Q & A With Founders Club Leader Jeffrey Nock
With time spent in the dotcom boom, nonprofits, large agencies, startups, and a brief professional track sports career, Founders Club leader Jeffrey Nock has done it all, but feels right at home here in Iowa City, Iowa. The passionate entrepreneurial mentor has played a pivotal role in growing the University of Iowa Founders Club and continues to strive towards establishing the club as one of the nation’s leading centers for entrepreneurship.
When and how did you first get involved with the University of Iowa?
I started teaching with JPEC about 6 years ago as an adjunct, when I was helping a startup in town. I met with David Hensley, who is a really engaging and bright guy. I told him about my background, which really involved helping businesses grow, and we talked and shared stories. He thought I would be a great fit for the managing the growth business class. That was when I really started to get involved with the startup community here, and within the Creative Corridor.
How did your role within the Founders Club evolve?
After a couple of years teaching here, I really started to realize how much I enjoyed helping students develop their ideas. A lot of the classes within JPEC would involve students making their own pitches and trying to find solutions to real problems. We all started talking about creating a center for helping students outside of the classroom, and began to raise money because we knew we could really blow this thing up and grab national attention with enough resources. When we got the BELL building, that’s really where it all started.
Where did the name Founders Club come from?
Three years ago we were all sitting at the Airliner having pizza and we were trying to figure out what to call this thing because we knew we didn’t want to just name it after the building. We got to talking about what it takes to run a successful business and the hard work behind it. It’s an exclusive thing, you know? It takes a lot of perseverance and effort to build a successful company. So we came up with the name Founders, because it sounded exclusive.
What gets you up every morning and keeps you so passionate about what you are doing?
When I see that look of excitement in students’ eyes and I know that they have an idea that they’re really passionate about but they aren’t quite sure how to take to the next step. These are dreams, and passions of some really bright kids and it’s a privilege to have them share it with us.
Do you think the success of the Founders Club rides on the strong reputation of some of the early success stories, such as SwineTech?
I think a number of reasons play a factor, but the biggest one is peer-to-peer discussion. If someone comes here and launches a product, or builds a website, they’re going to go to their friends and classmates and excitedly talk about all the cool things we’re doing here. Another factor involved is all of the competitions that we have that encourage students to look into joining our club, especially the ones that received money. We’ll have about 3 events a semester that involve pitches and we get over 10 companies a year from that. So, to answer your question more specifically, I think it helps, but it hasn’t been the leading factor regarding our steady growth.
Companies like SwineTech and HealthTech Solutions have made the news for being successful startups, but what about the ideas that fail?
So many people are afraid of failure that they never take risks. 80% of the companies that are started here won’t be running businesses in 10 years. They may pivot, or change their idea, or create something new entirely. But what they have learned here throughout the entire process will carry with them for the rest of their careers.
Do you sell that when approaching students or donors? That this club can also act as a tool for professional development?
I always emphasize to shoot for the stars and make your dreams come true. This is a business incubator, and we’re here to help their businesses grow. Students will naturally develop as young professionals and grow their network but we’re strictly here to help make your business a success and that’s what I want to focus on.
It seems like each year the Founders Club introduces a new perk, what has been behind the steady growth of the organization?
If you’re not growing, you’re dying. We started with a building and me as a mentor alongside 15 companies. That wasn’t a scalable approach, because I could only realistically help 10 of those companies a week. So we looked for outside help and recruited experienced entrepreneurs who were willing to volunteer their time and mentor our students. That mentorship program really got the ball rolling and from there we were able to really help some of these businesses grow.
What is the next big step for the organization?
Our current focus is to get this marketing side of it on the ground and running and to become really well organized. We’ve grown so much over these past few years that I don’t want us to lose our attention to detail, because that’s what made us great in the beginning. Our mentorship program continues to add some great individuals and it’s important we’re aligning the right pieces in the right places. But, we’re always still thinking ahead, and there are certainly some discussions in the works.
What is something or someone that really influenced you and helped you take on a leadership position like this?
