Each year, the Davidson Venture Fund invests up to $25,000 in an innovative, for-profit venture. If you would’ve talked to Emma Bueher ‘24 in December, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about the fund. Four months later she is a finalist for her business, Pomegrana.
Before the Spring semester, Emma had no idea about the fund.
“I wrote an article for the Davidsonian about my business in February. After it was released, someone from the Hurt Hub reached out to me and encouraged me to apply for the Venture Fund. “
Pomegrana is Emma’s jewelry business, and she prides herself on being different from many other companies.
“I really wanted to have focus on ethical and sustainable products for college students.
Emma’s earrings are made using palmer clay. She originally had 6 different styles but has since expanded to several more.
“My supplies are ordered through Etsy. Some of the jewelry is handcrafted and all of it is designed by me.”
Soon after designing and making her first models, she began selling.
“I set up an etsy page where I would sell my jewelry. As of now I have 85 sales, and I’m getting several orders a week.”
Emma had to scale down her business once she came back to Davidson for her second semester.
“It’s a lot of balancing classes, social life, and now Pomegrana. I’ve had to stop advertising, but Istill get several orders a week.”
The Venture Fund would allow Emma to greatly expand her business. She has several ideas for what to put the money towards.
“Right now, I’m legally a lemonade stand. Ideally, I’ll hire 5-10 people so I can scale up and produce more.”
Emma’s also been in contact with several mentors through the Hurt Hub. She appreciates their guidance and outlook regarding her business.
“I’ve been in contact with mentors. They’ve helped show me how to incorporate a business model, how to make a convincing pitch, and how to stay sustainable.”
In addition, Emma’s mentors have given her motivation and ambition to keep moving forwards. She’s excited to grow and expand Pomegrana in the future.
“My mentors have really emphasized shooting for the moon. I can be wholesaling for Walmart if I really wanted to be.”
When asked about advice she’d give to a student thinking about starting a business, Emma emphasized the culture of Davidson.
“Davidson is one of those places where it feels like everyone is creating 24/7. There’s this inspiration aspect of the school. It feels like everyone has some big side project.”
Emma believes that with incredible Davidson’senvironment, everyone should be giving something new a chance.
“Davidson is such a supportive community. There are a million resources to use, and everyone is willing to help.”
ermoreauDavidson Venture Fund 2021 Finalist: Pomegrana
The Gig-Hub program, through the Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, provides a platform for local businesses to hire current Davidson students for short-term work involving market research, copywriting, data analytics, web development and other skills. A recent investment from Whitney A. White ’08 to expand the Hurt Hub’s Tech Impact Fund, a fund she started in 2015, means more companies—specifically women-owned and underrepresented minority-owned businesses—will have the opportunity to hire students at no cost to them.
The following is an interview with Mike Guggenheimer, Davidson class of ‘96. Mike joined the Blumenthal family of businesses in 2008 and currently serves as President and CEO of Blumenthal Holdings. Mike initiated the company’s move into industrial biotechnology with a 2012 investment in Terresolve Technologies, an innovative green tech company. Prior to joining Blumenthal Holdings, Mike was an operating partner for Blackstreet Capital Management, a private equity group that focused on control buyouts of under-performing corporate orphans. Mike has an M.B.A. from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
Watch the recording of our interview.
Liz: I would love for you to just set the stage for us a little bit and give some more color to your journey from Davidson to running Blumenthal Holdings today.
Mike: In high school, I had a lot of hands on jobs like construction, landscaping, and delivering pizzas. I did a little bit of everything which gave me a flavor and interest in business. I came to Davidson, obviously appreciative of the liberal arts approach, but I also didn’t know what I wanted at the time. At Davidson, I really kind of found a home in Davidson for the application of that thought with I-O [Industrial Organizational] psychology.
The I-O psychology focus as well as some of the relationships I gleaned really set the stage for me. Dr. Kello helped me get this internship at Spencer’s. It was kind of an HR internship but I really traveled around the business. I rode a truck, I went to the plant, learned a lot about the company. I started getting a feeling for manufacturing and industrial hands on opportunity.
When Milliken came to Davidson to recruit, I interviewed with them and got excited about the company. I waited around, but I got an opportunity to work for Milliken. It was perfect – I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but I had about 25 people reporting to me only a year or two out of college. [I] learned a ton about myself and skills as a manager. I went to business school, thinking I probably wouldn’t come back to Milliken.
