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Highlights from last week’s “How They Built It” Power Breakfast

The Des Moines Business Record hosted a Power Breakfast panel discussion last Thursday titled, “How They Built It.” Five panelists discussed the stories of how and why they built their businesses, sharing lessons they learned while doing so.

The five panelists were:

  • Tiffany Johnson – Co-founder and producing artistic director, Pyramid Theater Company
  • Nancy Mwirotsi – Founder and executive director, Pursuit of Innovation
  • Dr. Chris Nelson – President and CEO, Kemin Industries
  • Casey Niemann – Founder, AgriSync
  • Connie Wimer – Chairman, Business Publications Corporation

Here are some of the key takeaways from the event:

The more feedback the better

Throughout the event, panelists brought up the importance of asking for a lot of feedback about their products as early as possible.

“When I was in the early days, trying to explain to people what we were doing, if I was in the agriculture industry they instantly got it. And then if I went to somebody who was disconnected from that, they were not quite sure that it would work,” Casey Niemann said. “Maybe dig in with people are in the same vertical and same domain. Try to get perspectives from people who have been that industry for a number of years. I’m a big believer in asking bluntly for feedback. And even if they say no, get into the why of what that is and really do a gut-check on yourself.”

You’re going to make mistakes

“We celebrate failures and recently had one of them,” Dr. Chris Nelson said. “We attempted to get into the personal care business with various natural ingredients. We actually worked on it for 11 years and lost money every year. We finally closed it late last year.”

“Think about it, startups every day are living and dying on failure, right? “They’re saying, ‘How fast can I fail? And what can I learn from it?’ said Casey Niemann. “My encouragement is, what are you doing to foster kind of that freedom to fail inside of your organization?” he later added.

Starting a business requires risk

At the end of the discussion, each panelist was asked how risky they would rate themselves on a scale from one to ten.

Connie: “I would put myself at a 10. I kind of love risk. There’s some kind of satisfaction to it.”

Casey: “I’d say I’m more of a 7 or an 8, but my wife would say I’m an 11.”

Chris: “I would put myself at a 9. 10 years ago, I would have said 10 but maybe I’m a little older now.”

Nancy: “10. I dropped everything to be able to do this for the kids. I’m a single mother who at about that time had received a child support check for 33 cents. That tells you a whole lot about taking risks and sticking with it.”

Tiffany: “I’d definitely say a 10. It’s a tough market to try to create a company that’s specific to culture and in an area that you are marginalized in. It’s a risk to get people to buy into that.”

Previous coverage

Key takeaways from last week’s “Innovation Acceleration” Power Breakfast -Dec. 3, 2018

Highlights from last week’s “How They Built It” Power Breakfast | 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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