I was a pretty serious athlete growing up, especially with track. The same disciplinary effort needed to be a good athlete is needed to be a good entrepreneur. When my brief, unsuccessful professional track experience ended, I really tried to think about what I wanted to do next. I thought about my passions and what would really motivate me. I tried to connect the dots, you could say. When I looked back on my life, the thing I realized the most, was that I really enjoyed being part of a team and being in a position to lead and help that team grow. That initial failure with sports pushed me to this side of the business role, but I carried a lot of the lessons I learned throughout those years into the offices and people I worked with.
Would you say there is something about the students in the Founders Club that makes them stand out? Or do you find yourself having to help develop and tailor their skills to fit the entrepreneurial environment?
They absolutely stand out and are all unique and different in their own ways. We all have dreams and ideas that we think of. An entrepreneur is willing to sacrifice, and take risks for those dreams without any promises of success. These kids here are past the dream stage and looking to actually do something. I think what really makes them all different is that at a young age, they don’t have any fear of failure. As a young graduate, there can be that pressure to get a 9–5 job that comes with benefits, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the students here are wanting and looking for more than just that.
Who is a mentor that you’re really excited to have on board?
What I’m actually most excited about isn’t a person, rather a group. We’ve partnered with ICAD and their staff and we have a full outside team of people who are actively recruiting potential mentors for our student businesses. That’s going to allow us to connect and work with some of the best entrepreneurs around the Midwest.
Do you strive to try and keep it local, regarding the mentorship program?
Most of our mentors that come from the area will be well-known and have some really successful businesses, using Veronica over at Yotopia as an example. But we do have some people that come from Chicago or outside of the state. I really do believe that the Creative Corridor is a leader in innovation, so we try and poach as many people as we can from the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area.
Is a goal of the program to keep the businesses you help continue to grow in the Creative Corridor post student graduation?
It would obviously be nice, but it’s not the end game. The growth and success of their business comes before that, so they have to choose what’s best for them. We have been lucky when it comes to this though and a lot of the more successful companies, like SwineTech or HealthTech Solutions have stayed in the Corridor which is great for us.
Outside of the Founders Club, do you see Iowa City as a leader in entrepreneurship?
If you look at the nation’s leading entrepreneurial centers, you know people always talk about Silicon Valley or Boulder. Of course they have merit but they also have a wealth of resources. On a per-capita basis, we’re doing as well as, if not better than, everyone else is and that’s finally starting to show up in some of the rankings. JPEC hasn’t been around for too long, our oldest graduates are only 40–42 years old, but it’s really started to pick up attention and I think we’ve achieved a lot at a really fast pace and our donors are seeing that and I think that’s why we’re doing so well. People want to see results and we have plenty of great things to show off and talk about.
How supportive has the University been regarding the growth and development of the Club?
Well, University funds are always going to be limited because it’s a big school with a lot of programs that are all well established and deserving of money. We certainly have to get a bit creative when it comes to funding and we generate dollars from multiple different channels.
What do you look forward to the most with the Founders Club, besides the success of the students’ businesses?
I love coming to roundtable every Friday and seeing the students discuss their ideas and sharing their developments. We get to hear the milestones and successes of the students, which is always fun. We also feature some really fascinating guest speakers who have so much knowledge to share with us. The people who speak are always so impressed with the students and their ideas that it’s sort of earned us a reputation now within the community and we get people asking, ‘When can I come and talk to the students at roundtable?’ it’s really great and something that definitely helps us grow and develop further because a goal with these speakers is to hopefully have them acting as donors later down the road. You have to get people engaged and give them a meaningful connection, or else what’s in it for them?
Walk me through the Founders Club in 5 years, where do you envision it being?
It’s a constant battle between quantity and quality. We were on pace to hit 100 companies last year, but we were growing so fast that the mentorship program and other channels meant to help students grow began to show cracks for the first time. So for us, at least right now, we’re mainly focused on creating as strong as a foundation possible for the 70 to 80 active companies that we currently have.
Is there a number you look at for success? How do you gauge how well you’re doing, regarding the development of these companies?