Coming out of business school, I was looking at management consulting and general management of big companies. I really saw this opportunity to come back to Milliken and craft my own role. They didn’t know what to do with me coming back, so I said why don’t you let me help you figure out how to grow. We created a ventures group, and I was on a number of corporate strategy projects. I was able to have a nice impact and create a little business that’s still around today.
Another mentor of mine introduced me to Blackstreet Capital and the private equity world. It seemed to be the perfect next step for me because I wanted to run a business. While I learned a ton, when I got there I realized it wasn’t exactly what I envisioned my kind of approach to running a business would be.
It wasn’t very long after when I got the opportunity to talk to the Blumenthal family here. I made the switch to come join the family and have been here about 13 years. Over the past few years it’s been about structuring the business for the next few decades.
Liz: Can you speak more specifically about how Davidson provided you that foundation and the I-O program with Dr. Kello?
Mike: Davidson prepares you to learn how to learn. I came into Milliken with everyone being engineers and I was a psychology major. But I realized the engineers don’t know any more about this robot than I do.
[At Davidson], you’re thinking about things from different models; you look at things from very different perspectives and angles.
From I-O psychology specifically, what really resonated with me was beginning to learn about teamwork and how a group of individuals can actually produce results that are greater than the sum of their parts.
You learn how to work with others, through others, developing teams, thinking about relationships, thinking about conflict…right now my role is more than 50% people things. Understanding I-O psychology and understanding personalities and people in teamwork is super powerful now.
The other thing about Davidson and something I’m proud of is that it’s not shy about being a tough place; it’s hard work. But it’s a place where you have to learn how to blend work and play. The earlier you learn how to work hard when you need to and then play when you can, the better. Davidson does a really good job of balancing those things.
Liz: For the students in the audience who might be considering going to business school, could you talk a bit about that shift and that blend [regarding group work & individual work]?
Mike: With the schools we’re talking about, you’re immediately thrown into a situation where you might choose your team or maybe your team is chosen for you. You have to figure out how to navigate that which is really important. Seeking out those opportunities may be something you do early on. The notion that the collaboration and power of multiple perspectives is going to be really important.
At the start, I didn’t think I could create a business or start it from scratch. My thought was that maybe there was an opportunity in other ways. I appreciate creativity in a lot of other ways that I didn’t back then. In my view, lots of different things are entrepreneurial in nature. I came really close to buying a little plastic recycling company. A lot of the themes about entrepreneurship are similar, you can just put them in different contexts.
[Thinking about] do you have a problem and for whom, and putting your mind to who you are solving for. Is it big enough to be interesting, can it scale, and can you sustain it? I found myself at different times of my career looking through that lens. It’s unfair to look at entrepreneurship as only starting a business from scratch in your garage.
Liz: Can you break down for us your work in controlled buyouts for underperforming corporate orphans and what that means?
Mike: Private equity is a really broad umbrella of investing and existing businesses. Blackstreet’s focus was on looking for things that had been neglected so to speak. It wasn’t quite a turnaround, but there was an aspect of that. It was underperforming in the sense that it hadn’t been given the resources or attention that it needed.
I’ve always enjoyed thinking about how to fix things. I liked the idea of working with Blackstreet. Private equity is a great place to find entrepreneurial opportunities because it can mean a lot of different things. For me, that experience was an important pivot point in two ways. One, I had been with this large private company for many years – well resourced, a lot of investment decisions were about “what’s the payback.” Going into private equity, I was immediately faced with cash flow and balance sheets. It gave me an appreciation that I didn’t have before in terms of running a business.
I realized in that role that I was looking for something that was an autonomous or freedom-type approach. At that point in my career, I realized that I didn’t just want to run a business so to speak, but I wanted to be able to have an impact with the freedom to create. In that scenario, there were a lot of different players like investors and the CEO who were reporting to me. It was kind of messy at that point. I’m really blessed to have had that point in my career, but I also appreciate what I have now which is an intimate relationship with the owners I work with. It was about following your passion, what gets you excited and really feeling like you have some energy behind it.
Liz: Where have been some of your bigger successes and failures you’ve faced?
