Innovation Destination Hartford visited the ThinkSynergy co-working space in downtown Hartford and spoke with Keith Werner, President, and Nancy Daiutolo, to learn more about the what the space offers.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: Give us a little sense of background. Have you always been entrepreneurial?
KEITH WERNER: Early on in my career I was a commercial lender, workout specialist, specializing in troubled real estate assets and business turnarounds. I’d help companies or real estate investors come up with a new business plan, assist in the implementation of the plan, and then negotiate with creditors. I’d look at what it would take to keep their business and investments afloat.
Then, in 1998, I co-founded a consumer product company that resided in the Cast Iron Building on Asylum Street in Hartford. We started a consumer products company with a worldwide supply chain, subcontracting our manufacturing to many companies in the United States and abroad. We ended up selling our products in North America, Europe, and Asia, and built a recognized worldwide brand. Before selling the company to one of our international retailers, we grew the company by raising additional capital and expanding a new product line. So, entrepreneurship, marketing, supply-chain, finance, and operations have been in my wheelhouse for the last 25 years.
IDH: How did you develop the business concept for ThinkSynergy?
KEITH: A few years ago, in my business travels, I found a need for our company employees and I to work virtually, conduct mobile meetings with supply chain partners, and work with my customers in multiple locations while keeping the cost of overhead down. I started looking into business lounges and other co-work spaces that were emerging. This was predominantly in primary cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo and Hong Kong. I was following a trend I thought could work in other second-tier cities, such as Hartford.
I did some research and then started putting together a plan to use this building in downtown Hartford as an incubator/co-work space. From there, we decided to offer accelerator services to help companies raise capital to grow and scale their business.
IDH: When did ThinkSynergy open its doors?
KEITH: We did a soft launch in late 2016.
IDH: Let’s talk about the services you offer and how they are helping startups and small businesses.
KEITH: Part of our mission is to help companies initiate growth. They may have growth plans in place and need a team to help execute it or they just need to develop a growth plan. At the onset when working with new companies, we go through a deep dive evaluation of the company—from marketing to finance to supply chain and operations.
How do they bridge from early stage to the next level? How do they scale their business? We look at what founders/owners/executive managers are doing. Are they doing too much in working inside the business? In other words, are they doing all the sales, the finances, operations and everything else? We look at what the founders need to focus on to achieve top-line growth and help them execute a well thought out plan. We don’t just consult on a plan at a high level rather we come in, roll up our sleeves and help them execute.
We often assist in the redesign of their supply chain, whether the company provides a service or a product. Supply chain management is an important part of our growth strategy to help scale the business and be profitable. Then we go into raising some funds for them or helping them to negotiate that best financing that fits the business. For the most part, we dig into what operational challenges they may have to achieve their goals. So, we do a lot of accounting/ Enterprise Resource Planning system implementation, workflow and process analysis, and inventory turn analysis to free up cash and offer financial modeling. We look at their cost all the way from product development and procurement through to the delivery to their customers. We figure out how we can improve their cash flow and profitability to help them grow.
IDH: You mentioned financing, which is always a challenge for startups. Are you able to help connect entrepreneurs and startups to different investors?
KEITH: We do. Not only do we introduce them to the investment community, but we have put together an angel fund ourselves to invest in startups and early-stage companies. We’re looking for proof-of-concept/proof-of-revenue companies, those that are generating minimum of $500,000 of revenue. The goal is to help small businesses continue to support what they’ve already proven in their customer base with their product lines or services.
IDH: What types of people are using the co-work space?
NANCY: The co-working space is primarily focused on startups and early-stage businesses that need mobile or virtual offices, and possibly those companies needing the services Keith was describing.
In addition to those services, we’re considering offering cost effective services for startups, such as brand identity packages, simple websites, or some other digital marketing help.
Our co-work space is designed to help continue the growth we’re seeing here in Hartford with all the millennials and other entrepreneurs. We want to give them a space to collaborate, work/live and flourish. And of course, we could host larger companies requiring expansion space and using our accelerator services.
IDH: What differentiates this co-working space from others?
NANCY: What I think differentiate us is that we are right in the heart of the city, we find combined synergies with our members (companies), and we take a vested interest in helping them grow.
We really enjoy the spirit of the city. Hartford is a creative, artistic, boutique place to work, like Thinksynergy’s co-working space. It’s comfortable, inspiring and energetic. And that’s what you have in both ThinkSynergy and the city of Hartford. It’s not a big, open, corporate-looking space. It’s a place for people, like entrepreneurs, who are looking to roll up their sleeves and get started in a comfortable collaborative community.
We host management retreats for those companies that we work with in our work/live spaces. And we really emphasize the benefits of the diversity of the business community at Thinksynergy.
We’re called ThinkSynergy because we believe in connecting businesses and people to help them grow. For instance, we may have a startup that we happily connect them to other companies within ThinkSynergy, so they can work together, build off each other strengths, and potentially form a partnership. We align supply chain partners to help them grow together within a business vertical. We find that companies grow faster when they are aligned and focused on their core competencies.
