Scott Weiss, the chairperson of our Board of Advisors, is one of our greatest mentors. After spending 22 years in the corporate world, Scott stepped into a role as CEO of OCEAN, a startup accelerator here in Cincinnati. We had the opportunity to sit down and pick his brain about his transition to a startup career, his biggest inspirations and the lessons he’s learned from the startup ecosystem.
How did you come to work with OCEAN? I’ve had a long career on the corporate side working for companies of all different sizes. I was at the end of my career and in the process of leading the sale of the enterprise I worked for (it was privately held, and the owners wanted to sell). That’s around the time when I met the founders of OCEAN. They are three entrepreneurs who know how much the startup journey can corrode you and break you down, and they knew there was a different way to go about doing it. I met them over coffee several times and was drawn to the mission, and they asked me to step in as CEO. It’s been a great partnership so far; I’ve been very fortunate.
What big problems are you trying to solve for at OCEAN? What is your mission? Like all accelerators, OCEAN’s purpose is to help companies move faster than they could on their own. For all our classes, we help assemble terrific mentors, get them early access to customers, and provide free legal, marketing and accounting services, which helps eliminate barriers and keep our classes focused. But what makes us unique is that we not only help the founders with the business aspect, but also with where they are from a spiritual perspective. We accept anyone of any faith, or even if they don’t associate with any faith, and we take them on a journey that examines these huge questions of why we’re here and how believing in something bigger than ourselves plays a role in building businesses. This approach helps our founders gain the foundation, maturity and energy to endure and succeed as a startup. This method is proving to be successful in attracting both applicants and amazing investors. Last year, we had a class of ten, and eight of those companies have successfully created over 40 jobs and collectively raised 2.5 million dollars. And to have eight companies come out of an accelerator and be at that level is four times higher than the average accelerator yield in terms of company percentage gaining capital and operating. We have tons to perfect, but we’re feeling really good about how things are right now.
Now that you’ve transitioned to the startup world from a more corporate environment, what do you know now that you wish you’d known in your old role? How would you have approached your corporate job and/or business challenges differently? Looking at what I’ve learned in the past year and a half, the big lesson is how critically important passion is. You have to be passionate and attract passionate people to your business. That, and the fact that people are so critically important. In a large corporate setting, many of the issues you deal with are people issues. In a startup, people are what enable you to succeed. You have this perspective where you are so glad you have people to work with you and enable you, and you engage with them; you share passion for the work. In the corporate world, you’re mostly just worried about how to communicate with all these people–it’s the big challenge of your day. So I think passion for the mission and approaching people from a sense of “you are a blessing to my business” are the two biggest things I’ve learned. You can’t move forward without good people.
What is one thing you didn’t expect about the startup world? How much coffee they drink! That, and… I think that having the courage to be a founder and to try running a startup—that’s common. But for the founders with the highest likelihood of success, the differentiator is that, in addition to having courage, they need to have enough wisdom to know that just moving forward might not be the right thing. They’re thoughtful; they’re great learners and great listeners. The most successful entrepreneurs learn and listen better than anyone I’ve ever worked with, outside of all the great scientists who invented so many products that I had the pleasure to bring to market in my corporate career. That’s really what differentiates between those who make it, and those who don’t. They might work hard, but if they don’t learn and listen, it never comes together. So in the context of OCEAN, this is a lesson we try to teach in business that also translates to this spiritual journey we take our classes on. We ask, “Do you learn and listen? What you believe is what you believe, I’m not trying to change your mind, but let me ask you—do you learn? Do you listen to what the other people in the program are saying? Do you apply that to your work?”
What are some lessons you learned from the corporate world that you’ve applied to OCEAN? There are a lot of good lessons from the corporate world that any startup should look at. First, the corporate world is excellent at planning. Big companies look at complex tasks, break them into component parts, and get the right people to do the tasks. They prioritize, and they don’t waste resources. That’s a great lesson for any business. They approach problems by asking, “What’s the plan? Who’s going to do it? What’s the priority?” They’re very efficient. I also think the corporate world is incredibly good at communicating to investors. I’ve worked for both large and small publicly-traded companies and privately-held companies–and I was blessed to be in the corner office for 22 years–and what often made the difference in the companies I was running was that we were very good at talking to our investors. We were all aligned, all trying to get the same things done. And when problems arise (which they do in life), if your investors know where you’re going and they trust and believe in you, they hang with you. So I think I’d aspire to communicate like a corporate.
What do you personally do to get and stay inspired? My faith is the foundation of everything I do, and OCEAN is the manifestation of my faith. What I’m called to do with my belief is to help founders examine what they believe to help sustain and build them up. Ultimately, more companies that are led by people with a deep sense of purpose and abiding faith in something bigger than themselves makes the world a better place. That motivates me immensely. My second big motivator is that it’s fun! You’re surrounding yourself with people who are working hard, who are positive, energetic and innovative and spontaneous. It’s not hard—I just spend time with people in the ecosystem and it pumps me up. I also just go across the street to Crossroads whenever I need to get energized.
Who are some of your biggest mentors or role models in your field and/or community? In the startup space, there are organizations I rely heavily on. We are so fortunate in Cincinnati to have Cintrifuse, The Brandery, Uptech, and the incubators at all the universities. All of these people are so responsive and helpful and knowledgeable, so I turn to them and spend as much time with them as I can. We are also really fortunate to have the investors who reside in the area—Connetic Ventures, Queen City Angels, Allos, and even some others as far as Indianapolis. If I call any of these people, they give me an enormous amount of time, and they give the same amount of time to anyone else I’m working with, too. We’re really fortunate to be in this space. Outside of our region, I have a network of angel funds whose founders really believe in the mission of OCEAN. They’re very successful investors with a deep sense of faith. I reach out to them all the time because we’re trying to grow both companies and people, and they have the perspective on what that takes. And their generosity and time and advice is unbelievable. Finally, on top of the financial support we receive in Cincinnati, Crossroads is unique in that it provides not only financial resources, but also a disproportionate amount of teachers. They source a lot of our faculty that touch on the personal growth side, the faith side. We couldn’t do what we’re doing without Crossroads.
How does OCEAN foster disruptive innovation? Our entire mission can be described as disruptive innovation. Out of 200+ startup accelerators, there is only one other faith-based accelerator in the United States, and we are by far the most overt in our mission to increase God’s presence in the marketplace by building into the entrepreneur.
What else are you working on at OCEAN that you’re excited about? We welcome anyone who is interested in OCEAN to reach out and contact us. We’re always looking for new mentors, and we’re always interested in meeting people who might want to apply for our next class, which will be in 2017 at this point. You can reach us via our website, oceanaccelerator.com, and drop me a note on the contact page. Our demo day will be April 28th (we had 1200 people come last year—one of the largest crowds to attend a demo day in the country). We welcome anyone who’s reading this to come! And we’re always interested in creative partnerships, so if there are corporate partners who want to participate and learn how accelerators work, we’d love for them to come in for a day and work with us in exchange for support for OCEAN (whether it’s materials we need, mentorship or financial support).