By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Laura Watilo Blake
“People ask, ‘What does Cleveland need to do to become the next Silicon Valley?’” Neundorfer, the CFO/COO of Flashstarts, asks. “That’s the wrong question. We should ask, ‘How do we leverage the assets we have in Northeast Ohio to become our own entrepreneurial and technology hub?’”
Neundorfer and business partner Charlie Stack have been working to achieve that goal since 2013, when the pair founded a start-up accelerator called Flashstarts. Flashstarts provided — and continues to provide — capital, coaching, and mentorship to entrepreneurs of high-growth software companies in the early stages. Each summer Flashstarts puts 10 to 12 early-stage companies through a 12-week accelerator program and makes an initial investment of $25,000 in each. Flashstarts also raises a small venture capital fund from private investors to invest in those companies demonstrating market traction by summer’s end. The idea is to create wealth for local entrepreneurs and investors as well as spur major economic development here.
Recognizing that the region’s strengths lie in manufacturing, performing arts, the public and nonprofit sectors, food, and healthcare, Neundorfer and Stack are taking that idea one step further with StartMart, an entrepreneurship hub modeled after Chicago’s 1871, Cincinnati’s Cintrifuse, and other cities’ successful similar concepts. Depending on the membership tier that a company selects, StartMart’s headquarters in the Terminal Tower offer flexible workspaces (called Startpods), meeting spaces, storage lockers, mail service, printing service, and other administrative necessities. The founders aim to attract various members of the entrepreneurial community, who can share ideas and support each other.
The formula is simple: Leverage the density of people and resources located in the heart of downtown with the diversity of would-be entrepreneurs representing different areas of business.
“This density plus diversity creates an engineered serendipity,” Neundorfer says. “People with different perspectives are suddenly bumping into each other. Maybe someone with a new restaurant concept is talking to a software engineer. Out of it comes really interesting ideas and opportunities.”
In addition to having a viable idea, solid business plan, financing, and staunch mentors, it is critical to possess computer proficiency, social media-savvy, and other technological abilities — whether a start-up is tech-related or not, Neundorfer says.
“Technical proficiency is going to be as basic a skill as reading, writing or doing math — and frankly, it already is for the younger generation,” she says. “For people to stay competitive and engaged, it will be increasingly important. Today people can make a choice of whether to be technologically engaged, but going forward being tech-savvy will become table stakes — especially as the workplace ages and we’re needing to compete with the younger generation.”
Neundorfer counsels entrepreneurs to surround themselves with good mentors, what she calls a “personal board of advisors.” Some of her mentors come from the business world and represent different perspectives and areas of expertise. Others, like her husband, David, know what keeps her centered or makes her tick, and can challenge her when she needs a nudge.
Still, she advises against “mentor whiplash,” or the tendency to accept without question everything a mentor recommends.
“Use a network of mentors and filter what they say, so you’re being true to yourself and not just doing what the last mentor told you to do,” Neundorfer says.
Likewise, she recognizes the importance of attending formal networking events. She especially appreciates those hosted by tech-oriented groups, such as TechPint, which allow her a forum for raising awareness about and engaging the community in Flashstarts. Still, some of her most beneficial contacts have come from informal schmoozing.
“I enjoy when people introduce me to other people, or say, ‘You should tell so-and-so what you do,’” Neundorfer says. “Being open to all interaction and every opportunity has been most rewarding.”
Making the most of every occasion has served her well. Accustomed to working in strategic consulting and Internet and technology practices at well-known companies on the West Coast, Neundorfer came to Cleveland in 2012 when her husband returned to his hometown to start Linestream, a software company spinoff from Cleveland State University. As she became engaged in the business community, she realized resources abounded for established entrepreneurs but were lacking for those at the entry level. After meeting Stack, she dedicated herself to turning that around — first with Flashstarts and, more recently, with StartMart.
Since moving here, she has become a champion of Cleveland and has become involved in community events. She and her husband, both cycling enthusiasts, recently completed the 180-mile VeleSano ride to raise money for cancer research. Neundorfer, whose son, William, was just four months old at the time of the ride, served on the organization’s steering committee.