Why Erie? Why come to a city where jobs have been lost by the hundreds, blight has spread like creeping ivy, and snow seems to come down by the bucket full? To Brian Slawin, Regional Director & Portfolio Manager of Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP), Erie is simply in transition.
From pilot, to entrepreneurial pioneer, to innovation and technology investor, Brian Slawin believes Erie is an undiscovered gem, one with a not-so-distance future that looks even brighter than its manufacturing heyday.
In this Member Spotlight, we sit down with Brian Slawin to get the scoop on his journey to Erie, his position at Ben Franklin, his Facebook show, Ventures!LIVE, and his outsider insights on Erie.
Tell me about yourself; what do you do, and how did you wind up in Erie?
I was born in Saint Louis, went to Penn State — University Park, and then went back to Saint Louis. I did all my entrepreneurial stuff there and lived my life there. In May of 2015, I exited the startup that I had founded after 10 years, and was literally laying on the couch because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had always gone to work every day.
My wife came to me and said, “Honey, I love you, I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch, so go find something to do.” But I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
I knew three things: 1) I knew I wanted to be around entrepreneurs all the time. 2) I knew I wanted to mentor, coach, network, and get people connected. 3) Lastly—if I was in the right position—I wanted to be able to write checks of significance that could help someone take their vision and turn it into reality.
So, that’s what I was looking for. I called all the venture capital firms that had either funded my start up or turned us down over the years and said, “Here’s what I’m looking to do.”
Every VC firm said, “Well, we’re all about finding entrepreneurs and we’re all about writing big checks, but the whole mentoring thing isn’t really what we do.” But that part of the job was really important to me.
Randomly, an email showed up from Penn State’s alumni association and its about Invent Penn State. I read it and found out about Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which I had never heard of but I thought it sounded interesting. Out of the blue, I made a phone call to someone who is now a colleague of mine and said, “Tell me all about Ben Franklin.”
The cool thing about Ben Franklin is that it’s an investor, but we also mentor, support, and help businesses connect. We leverage the worldwide network of Penn State University to help our companies find talent, put that talent to work, and grow.
So that soon-to-be colleague of mine said to me, “You know, we have this job opening in Erie, Pennsylvania and it looks like it matches up with your background. You should take a look at it.” To which I said “Cool! Where’s Erie, Pennsylvania?”
So did you know about coworking previous to coming to Erie?
Saint Louis has a very vibrant startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s analogous to the way Pittsburgh is today. The universities in Saint Louis started buying up property in this central district of town; it was all dilapidated, blighted, there was crime. . .all the bad stuff.
The universities, and numerous private investors, started tearing down these properties and replacing them with these bright, new, shiny buildings, which is now known as the Cortex Innovation Community. And while that’s where the startup scene started in St. Louis, it’s grown well beyond from the downtown T-Rex to 30 miles west in St. Charles at the OPO and many places north and south.
Between my first and second BFTP interviews I made probably one of the smartest decisions I’ll ever make: I found Sean Fedorko. I literally typed in, “Erie Coworking.” Boom, there was Radius.
In an hour phone call I knew a whole lot about Erie; what the entrepreneurial ecosystem and environment looked like, and I learned about Ben Franklin’s place in the community, the BFTP brand and about the impact we were already having in Erie. It all started from there.
Did you build a startup right out of college?
No, I went back to Saint Louis, had a career in aviation (I was an airshow pilot and a flight instructor) but then realized that technology could help me be a better teacher.
Later, I started a small web firm, did the dot-bomb thing, sold, shut down and worked on a number of entrepreneurial ventures, worked as a contractor in the federal sector ran an events industry digital media company and then met my former business partner. We built an events technology company, leveraging all kinds of app-based technology in 9 years and then in May, 2015, we exited to find our next great adventures!
What qualities do you look for when deciding which startups to fund?
I’m really fortunate because, every single day, people come to us with a vision about their future and they’re asking us to help. They’re asking me to provide five minutes of discussion and sometimes a half a million dollars of investment and anything in between.
I remember when I was working on my startups—what I really wanted was someone to just listen to me and give me that one little something that could push me forward.
When I talk to entrepreneurs, I look for people who have a vision beyond what they’re doing today and who have passion. That’s first. Next, I look for someone who is curious about business.
Most entrepreneurs comes to us with a passion for their idea, but without a lot of training on what it takes to run a business. If they’re curious about that, can recognize that they don’t know some things, and want to learn about running a business—that makes for an easy person to work with.
Those are the two personal attributes we look for: having strong, passionate ideas and a willingness to be coached. The other stuff just kind of falls into place. Is it a big enough market? Are you going to create jobs here? Is this something that we look for at Ben Franklin (tech, small manufacturers)?
You gave a TED talk awhile back. What motivated you to give that presentation and what was it about?
The TED talk was titled “Why Erie?” because Erie was the only place that everyone asked me the question: “Why would you come here?” No other places asked, “Why would you want to come to Los Angeles? Or Why Denver? Or why would you want to come to insert name of city?” That was never asked anywhere except for here.
I was curious about that. The talk isn’t specifically about entrepreneurs, it’s really about those things people continue to tell themselves that hold them back; Why Erie, why me, why this place?
Erie has been featured in the news often lately, both positively and negatively. What are your thoughts about this town as a startup hub and as a place to live?
I know this is my rose-colored-glasses view of the world, but who would want to live in a world where everything is perfect? I wouldn’t, what’s there to do? If everything was good, how can you make an impact?
It sounds so boring. For instance, I would never want to live in a place where the weather is always great, because if it’s always perfect, then you wouldn’t appreciate it when it’s nice. I love when it’s a little rainy, because that just means the sunset is going to be un-freaking believable.
I love that we have a beach that looks like I’m walking in California—water to the horizon, seagulls, beautiful sand. How can you not love those parts of Erie? How can you say give me the good stuff without the problems we need to work on?
Yes, we’ve lost jobs, we have pot holes, we have factories shut down, but let’s do something about that. Stop complaining about it and get something done.
I find that the coworking community and the people in the entrepreneurial ecosystem are really confused when they hear people say, “Erie sucks.” Is it everything they want? No. But they’re doing something about it.
Erie is in transition. It’s going from a manufacturing community to something that’s different. You either prepare yourself for that difference through training, education, or just being plain smart, or you’re going to have some struggles. And if you’re struggling today, it’s not too late.
I love being here because of the people, the opportunity, the community, even the weather. We really are an undiscovered gem.
What is Ventures!LIVE and why did you start it?
Ventures!LIVE sprung from a show called One Million Cups that was started by the Kauffman Foundation, which is based out of Kansas City. The idea behind their show was essentially this: what would happen if you got entrepreneurs together to collectively have one millions cups of coffee every week?
So One Million Cups takes two entrepreneurs who get in front of a small audience—live and streaming—and present their company and idea, and then ask the audience for help. It’s not necessarily about funding. It’s a group mentoring program, and it was fabulous for Saint Louis.
The idea behind Ventures!LIVE is to talk to someone in the entrepreneurial ecosystem who can create a meaningful conversation for the rest of the community. It’s a Facebook live show that focuses on the business owner’s entrepreneurial journey. At the end of the day, it’s about teaching a lesson from someone’s experience.
How do you think Radius plays a part in the newer Erie startup community?
I wonder what Erie would look like without Radius. There are a lot of organizations and entities doing really great work, but Radius is unique in that its focus is on the community. I can find a table and coffee at 10 different places in town, but there is nowhere else when I can find Northwest Pennsylvania’s best copywriter who sits next to arguably one of the best graphic designers in town, and across from them are two of the most talented programmers in Erie