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Former intelligence advisor partners with his brother to form Des Moines startup

As an officer in the United States Army Corps of Engineers Keokuk native Carl Maerz was an intelligence advisor who trained a battalion of high-level Afghanistan soldiers how to collect and process evidence to find terrorists.

Maerz would train them how to identify potential terrorist threats and locate bombs or explosives. For nine months in 2012 he was stationed in Panjwai, a district in Kandahar Province, a place considered the spiritual home of the Taliban.

He returned in December and was discharged later in 2013 after four years of service. Maerz initially lived in Colorado before moving to Des Moines to start a business with his brother Torey Maerz.

“Because it’s Des Moines we realize there’s a lot of insurance here so we thought we would focus on that industry” Maerz says.

“We wanted to identify a problem first, then create a solution and use technology to make it better. So we didn’t start with an idea, we started with the concept of wanting to start a business and wanting to use technology to make peoples lives easier and more profitable.”

Both brothers would call insurance agents and ask about problems their business was having. What kept coming up was customer referrals, but nobody had any systems in place to automate anything.

Torey and Carl Maerz
(From left) Carl Maerz, 33 and his brother Torey Maerz, 35 started Rocket Referrals in 2013.

“And we’re coming from the side of technology, so we thought lets create a program that can automate communication to try and resolve this problem,” Maerz, 33, says.

So the duo started Rocket Referrals, an automated software program focused on existing clients and improving those relationships within a company. Their software helps companies get more referrals, retention, sales and better visibility of an existing client base.

Maerz says there a lot of marketing automation companies target prospects and then funnel them into a sales pipeline.

“We’re more focused on the existing customer,” he says. “And since it’s evolved from not just referrals but better relationships and retention. It’s bettering communication for existing clients.

“Then we sold that technology.”

Since the company started in 2013 Rocket Referrals now employs six full-time employees and has their own 3,000 square foot office in downtown Des Moines with equipment they purchased.

For the next entrepreneur, Maerz recommends looking for a problem that needs solved, that people are willing to pay for.

“It can’t just be an idea that you think people will want,” Maerz says. “Instead take the time to discover what your target market will actually pay for. It’s about building a client base, not impressing investors. Generating revenue is the best way to prove your concept and open doors to success.”

Former intelligence advisor partners with his brother to form Des Moines startup | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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