Mike: I’ve learned much from the mistakes I’ve made, and that’s where some of my greatest leaps forwards are from. We’ve dealt with a lot of interesting challenges over the last couple years. We really made a decision that we can’t be everything, and we needed to focus on building brands, research and development, and innovation. We made the decision to exit manufacturing and exit to contract packagers and warehouses. It was very complex; we did a lot of things at once. We knew there was some uncertainty and potential roadblocks on the way.
We hit a big one in that the outside warehouses we had lined up could not do what we were doing before. It was a really big challenge. The first reaction was thinking “oh man, we made a big mistake here”. [You’ve] got to live in the present, in the here and now. This is where the team comes into play: we went into this knowing it wasn’t going to be easy, and now we have to adjust.
We brought the warehouse back here in Charlotte in about a third of the time of any other warehouse. It was a real lesson in a team rallying around a challenge and putting that mistake behind us and say, “We can’t worry about that now, we have to deal with what’s in front of us.”
The other thing that came up for me was the humane aspect of running a business. Having to close the plant the first time was a very difficult decision, but the right decision strategically. I will never forget the day I had to stand in front of all those people and say why we were doing it. We had dealt with everything so transparently and honestly, and that day everyone came up to me thanking me and thanking the Blumenthal Family. It was a real eye-opener about how important it is to treat people a certain way and be transparent about why you’re doing things.
Tying it back to Davidson a bit – there’s a really close knit aspect to Davidson. I can call a Davidson grad tomorrow that doesn’t know who I am, and they’ll take my call and offer to help. The idea of being honest and treating people with respect is essential to building and leading teams.
Liz: I think you mentioned when moving warehousing back to Charlotte some of the first people you called to bring back were the ones you let go. That’s something that’s not always highlighted, how challenging that is. It shows how important clarifying your role as a leader is and how you want to present yourself. How did Davidson help set you up for that type of empathy and empathetic leadership?
Mike: The other thing that comes to mind is the long view versus the short view. I’ve been fortunate to be in private companies, and some of that long view is natural for those businesses. If you take the long view, a lot of times you sacrifice something in the short term. A big lesson for me is having that fortitude to keep that long view in mind in how you deal with people, your partners, and the business.
Liz: How do you think someone coming out of a liberal arts educational experience can redefine what it means to be an entrepreneur or an innovator?
Mike: Refusing to accept the conventional definition of entrepreneurship is important. For a Davidson student or for anyone, I think of it as solving a problem. It’s innovation in a very hands-on, self-built way. With a liberal arts program, [at] Davidson particularly, there’s an innate curiosity and exploration that comes out of it. Entrepreneurship can be about the curiosity to solve a problem and create something.
The other thing I think is interesting about entrepreneurship is that you can get yourself in a tunnel of looking at things. The openness to accept things that you might not be expecting can be really powerful. That’s a way to redefine entrepreneurship – it isn’t necessarily this linear walk.
We respond to customers asking for cleaners, disinfectants, asking us what to use to clean. We started rallying around that, and now two steps down the road we’ve developed our own electrostatics spray for these technologies. It was never in our mind to begin with, it came from figuring out how we can help. The curiosity, the openness, not necessarily assuming there’s a prescription of how to do it is crucial.
Liz: I was speaking with a student a few days ago in my office hours and we talked about her ability to put seemingly disparate things together in a new configuration. She felt very well-prepared and said that it was even one of her unique differentiators in job interviews.
Mike: That’s the whole multiple mental models idea – looking at things from a 360 view. If you’ve been trained in a lot of different areas, you’ll have an ability to put together pieces really quickly. That’s super powerful in entrepreneurship. You’ve got all these functions to deal with, but if you’re not tied to one lens, you’ll be able to see how the pieces fit together.
Question from Audience: Can you talk some more about the importance of networking, working with mentors, and staying connected to people that can help you?
Mike: I’m going to give Dr. Kello my gratitude. He was one of my first significant mentors. He’s been a partner for me over the years in different ways. At Davidson he played an important role getting the Spencer’s internship and Milliken. There’s a lot of advocacy for students at Davidson, and my relationship with Dr. Kello carries on.
I think that identifying people at different stages of my life, whether it’s something I can offer or someone who can push me, it’s really important. One of the big lessons for me is self-reflection. If you’re an entrepreneur or running sometimes, there’s not always a lot of people to talk to. I think it’s essential to identify people who will challenge you and be good sounding boards.