That’s really our intention with Thinksynergy. It’s not just to offer an open space for people to rent and work from; we want to bring entrepreneurs and businesses together, to see how they can help one another grow faster. So, it’s more personalized than just a corporate co-work space.
Also, we’d love to invite the investment community at large to come in and learn more about how we can help safely grow their early-stage businesses with an experienced management team around them on a daily basis. Fostering a sense of business support and transparency between investors and founders is another way we differentiate from other co-work communities.
KEITH: In terms of differentiating ourselves from the other co-work spaces, I really think we fit right in.
There’s reSET, which is a great organization. They’re very hands on with day-one startups, whereas we’re more focused on the startup to early-stage companies after they have demonstrated proof of concept, growth, and recurring revenue. These companies have gone through much of the startup stage but now they’re in need to scale their business with an experienced hands-on management team to help hit critical growth goals and find capital.
There’s also Upward Hartford, which I think focuses on more informational technologies and business innovation. There is clearly a place for the different offerings at different business stages.
IDH: So, you see there is room for different types of co-work spaces.
KEITH: Definitely. And we’re priced accordingly. If you look at our different memberships and prices, we fit right in the middle of the other two co-work businesses in town.
IDH: Another differentiator is that you have the living space upstairs.
NANCY: Yes. The work/live apartments being built now will be completed by end of May 2018. We are looking to prove a work/live concept. The business apartments provide a great opportunity—particularly for startups—early-stage companies that need resources where they can live and work in the same space.
They’ll have access to our business community, essential Thinksynergy services, and our co-working amenities. Their travel and lodging costs are less expensive when they are coming to Hartford on a regular basis for management training and meetings with supply chain partners and customers.
In the startup and early stages, entrepreneurs need to live and work in the business to facilitate growth faster. Business travel spaces that are flexible offer great value to those companies that want to test a market or maybe traveling frequently to a city. Similar to Airbnb, in our work/live spaces, someone looking to hit the ground running with their company can take advantage of the lower costs and business resources.
KEITH: There is a cost savings to having your apartment with your office. And then there are additional easy expansion opportunities if someone needs to overflow into our Thinksynergy co-working space.
IDH: Nancy mentioned events. Can you tell us more about them?
KEITH: Our first event was in April 2017. We brought in four speakers from startups. We also opened that event up to the University of Connecticut MBA program and had about 80 people come through that evening. It was really exciting. It also precipitated the thought that we could collaborate with the UConn MBA program by offering internships.
IDH: In addition to UConn are you collaborating with any other institutions or organizations?
KEITH: We’ve been involved with UConn’s MBA program since June of 2017. We do have plans to talk to the other educational institutions. UConn being downtown has been a huge benefit to the entrepreneurial community. Even our business has dipped into those resources.
IDH: How so?
KEITH: ThinkSynergy can bring MBAs into a company to act as interns and help with project implementation. We then help onboard those interns for permanent placement or just temporarily. So, it’s sort of an outsourcing model too. If a company wants help recruiting—and they want to find someone who will understand their business before making a permanent decision, we can see if they fit the culture or the culture fits them. That’s a big part of what we do when we come to a new growing organization. Our team is always open to the possibilities being offered a permanent job.
We’ve also been working with CTNext, which has been terrific. We’ve used its funding to help onboard our team members into companies. We put them on specific projects that are being subsidized by CTNext. That’s helped Thinksynergy and our interns.
IDH: What do you think is the best thing about your location in downtown Hartford?
KEITH: Recently, there’s been increased interest with millennials who want to work and live in an urban environment. We’re well positioned in the center of the city, close to all the public transportation and within walking distance to great restaurants and Bushnell Park. I think we’re going to see the momentum continue for urban revitalization in Hartford.
IDH: What do you enjoy most about working with entrepreneurs and startups?
KEITH: I think it’s a great opportunity for us to get to know how founders become successful, think about their businesses, and drive their passion. It is very gratifying for me to share my experience across other industries, insight into to how to scale a business, and my own challenges as an entrepreneur.
All entrepreneurs and founders are often challenged with time management issues such as needing more time to work on the business and less time managing the daily business struggles. You’ve got to take time to work on the business instead of in the business. We try to make sure business owners understand there’s a percentage of time they must be spending planning the business growth instead of working in the business and dealing with daily problem solving. That dichotomy is very challenging for most of us. Productivity must to go up while costs must come down to be profitable. But they need to maintain their passion and vision, then build a capable management team to execute. For me, the most exciting part is to see the difference when companies transition into more scalable businesses.
NANCY: For me it’s the energy of an entrepreneur because nobody is more excited to work then those who work for themselves. I think that’s why these co-working spaces are taking off. Entrepreneurs think: This is where I’m supposed to be because everyone here is so driven to succeed. I enjoy being a part of that. I love it.
Learn more about ThinkSynergy