themes in mind, our conversation eventually landed us on the idea of a startup incubator that would be focused on applying the concepts of brand marketing to startups.   The incubator model would address the mentorship theme, while the focus on brand marketing would leverage the unique talent of our region.

The first person we ever shared this idea with was Pete Blackshaw, a nationally recognized digital expert who had launched a startup called Planet Feedback back in the Dot Com days (Pete is now the Global Head of Digital at Nestle).   Out of that meeting, Pete signed up as our first official mentor, well before we even knew what we were getting ourselves into.  The second person was Bryan Radtke, a close friend and P&G colleague who over a meeting at a high top table at Zip’s came up with the name The Brandery, inspired by Cincinnati’s rich history in beer brewing (ie make beer in a brewery / make brands in the Brandery).

As we rolled into 2010, things were starting to fall into place now that we had positive validation for the idea and a name to actually call the thing.  In January, we met with George Molinsky from Taft Law, who was one of the original co-founders of Main St Ventures.  MSV was in many ways the precursor to The Brandery, just a decade before.  We also locked on our own brand identity during that month thanks to a campaign on CrowdSpring where we eventually selected a logo designed by the Cincinnati-based digital agency, Ample.

In the spring of 2010, we added to our scrappy group as Eric Avner from the Haile Foundation pledged the initial financial operating support to launch the program and LPK signed on as our first agency partner.  A few days into April, George Molinsky introduced us to one of his Associates at Taft, Rob McDonald.  Amongst many things, Rob would be instrumental in finalizing our decision to launch The Brandery as a non-profit,   structuring the warrants / equity with each company, and in general shoring up the foundation of the program for years to come.

As we entered the summer, one pretty major barrier still existed.  We had decided to follow the Startup Accelerator model pioneered by TechStars.  As such, a key component of our business model was a $20K investment into each company, which in turn would give us a 6% equity stake in that startup.  The goal was that those equity stakes would eventually result in liquidity events that would give us a sustainable endowment for the program.  But we needed to have dollars to invest to make that dream a reality.  It was at that time that a VC colleague, Dov Rosenberg, introduced The Brandery team to Mike Venerable of CincyTech.  In late June 2010, we had our first meeting with Mike and he pledged to help us launch The Brandery using the CincyTech Imagining Grants.  So with just over $30K in operating capital and 5 grants worth $100K, we announced The Brandery to the world on July 19, 2010 with a short 4-week application window.

We received just north of 80 applications that first year, ultimately selecting 6 companies.   Three of those companies were from Cincinnati and one each from Dayton OH, Chicago, and Houston.  The number of companies from out of state was surprising, but foreshadowed the years to come.  For instance, the company from Houston was called Giftiki, founded by Justin Stanislaw and Bryan Jowers.  They were recommended to us by Blair Garrou, a VC from the Mercury Fund in Houston who we had met earlier that summer because of his investment in ShareThis.   Giftiki would go on to be one of our success stories that year, raising a $1 million seed round from Draper Associates and other Silicon Valley VC’s.

The inaugural program started on August 31st at Longworth Hall, in a small ~2,000 square foot space that we had leased.  Ironically it was that same week that Bryan and I announced that we’d be leaving P&G to open the Cincinnati office of Rockfish.  The Brandery office would double as the Rockfish office throughout the rest of 2010.

Year 1 of The Brandery concluded on November 19, 2010 as we hosted our first Demo Day at the LPK Innovation Center.  Ben Lerer from Thrillist / Lerer Ventures was our keynote that year, flying in earlier that morning after a late night in NYC celebrating Thrillist’s 5 year anniversary.  The crowd that day only numbered 150 people but at the time was one of the largest gatherings our town had seen of investors from outside the region.  In the months that followed, The Brandery was honored to be named one of the Top 10 Accelerators in the country by Tech Cocktail and was asked to be a Founding Member of the TechStars Network (now called the Global Accelerator Network).

It has been remarkable to watch the evolution of The Brandery from that first bootstrapped year.  Now every year comes with a new nervous tension as we wait for applications, hoping that this year’s class can live up to the previous year.  But time and time again, the companies end up setting the bar higher for us and exceed expectations all over again.  I’m looking forward to seeing what this  fifth class has in store for us.

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