Question from Audience: What do you do to build and sustain the culture at Blumenthal Holdings?
Mike: I look at it less of culture, but rather what the operating principles we’re going to hold dear are. I use that not only to think about the team we want to have and build, but also about making sense of what we’re doing. We have these operating values that we think about, but rather than something you just post on a board, it’s how we differentiate.
It also becomes really powerful in terms of talent acquisition. I still interview everyone that we hire. We just hired a bunch of people in the marine business, and our VP of talent and I were the ones who screened everybody. Of all the things I do, I feel that it’s important as anything. Getting the right talent and getting them excited about what we’re doing is really important.
The notion of fit is important. A lot of times when I interview people, I’ll tell them the bad stuff. We want to develop people and have them feel like it’s what they really signed up for.
Liz: A lesson I had to learn is as an employee having agency to make the choice to join an organization. There’s an analysis, a self-reflection about what I really value and if it’s a match with the organization.
Mike: That is a great point, it’s really an active choice of “Is this a fit for me?” It doesn’t have to be a fit forever, it’s about being able to learn and grow.
Question from Audience: How you define innovation in your organization today and how are you building that muscle within your respective teams?
Mike: As a small business, innovation has to be embedded in everything we do. We try to embed innovative thinking into everything and have everyone be empowered. Innovation doesn’t always have to be an amazing, huge idea that saves the world. It can be little innovations that add up.
Over time, we’ve had to think about how we talk about objectives and goals. If you’re constantly punishing failures, people will be risk-averse and not try things. You have to find the balance of understanding risk, but also celebrating things that didn’t work.
For our businesses, it’s about defining where we want to play and how we think we’re going to win. If you have a clear understanding of what you can do differently, it’s a little easier to think about if an idea fits with your goals.
Liz: Can you speak more about how you’re communicating your strategy to everyone and ensuring that people clearly understand so feel empowered to take action without explicitly being told to do so?
Mike: There’s not an easy answer to that, I’m constantly trying to do that. Dr. Kello would say you can’t possibly over communicate on these types of issues. It starts with defining an aspiration for what we’re trying to do as a business. We define it as a “who,” who we’re trying to solve a problem for. It’s about the industry or the people that it’s for.
We have a one-page document that shows people and ourselves what our true north is. I try to reiterate the big picture of what we’re trying to be and why. It’s important to keep talking about it. The pandemic has created new ways for me to talk to people. It’s morphed into small team zoom meetings. I had a meeting this morning that was “ask me anything” with our IT group. The more I do that, the more people will ask why we’re doing things, which is when the storytelling comes out.
Question from Audience: How important has the history or legacy of the companies been, and how do you look back to move forward?
Mike: As you were reading that question, a thought came to my mind about my past experiences. Some of my past businesses are not the most glamorous, so turning that history or legacy into pride is crucial. Whether it’s Milliken or Blumenthal, there’s such a strong reputation of doing business the right way. We’ve morphed that story into the acceptance and respect of the great history, but also understanding we can’t be the same company we were 90 years ago today. We don’t look like we did 20-30 years ago, and I’m willing to bet we’ll look different 20-30 years ago today.
Liz: For students interested in going to a startup or smaller company, how would you advise them on evaluating the strength of the company, the background, and whether or not it’ll be a good fit?
Mike: For me, it’s about getting to the fundamentals and really understanding the business. If the people you’re talking to can articulate that very well, that’s very important. As you ask questions about your passion and goals, you’ll be able to see what they’re doing. I tend to shy away from opportunities that I can’t understand at a foundational level.
Liz: What’s an ask and challenge you have of this community as we’re trying to build it out?
Mike: Don’t be afraid to go down a path that isn’t the predictable or expected path. Don’t feel the pull to follow the herd. Follow your curiosity and follow your interests. Emphasize places where you can feel like you can learn and grow and that’ll pay off. There are so many people in the Davidson network eager to help out anyone in Davidson. Don’t be afraid to ask or engage with the alumni base. I was excited about this simply for the aspect of giving back. I’ve had a lot of help on the way, and it’s important to pay it forward. Don’t be afraid to ask for it!
