By Nan Price, Content Manager, MetroHartford Alliance
The UConn Foundation Office of Alumni Relations hosted Elevate: Hartford – The Grit & Grind of Starting a Business on Thursday, February 6 at Stanley + Techstars Accelerator Manufactory 4.0. The event was the 22nd in a nationwide series of Elevate: Your Career | Next Level events, which are part of UConn Alumni’s monthlong initiative about career and professional development.
The panel included alumni who have started and successfully run their own businesses:
Kevin Bouley, CEO Nerac, Inc. – Moderator
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Frank Milone, Founding Partner, Fiondella, Milone & LaSaracina LLP
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Brittany Molkenthin, CEO, Lactation Innovations
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Mike Teed, Co-Owner/Brewmaster, Black Pond Brews
Moderator Kevin Bouley led an engaging discussion about everything from how entrepreneurs find their footing to how they define success. He shared his own experiences and reiterated three qualities of a successful entrepreneur: Resilient, resourceful, relentless.
The Starting Out Process
All the panelists highlighted struggles they faced when they first started out. “There were a lot of Kraft Mac & Cheese dinners,” joked Kevin, who also emphasized, “It’s real. It’s a process. It’s a journey.”
For FML Founding Partner Frank Milone, failure was an inhibitor; however, he noted there was also an “understanding that life wasn’t going to end if we failed.”
That wherewithal helped him embrace his entrepreneurial traits. “With the right personality, you just do it,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges in starting the company 17 years ago was “jumping off the cliff and trusting the fact that we could actually do it,” he admits. “And, convincing others we could do it.”
FML recently completed two mergers with local firms, enabling the company to increase both its size and capacity of offerings.
Lactation Innovations Founder Brittany Molkenthin was a student when she formed the company. She’s currently a full-time nurse working toward her master’s in nursing—and she’s CEO of her company. Starting out, Brittany says one of the biggest questions she encountered was: “How could I be both a nurse and a CEO?”
People also questioned her age and experience. Brittany was asked, “As a young person, how are you doing this?” She also touched on the challenges of being a woman in disruptive technology and becoming a team of two women entering an unknown space.
Brittany talked about the learning experience, particularly with her first pitches, “I knew nothing. I only knew nursing,” she admits. “It took a year to figure out where I wanted to go and why I started.”
Black Pond Brews Co-Owner Mike Teed said he took a “windy path” to entrepreneurship. He majored in archeology and fell into business ownership through his passion for homebrewing.
Mike credits listening and research with figuring out the steps to business ownership and admits he was naïve in the beginning, only focusing on the brewing process. He says one of the biggest challenges he faced early on was adjusting to the grind of working as a full-time contract archeologist and working on the brewery as a side hustle.
Fear played a role for all the business owners. For many, it was fear of the unknown.
Before she patented her technology, Brittany says she was afraid someone would do it faster than her. She also worried, “Am I doing what needs to be done right and efficiently?” Brittany learned to accept the process, which also meant knowing she needed a partner. “Finding the right partner was a pivotal moment,” she said.
Kevin introduced Brittany to Jayme Coates who had the business and engineering acumen Brittany needed to help move the business forward. Part of accepting the process for Brittany has been to accept Jayme’s goal to launch their product in 2023, which means the business is not generating any revenue yet. But the wait will be worthwhile when the team is confident their product is ready for the market.
Mike admitted to an irrational fear that no one will buy their beer and they’ll have to shut down. For his industry, there is also a healthy fear of competition, too. He noted there are 109 breweries in Connecticut, “so the bar has risen.”
Becoming a business owner for Mike has meant learning to do market and customer research. “It’s not just about making good beer,” he said. “It takes a team of diverse backgrounds.”
Kevin asked the panelists for advice they’d give to others starting out on their entrepreneurial journey.
Mike’s two tips were to make sure you’re really passionate and seek an advisor.
Brittany seconded seeking an advisor and recommended seeing who’s done it before you—and who’s done it well. “Do your research before you pitch in front of venture capitalists,” she emphasized, adding “Get out of your comfort zone.”
One of Frank’s tips was to trust your instincts. “Surround yourself with advisors,” he said. “Trust those people and be willing to receive their advice.”
In terms of building a team, Frank emphasized it’s important to “understand what you need and be willing to ask questions and build relationships based on trust.”
Frank also talked about the need to “surround yourself with the right people.” He added, “They have to be different from you and have a different perspective.” He also said it’s important to “know your value proposition, build on your value, and be true to it.”
Each entrepreneur defines success differently, but most, like Mike, attribute it to doing what they love to do.
For Frank, the flexibility of being an entrepreneur means “everything I do is about balance.” It also means being a part of his family journey. “I’ve gotten to do what I want to do,” he explains, adding that he’s been able to incorporate core values into his kids’ lives.
Brittany defines success as “when our medical device is in the hands of mothers and it’s making an impact.”
She admits to receiving a lot of “hard nos” along her journey and says, to her, “each yes was a success.”
Kevin underscored the attributes of celebrating the small victories. “They help keep you going and advance to the next level,” he said. For him, “Success is the ability to give back and provide guidance to others.”
Frank agreed. “We do a lot of work in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he noted. “Success is also all about mentoring and investing time into the ecosystem.”
To learn more about the UConn Foundation Office of Alumni Relations, contact Joshua R. Proulx ’05 MS, Director of Alumni Engagement, at 860-486-2526 or firstname.lastname@example.org.