For Immediate Release – Luncheon Presentation “Start Up City: Chicago, Meet the New Entrepreneurs”

On Thursday, January 24, 2013, The Union League Club of Chicago presented Start Up City: Chicago, Meet the New Entrepreneurs. David J. Lynam, co-chair of the Union League Club’s Entrepreneur Group, hosted and moderated the luncheon event, which placed a spotlight on three Chicago startups: Dabble, SpotHero, and Sage Vertical Garden Systems.

Erin Hopmann, co-founder of Dabble, Mark Lawrence, founder of SpotHero, and Rick Gasaway, CEO of Sage Vertical Garden Systems each spoke about their own challenges and successes at their startup companies, including how to foster growth through adaptation and innovation.  Reflecting author Eric Ries’ renowned entrepreneurship handbook, The Lean Startup, the luncheon explored the notion of engineering startup success.

Erin Hopmann introduced her company, Dabble, the youngest of the three featured startups, which grew out of a penchant among young urbanites to learn new things and meet people without the commitment or expense of a lengthy course. Dabble addresses this desire by offering one-time affordable classes to users in a variety of subjects. Dabble has grown into a successful and popular startup company, winning the 2011 People’s Choice Award at Tech Week in Chicago, and was selected for the 2012 IDEO Chicago’s Startup in Residence program along the way. Hopmann credited Dabble’s success to two “B’s”: balance and baby steps. Balance is essential to preserve a startup’s initial mission and ensure that the vision that led to the creation of the startup is not forgotten during development. The second “B,” baby steps, is also important; entrepreneurs should approach development one step at a time to learn what works best for their startups.

Hopmann’s current challenge is how to guide Dabble’s evolution while staying true to the original mission. Author Ries also addresses the idea of growing one’s startup while remaining loyal to a vision, guidance on how to make trade-off decisions: whether and when to invest in process; formulating, planning, and creating infrastructure; when to go it alone and when to partner; when to respond to feedback and when to stick with vision; and how and when to invest in scaling the business.

Hopmann additionally stressed that entrepreneurs should never underestimate the importance of working with the right people, be they coworkers, partners, or funders. These points are critical areas of focus for Dabble and startups as a whole.

Mark Lawrence spoke about his startup, SpotHero, which allows users to find and reserve parking spots in Chicago. Like Dabble, SpotHero sprung from an attempt to address a problem: making parking better. According to Mark—no stranger to the parking ticket—the issue was not a lack of parking, but an abundance of parking that was not easy to find or use. Enter SpotHero, which began in October of 2010 as a platform for people to sell space in their individual driveways. The concept grew from there, and Spot Hero was soon working with large parking companies. As it developed, Spot Hero added new features such as monthly, daily, and event parking. Thanks to its expansion, SpotHero, a 2012 graduate of Excelerate Labs in Chicago, is expanding beyond Chicago to other urban centers across the U.S.

Lawrence spoke of the experimentation that inevitably goes along with introducing a new product or concept to the public. He recommended always being open to new ideas and avenues of growth, and, like Hopmann, advocated working with the right people. Part of the drive for entrepreneurs is to maintain a sense of ownership over and loyalty to the original mission. After facing dissatisfaction with venture capital and other sources of expansion capital, Lawrence learned that the right backers are integral to preserving the mission while not relinquishing too much control.

Rick Gasaway, CEO of Sage Vertical Garden Systems stood in strong contrast to the two founder-helmed startups, having joined Sage as a manager after the company had established itself. Gasaway’s decades of experience allowed him to push the company forward, particularly in the areas of product marketing and relationship building.

Gasaway also noted the growing emphasis on entrepreneurialism and startup development in education; increased visibility and a greater emphasis on different or alternative business paths for startups should be taken as a sign that startups are leaving their mark on traditional business educations.

Sage is still fairly young (only three years old), and is focused on shaping the marketing message as a way to secure Sage’s place in its myriad markets and additional investors. Sage is following the classic model of new business: find the right product, tap high net worth individuals for ownership or capital, hire a sales staff and professional manager like Gasaway, and develop the business. Accordingly, Rick focused his comments on the startup industry as a whole as well as what to do once the startup is firmly off the ground.

Gasaway, thanks to his experience, listed some of the common challenges faced by startups. One such challenge was what he referred to as “the best laid plans.” This common pitfall was in line with the issue mentioned by both Hopmann and Lawrence: how do we move forward while staying true to the mission? Having a clear plan is great, but, as evidenced by Dabble’s and SpotHero’s success, startups and entrepreneurs should be open to new markets and areas for growth.

The Entrepreneur Group of the Union League Club of Chicago provides a forum for the exchange of entrepreneurial ideas, and celebrates the spirit of the Chicago entrepreneur community. It hosts regular meeting on the last Monday of each month. For questions, contact David Lynam at dlynam@lynamlaw.com.

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