Sheer Genius

Local startups get a unique chance to learn from business experts

While entrepreneurship can be exciting, the startup days can be challenging. House of Genius, which launched its Phoenix chapter in 2014, helps early-stage companies to stay enthusiastic amidst the obstacles of entrepreneurship.

But, if you think this is a run-of-the-mill networking event, think again. Held monthly, House of Genius meetings kick off with a keynote presentation about anything from leadership, to motivation, to the entrepreneurial journey. The heart of the session, though, is when two different companies each make five-minute presentations to a group of about 15 to 20 panelists from a variety of backgrounds.

“Instead of a pitch where they’re looking for money, our presenters come to the table with a specific question about their business or a problem to solve to help the panelists guide their feedback,” says Caitlin Waters, House of Genius city director. “Some are in the idea or startup stage, while others are in an early funding round, or even an established company changing direction.”

A Q&A session is followed by one-by-one feedback from around the table.

“Panelists provide guidance, as well as recommend organizations or make introductions that might help,” Waters says. “We ask panelists to keep it really strategic, and we have a note taker so the presenters can focus on just listening and being present.”

The more than 60 presenters to date have run the gamut from apps, tech and software companies, to nonprofits and brick-and-mortar businesses—including one business owner who had an idea to start a cereal bar.

Based on the same model used at 33 House of Genius chapters around the world, some intentional mystery fosters the free sharing of ideas and feedback: Keynote topics and presentations are kept secret until the day of the event, and names of the panelists are kept anonymous until the end.

“At least one or two people will have industry-specific experience, but you might be sitting next to a seasoned entrepreneur, lawyer, or high school student,” says Waters. “One of the new things we’re doing is reserving one seat a month for an Arizona State University or other college student. We want to make sure we have the most diverse panel possible.”

Chapter founder Nima Jacob Nojoumi’s experience as a panelist at the Santa Monica chapter inspired him to launch in Phoenix to support the burgeoning entrepreneurial community.

“I was blown away by the community-driven format, selflessness of the panelists, and the value that was captured for founders that were presenting,” he says. “My ‘aha! moment’ was during the reveal, when I realized I was collaborating with none other than Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures. The anonymity is an equalizer that creates a safe environment for ideas and feedback to flow freely.”

At the time, Nojoumi had just completed a seven-year stint at GoDaddy, which led him to anticipate that the next wave of startup unicorns would likely come from employees at GoDaddy, Infusionsoft, and other Valley companies on the rise.

“I wanted to help people make the leap from employee to founder,” he says. “I was also encouraged by Rep. David Schweikert to ‘be the bridge’ at a congressional field hearing in Scottsdale, where I testified on behalf of entrepreneurs regarding access to capital in high-growth industries.”

John Bevell, co-founder of Gigapult, a year-old company that helps high school students get work experience through gigs at full-fledged organizations, can attest to the benefits of presenting to the House of Genius panel.

“It’s really good practice for any startup to pitch their ideas in a limited time frame,” he says. “I liked how the panel could give feedback at various points after you give your pitch, so you could just listen and absorb their first impressions. And it was cool that one of the folks in attendance at my session reached out three or four weeks afterwards with a follow-up idea.”

Waters says one of her favorite things about House of Genius is exposing lesser-known companies to the community and watching them take off.

“It also sparks something in the panelists after they leave, whether they’re thinking about building their own company or getting involved more in the entrepreneurial community in Phoenix,” she continues. “Even if you’ve never been involved with a startup before, everyone has something to share.”


Story by Jake Poinier
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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