The following is an interview with Mbye Njie, Davidson class of ‘04. Mbye Njie was an Anthropology Major at Davidson. Since he graduated in 2004, he’s been an activist and founder ofLegal Equalizer, a mobile app that allows users to capture police encounters after being pulled over, automatically notify loved ones in real-time, provide information on legal rights involving that encounter, and receive legal advice at the scene. Mbye launched the first version of the app in 2015 after seeing the fallout from the Michael Brown case, and pulling from his own personal experiences with law enforcement.
Watch the recording of our interview.
Liz: Give us a little context of your Davidson experience up until the point you founded Legal Equalizer.
Mbye: Davidson was great, enlightening, and also prepared me for life and what I do today. Our class was the first large class of African-American public school students. A lot of aspects of my app came from my experiences from Davidson. If we went off campus 10 times, probably 4 or 5 times we’d get pulled over. We printed out a ton of laws of North Carolina, so the next time we got pulled over we showed them the documents. When I built the app, I wanted people to have a sense of laws from within the app.
I had a job working at Morgan State and at John Hopkins doing research on health disparities. I absolutely despised it, because if you know me, 90% of that job was behind a computer, not interacting and talking with people. I left that job after a year and moved back to Charlotte. I took a job doing door to door sales cold calling. That job is part of what led me to Legal Equalizer. I did that job in North and South Carolina in small towns and remote places. When I tell people I’ve been pulled over 80-100 times I’m not exaggerating.
I left that job and moved back into sales for a while. I was in sales up until when I decided to quit and focus on Legal Equalizer.
Liz: Can you talk to us a bit more about the decisions and feelings when you decided you had to start your app?
Mbye: When I first read the Ferguson story, I didn’t believe it. My whole question during Ferguson was why did no one have a recording? A lot of my white friends at Davidson had never had to deal with this and didn’t understand it. It was the first time a lot of them had heard of police brutality. My black friends said “oh no, here’s what probably happened”. I kept looking for apps that would record and let people know when you got pulled over. That December is when I got pulled over 3 times. When I got handcuffed and put in the back of the car, I realized it wasn’t about my arrest. That was the first time in my life that I felt the need to make an actual police complaint. If I get pulled over, I don’t want people to guess what happened. That December of 2014 is when I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I told myself that if there was nothing on the app store by January I’d do something.
My Gofundme was up, and I had an article written in Huffington Post which caused it to skyrocket. Fast forward a little later, we had the death of Sandra Bland. That’s the one that put me over the edge. It was a little after that when I decided to focus on the app full time.
Liz: How did you initially make the decision of a funding path and forecast out how much runway you had?
Mbye: Honestly, I didn’t know anything about funding. My godbrother was the first person who wanted to invest, so he matched the money we raised on Gofundme. I didn’t even have a runway or know what a runway was. The first big piece of funding we got was $75,000 from a Davidson alum. In 6 years we’ve raised about $360,000, $400,000 if you include my own contributions.
For us, we haven’t made revenue because the app was about saving lives. I had to pivot because people needed a return on their investment, so we started to think about how revenue could be made. That’s how I got the idea of bringing on attorneys to the app. The argument I used to make with people was how other tech companies got the chance to start without making revenue, but we were held to a different standard. We’re still in the process of raising money now. We’re in the process of building out the app where the attorneys can make extra money but also help people in real time who need it.
Liz: I saw in an interview you mention the book The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. He has a line, “the team that got you here isn’t the team that gets you there”. Can you talk a little about how you selected your first team?
Mbye: When I read that book, that was one of those things that let me know I needed to get rid of my first team. For me, there was a point I didn’t expect everyone to be as passionate about the business as me. I found out that my coder sat for a year and made about one update, and I knew I could find someone else. If my team wasn’t focused, we had to separate, no hard feelings. I love when my coder calls me and says they disagree with something because it shows they put thought and time into the business. That’s the biggest way we’ve grown and gotten better.
Liz: Your point about mutual respect and pushback is really important. It’s meant to push things further and make things better. You can’t operate with someone who agrees with you and just says yes all the time.
Question from Audience: Can you say more about how your circular experience in anthropology and co-curricular experience as a student activist has helped you in your entrepreneurial life?
Mbye: I loved anthropology because it gave me a different way of looking at things. When I went to Davidson, I thought I knew I was going to be a political science or history major. Dr. Fairly is the one who sat me down and explained that anthropology isn’t all about fossils and ruins. She explained the cultural and people aspect of it. I’ve appreciated in my whole life that I can pick up some ideas because of anthropology. It’s the ability to relate to others that’s my greatest love of anthropology.
