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Side hustle: Professionals share their passion projects

Passion Project

All Jay Cooper wanted to do during a Startup Weekend event in Iowa City was help a team build its website.

Nearly three years after attending that Startup Weekend event, Cooper is still in contact with his teammates…because that weekend project turned into a side business.

Cooper and David Miessler-Kubanek are the founders of Bonding Box, a subscription service that offers, “Date night” delivered to the home of a busy couple. Couples can choose from four different themed boxes for anywhere between $12-$20.

“It’s meant for couples to reconnect and get to know each other better because a lot of couples don’t have the time to do it,” Cooper said. “So we try to provide that reason for them to talk with one another rather than just watch Netflix.”

Based in Eastern Iowa, neither Miessler-Kubanek or Cooper work on Bonding Box full time. The duo met at the Startup Weekend event in 2015 and with a third team member, came up with the idea for Bonding Box.

After realizing the idea had potential, Bonding Box went through the six-week venture school program at the University of Iowa.

“We wanted to see if it was a sustainable and viable business,” Cooper said.

Three years later, it’s proving to be sustainable.

“As we’ve had free time we have kept developing it,” Cooper said.

Clay & Milk spoke with several professionals who have full-time jobs but when they get off work, they keep working.

Here are a few stories on side hustles:

Bonding Box
An example of a Bonding Box, with candy and a custom checkerboard with couples activities.

Changing the ‘T’ in tee-ball

Innovation made its way to the batting cage.

A group of dads involved in youth baseball and softball leagues in Ames are changing the how to practice hitting. Using suction, an apparatus suspends a ball so a batter can swing and not make contact with anything but the ball. It’s designed to improve launch angle, create more backspin and more line drives.

Ryan McGuire—who coaches youth baseball in Ames and works at Iowa State University as the Associate Athletics Director for Major Gifts—said the idea first came to him in 2010 as he worked with his four-year-old son on hitting.

“Everything we did with the traditional tee didn’t seem to work very well, he was always hitting the tee, it just wasn’t that much fun,” McGuire says. “I just had the idea wondering if you could hang a ball. It just seemed like a better way to swing and a better way to approach it.”

Fortunately for McGuire, Rob Kibbe works as an engineer and is another local coach who was able to create a prototype of the first, “Magic Tee.”

Four versions later, the Magic Tee has been tested with over 1,000 swings.

“Baseball people are not necessarily the quickest to embrace new things,” McGuire says. “We didn’t want everyone to think we’re crazy, we just think it’s a fundamentally better way to approach hitting.”

Magic Tee is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign that started Feb. 27. They want to raise $70,000 in 30 days and have over $20,000 from over 80 supporters. There are 21 days left to raise the additional funding.

“The Kickstarter is a validation of, will people buy it?” Founding Partner Sam Schill says. “Everyone says they like it, but will people buy it is another level. But we’re seeing that people are pledging their support.”

Magic Tee
Ryan McGuire works with a hitter using the Magic Tee, an innovation on the traditional baseball tee. The tee uses suction to suspend the ball for the hitter. Photo courtesy of Magic Tee

Self-promotion skills for women

During the summer of 2017, Gina Skinner-Thebo was having a conversation with a girlfriend of hers and started talking about another woman in the Des Moines business community.

When her friend had no idea who the other woman was, she saw a problem.

So she hosted a party in November to not only introduce those ladies to each other but to introduce other women to one another.

Over 30 people attended the party in her basement.

That party turned into the Atwood Center for Women, which will host four meetups throughout the year for women to practice public speaking, self-promotion and various leadership skills.

“We had over 60 people at the first one in February,” Skinner-Thebo said. “Each party has a different theme. To practice promotion and public speaking, then highlight different people in the community doing different work.”

Skinner-Thebo said she’s worked in Human Resources for the last decade but started the Atwood Center for Women as a passion project because she wants to help more women feel comfortable and confident in leadership positions.

She named the organization after her best friend Rachel Atwood, who passed away in 2014.

“Women find it hard to be vulnerable with each other as well, so I’m just trying to create a space where I’m pushing people to be uncomfortable,” she explained. “I definitely think it adds confidence because women aren’t overly confident. And when they are confident at a level that is similar to a man, they are considered bossy or a bitch.”

A gym rat

After leaving work at an Iowa City retirement home, Tony Roe is most likely headed to a gym for a basketball game.

Roe is in his fourth season as a contributor to Prep Hoops, a website that covers high school basketball in 29 states. He’s part of a three-man team covering Iowa High School basketball.

Roe says he will see over 100 games this season and travel upwards of 6,000 miles.

“They say basketball never sleeps and that’s definitely true,” Roe says. “During the high school season I’m in a gym almost every night and during AAU season I probably don’t get out as much as I should but at least once a month I’m at a tournament.”

Along with contributing game stories to Prep Hoops, Roe is also a talent evaluator and scout.

“The focus of the company is to cover basketball on a state basis where ESPN or Rivals covers the elite players,” Roe explains. “Which those are always fun to write about but they don’t touch on the kids who go D2, D3 or JUCO. That was kind of an area to get in on and provide coverage to thousands of kids throughout the country.”

Roe said he’s paid on a per article basis.

“I just love being in the gym and watching basketball,” Roe says. “Ideally I would do this full time but it doesn’t quite pay enough yet. Maybe at some point. But it’s been a fun journey so far.”

The sound of music

Sophia Ahmad
Sophia Ahmad is one Iowa professional with a “side hustle” project that includes piano recitals and teaching piano lessons. Photo by Eric J. Salmon

It’s easy to see how a five-year-old can be confused by an acapella choir. With so many different sounds—and no instruments—it confused one young girl from Philadelphia.

Growing up, Sophia Ahmad said she was always entranced by sound but didn’t understand how the choir could get those sounds without any instruments.

“The sound world has always been my home,” Ahmad says. “And when I got to the piano, it was transformative.”

Ahmad would go on to receive two degrees in music and when she’s not working as the Senior Director of Development for the Mercy Foundation, she’s performing on the piano and teaching the next generation of students.

“I try to have a serious chamber music performance every other year,” Ahmad says. “This past January I played a solo performance at the art center, it was about a 25 minute piece.”

Ahmad said when she’s preparing for a performance, she will practice for an hour a day, at least. Her husband is a violinist and music professor at Central College, so when he’s working late, those nights are, “Maxed out” for time.

“We do play together and we have a really good time,” Ahmad said. “We are both very opinionated. There’s some push and pull we have fun with.”

Ahmad said she plays church services or weddings almost every weekend.

For the rest of 2018, Ahmad said she’s working with students to prepare for college auditions and competitions.

She’s able to use her own experiences to help her students.

“I started playing when I was five, I just took to it and loved it,” Ahmad said. “Piano is my fun, that’s my hobby.”



Side hustle: Professionals share their passion projects | 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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