I want every single business to become a shining star, but that isn’t realistic. On a numbers side, I would say we’d like to see 10–12 businesses emerging from JPEC who are contributing to the state economy on a yearly basis. I think the biggest thing you’ll see in 5 years is the growth surrounding the resources supporting us, which will allow us to help more students and small businesses. We can move from the 70–80 range to the 100, 115 or even 125 small businesses a year, as long as we maintain our high quality of service.
Readers are probably interested in your own business background. How did you get started?
When I graduated college, I began working in a corporate position for Target and absolutely hated it. During that time a longtime buddy of mine had a lawn service company and he was going overseas for a while so I said I’ll take the business and do everything while you’re gone. I made a lot of money but man I worked my butt off, my fingernails were filled with dirt every single night. After that, I took another position with a Fortune 500 company and hated it. I started to work for smaller and smaller companies to try and get out of that corporate setting. Then the dotcom era hit and I joined up with some former coworkers of mine and we started NetLibrary, which raised over $127 million dollars. It ended up being a colossal failure.
What was it like to be part of something so big only to see it fail?
This was during a time when everything within the industry was really growing, so the dollars were just pouring in, but then the bubble burst, and we didn’t get out in time. Those who did, guys like Marc Cuban, made a fortune, but for every fortune lies countless failures, including our idea that we thought was going to change the world. It was a humbling experience, it certainly grounded me and taught me to approach things day by day because you never know what truly lies ahead in the future.
You experienced that at such a young age, and you later went on to develop and sell successful companies, what made you stay in the game after such a massive failure?
You know, when I think about that time, it really doesn’t even feel real. It feels like a script or a movie that I have vague memories of, but what I could never let go of was that rush. The feeling of seeing something grow and building it with people that you respect and care about, it’s something that’s difficult to even describe in words. Rewarding doesn’t even do it justice. I just couldn’t let go of that. I wanted more.
What’s a lesson that you learned from that experience that helped you later in life?
What I learned was fiscal prudence. I became much more cautionary and skeptical with projects I was involved in later down the road. I didn’t let the fundraising or dollar signs ever get to my head and I would question everything, rather than believing we were always right or one step ahead of the game. One thing I’m really proud of being involved with is Club Foot Solutions, which is a nonprofit that helps kids with club foot. Three professors patented this great product for these kids but didn’t know how to scale or grow the business, so they brought me in. That was just three years ago and we currently have over 30,000 braces on kids all over the world that wouldn’t be able to walk without this brace, and that wouldn’t have happened without the multiple failures I’ve had throughout my life.
How did you remain positive throughout your failures, and continue to believe in yourself and the businesses you helped grow?
I believe in pragmatism. Idealism isn’t realistic, and realism is boring. Pragmatism is the perfect balance between the two. If you’re an entrepreneur you have to be honest and objective, but you also have to carry a certain level of confidence and positivity, because if you don’t thoroughly believe in your dream why would someone else?
Is that something you have noticed within the Founders Club, a certain level of positivity surrounding the students and overall environment?
Absolutely. From my experience, most students under the age of 22 won’t schedule a meeting with someone who is double their age. When they set up that first initial meeting with me that already shows a certain level of confidence because not a lot of students are willing to do that. Speaking on the positive side of things, a lot of the times the businesses created here are founded on the purpose of helping and positively impacting a large community. Of course money is involved, but what I see first is that the students genuinely want to help and reach a large amount of people because they think that they can make their lives better. Not only do they want to see their companies grow, but they want to see their peers be successful as well and they’re all willing to help out in different ways.
Does the organization strive to create that type of family environment and act as a bridge between faculty and students?
It certainly does. We want it to feel like a family environment and a lot of the students within the club have become really close friends. Call it a Hawkeye or Midwestern trait, but we believe in that strong, close-knit unit that’s willing to help each other out. We’re looking into a newer building and getting something that is more resemblance of a true collaborative workspace. The BELL is great, but it’s a lot of closed doors and offices tucked away in the corner. When we eventually get that, I think it will only further develop this type of close environment surrounding the program.
Do you have any closing words for an aspiring entrepreneur who may be reading this?
Follow your passion and the money will come. If you find something you love and you stick with it and put forth a lot of hard work, you’ll be successful. It may not come right away or happen the first or second try, but it will happen, I do believe that.