It’s the ability to have an open mind, the willingness to learn, and the willingness to go out and explore other cultures. Anthropology for me is what made me want to have the perspective of police officers when I made the app. If I wasn’t a Davidson student, I wouldn’t have been as curious to go out and learn from that other side. I appreciate all those lessons I learned from that.
Question from Audience: How much time are you spending on fundraising versus managing? Do you spend any time working on the product yourself?
Mbye: I don’t know how to code, so I don’t work on the actual product but I manage all our social media and anything else with the company. I haven’t had too much time to spend with fundraising, but there are things coming down the pipeline that I’m excited about. Getting affirmation that I have something is great to hear. When you’re spending money on so many things, it’s basically bootstrapping. I’m excited to get the opportunity to raise a legitimate amount of funds where we can put a team together.
Question from Audience: How many users do you have now? How are you using marketing?
Mbye: Right now our downloads are about 200,000. We have about 60,00 registered users. I have a PR team that’s been helping me out. Anytime there’s a shooting or altercation, they’ll send out advertisements to that market. We also have some things down the line regarding partnerships. We have a partnership with Rough Riders and I’m talking next week with Wu Tang.
Question from Audience: What advice would you give to more entrepreneurial minded students today?
Mbye: I would tell them to take the risk and don’t be afraid to fail. I believe that it’s going to be successful, I don’t know if it will be, but I’m not afraid to fail. I at least want the opportunity to build out my idea and give it a full try. Once my full platform is out, I believe it’s going to skyrocket. For me, that was the biggest thing that held me back for about 6 months. I thought about the app idea for 6 months before I finally made a move. We stop ourselves a lot of time from doing things based on our fear of failure or fear of not knowing how to do something.
If you have an idea and you’re a student, believe in yourself. Most students are intelligent individuals who can look at the resources around them. Don’t be afraid, everyone has failed at some point. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get your ideas out there and don’t be afraid.
Question from Audience: Can you talk a little more about privacy and how you intend to protect user privacy?
Mbye: Privacy was one of our number one worries when we first created the app. As far as user privacy goes, all of it is incredibly secure. We have multiple servers, the video is held by the user as well, not by us. We haven’t had any cases yet with law enforcement subpoenas yet. We wanted to make sure the app was essentially hack proof. The app is encrypted as well, and it was very important to us that the users held the data.
People think I’m crazy because I’m helping some people build out an app very similar to ours right now. My example is that when I go to Kroger, I can pick Essentia water, or I can pick Smartwater. We don’t complain about that. Why is it when it comes to saving lives, there can only be one? Anytime someone has an app that’s similar to ours, we get a spike as well. I don’t mind helping out other people or having competitors; I think it’s healthy.
Question from Audience: Does the company partner with police departments in any way?
Mbye: My first endorsement was from my hometown police chief. He wrote a letter and signed it, because we approached based on accountability. Most police departments are excited about partnering up, because if their officers are doing the right things there’s nothing wrong with them being recorded. I’ve worked with them, and I want to continue working with them in the future.
Question from Audience: I view your app as a “stash it and hope I never have to use it” type of app. Any thoughts for advancing the app to have a more active engagement component?
Mbye: Yes, we’re definitely working on that. I want to have more push notifications for laws, and more information when laws change. We’re currently discussing within the app having people be able to have conversations about their local communities. Policing is a local community issue, so that’s one of the next steps in our roadmap.
Liz: Any parting words?
Mbye: I appreciate you for having me here, be sure to download the app and check out our website. If you have any questions feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . If you’re a current student, make sure to get in touch with Liz since hopefully we’ll start hiring soon. I’d love to have you all help us out with your skills and talent. I’m looking forward to working with the students and with Davidson College.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
The following is an interview with Dean Williams & George Ramsay, Davidson classes of ‘11 and ‘13 respectively. George majored in music while playing two years of soccer at Davidson. Dean was a psychology major and lifelong musician. Shortly after graduating, George and Dean co-founded a music lesson business – Bold Music.
Watch the recording of our interview.
Liz: Walk us through your entrepreneurial journey – take us back to Davidson, just give us a little bit of background up until the point you decided to found Bold Music.
Dean: George & I both were instructors before we were entrepreneurs. To this day, that remains one of our value adds as leaders in our business. We started ground up – we were doing it [teaching] and then we became entrepreneurs in this field.
I had the opportunity to run a music lesson program at a local music store, which gave me the experience of the operation side of the business, not just the teaching side. Since George & I had been buddies at school, I recruited him to come and play. In running that small program, we both realized that the teachers who were focused on being good teachers & role models had students who really stuck around.
We saw that component as well as a few other opportunities in the business to branch out on our own to really start something fresh that we could own and direct.
George: We looked at our experience teaching in a brick and mortar store and thought there’s a better way to do this – both from a teacher sanity perspective but also for students in families. George and I both thought why not eliminate the need for physical space and give busy parents the ability to have someone come to their house rather than commute for a music lesson.
Liz: Could you speak about how you define the two sided marketplace and break down your process for funding?
George: One of the problems we were solving when starting this company was providing substantial, beneficial, fulfilling work for teachers. The two sided marketplace means that we’re a service for music professionals by giving them a job, but also a service/marketplace for students. From the start, one of the important differences in our company is that the teacher is a little more important than the student. We felt that if we treated our teachers better, respectfully, and paid them more they’ll do a great job teaching and the student side of the marketplace will work itself out.
Dean: An easy way of thinking about that two sided marketplace is that you’re playing matchmaker. You’re not serving one side, you’re serving both sides and being really good at being a matchmaking is what differentiates Bold Music.
Liz: Not that you anticipated pandemic, but could you speak to how the virtual convenience factor is a benefit to you?
Dean: It’s funny you mention that…luck & preparedness are certainly important factors in running a business. George had proposed a video platform as an option for makeup lessons. One of the things we wrestled with was if people would find the experience of a similar value to an in person lessons. We wanted to make sure it was “dummy proof”. We had a portal built into our website, there’s a link to a student’s teacher’s portal – it was very easy for both sides for us. Then when the pandemic came, we were able to flip the switch and bring everyone over to this virtual platform that we’ve already built out.
George: The other piece of preparedness too was that this was a problem that we had been stewing over. As we went through 2019, we spent a good chunk of that time figuring out what we were going to do. By the time October came around, we settled on what language to use to tell people that they were going to get video lessons. It’s important to know that a video lesson is not the same as an in-person lesson; the challenge is to not make it any worse, just use what is beneficial about the virtual platform and don’t try to make it something that it isn’t.
Liz: How did Davidson prepare you & provide a foundation for your journey?
George: The crucial piece of the Davidson experience is that I didn’t become an expert in anything, but I got really good at learning how to learn. The curiosity that’s fostered at Davidson is the most beneficial thing [for me]. I was a soccer player for 2 years; the idea that I could be an athlete and a music major was really important to me.
Dean: The ability that you learn to quickly learn 2 inches deep on a variety of all subjects. If you take a creative writing class as a econ major, you’re gonna be able to do creative writing at a proficient level by the end of that class. Being an entrepreneur is exactly that: it’s learning a ton of different areas & learning a base-level proficiency.
Liz: Tell me a little bit about your co-founder relationship and how you’ve thought about building out your operation.
George: Like any co-founders, Dean and I have had our rough patches, but it’s a relationship built on trust. You have to be able to rely on each other blindly. It’s become more evident to me every day that we have two superstar employees that we hired. They’re helping us out and fired up about helping us grow our business, which is a testament to the communication skills we were able to pick up at Davidson.
Dean: We have a big team that works with us like part-time workers & consultants. George and I have taken a lot of time to find where we need help. [We] went out and found people to do other pieces of the business. We found people to do other things like marketing, public relationships, admin work, and we could spend our time on what we’re good at.
George: It’s also a direct result of networking. Dean found our digital marketer as a friend of a coworker of a friend, and he’s been with us for 5 years. It’s about always having your ear out for someone who can play a good positive role in what you’re doing and getting them to buy in.
Liz: Could you speak to the decision about how to scale your business, when to ask for crowding funding, and other decisions you’ve made?
Dean: For George & I, we were lucky that we were doing this in our early 20s when we started. The risk of failure wasn’t going to put our family out on the curb, but we were really careful about not risking our financial well being.
We wanted to start the business without debt. Our fixed costs were much lower than our variable cost, so we could invest in and grow the business as it grew. As we’ve grown, we haven’t taken much out of the business. Almost all of the profit from Bold had gone back into the business in order to grow.
George: The idea of funding to us…you don’t necessarily need funding. We, by necessity, just started a business that didn’t need funding. You can get creative with funding, we still haven’t figured out funding. We didn’t feel like we were ready to take on an investment of funding.
Liz: Can you walk us through the decision process to expand into Raleigh?
George: I don’t think we’ve hit critical mass here in Charlotte. There’s plenty of room to grow in Charlotte, but we’ve always wanted to expand and bring new geographical areas into the fold. We had to figure out how we wanted to grow & expand, and the Raleigh case is the first test case for figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.
Dean: Our business is really going to batch the wind in our sails when we’re in multiple markets because we can be centralized. We can do what we’re doing right now for 1 or 2 markets for a lot more. That’s really when Bold Music will hopefully find its greatest success. One of the things that’s important to use is to provide good music lessons for people. A lot of folks think about starting a business as having that next great idea, but ultimately what makes us successful is that we’re doing something people have done for a millennia but are making sure it’s done really really well.
Liz: What’s your advice for students and others looking to start a business & what’s your ask for how we can help?
Dean: Our ask & advice is pretty much the same thing: it’s to plug in with us. We would love your mentorship – we’re certainly far from knowing all there is to know. For the new students who are watching, we would love to hear your ideas and help and return the favor. I’ve had 4 real jobs since I graduated, and a Davidson allum has been my connection to every one. We want to help, whether that’s a coffee or an internship.
George: What separates an entrepreneur from a normal person is fear of failure. Trying something new is scary and you might fail, but do it anyway. Everyone’s got great ideas. Don’t let fear stop you from doing it.
Question from the audience: After being out in the world and working in music, what kinds of classes do you wish you would’ve had at Davidson?
George: The film music type classes were so helpful. I think if there could be more influence on score/production type classes, that would be really helpful. There’s a really nice connection to the commercial music world.
Dean: From a making-money perspective in music, a financial literacy class might be helpful. If you’re going to run a business, you have to know how to run a profits and loss sheet. Maybe there’s an entrepreneurship 101 class that could cover some of those things.
George: I took one econ class, but having really small applications like case-study examples. Classes where this stuff actually happens in the real world.
Question from the audience: Could you speak a little bit about how prominent mathematics is prominent in the music business?
George: Music is math, running a business is math. There’s a big need for automation from a programming perspective, and there’s so many cool ways you can use math with music.
Dean: You’ll certainly be over-qualified to do the math involved in running a business if you graduate with a math degree. As a math-minded person, you probably already have the skills to plug in. Your major doesn’t matter as much as your curiosity and dedication to it.
Question from audience: Going forward, what do you feel like you need more: teachers or students?
Dean: Teachers, we need teachers. One of things we’re very strict about is not just hiring a good guitar player, but hiring a good guitar player that’s a great teacher & role model. There’s not an obvious pipeline for us to hire from.
George: That’s the challenge, it’s been this never-ending problem of hiring good teachers. It’s actually our first-quarter number 1 priority, finding a new pipeline for finding good teachers.
Question form the audience: Any plans for franchising?
George: The short answer is no. The value we bring to the table is keeping everything centralized, so franchising doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. We’re thinking more of planting in more geographical areas, but not relinquishing control or going in that direction.
Dean: The real advantage of franchising is that you have someone else doing it for you. Our advantage as a business is that we can scale pretty greatly off of a centralized model. We may need to hire an individual in a city to be a hiring filter, but other than that we can run more of the business from our office in Charlotte.
Question from the audience: How do you match teachers and students?
George: We hire for the person, we’ve brought on a flute teacher because she was awesome so we brought her on. We sort of are local to North Carolin], but with the virtual platform now we have teachers & students all over the place. We’re starting to think a little bit differently about that moving forward.
The matchmaking process is one of the fundamental operations of our business. We keep the matchmaking process analog, not automated. There’s a conversation with a student & the teacher, and it’s a very hands on process. The other big piece is routing, figuring out someone’s availability and finding when a teacher will be available near them.
Dean: There’s also a style element that you can’t automate. If there’s someone who has a 7 year old who wants to be like Taylor Swift, we’d pair them with Emily Sage who’s really great with little girls who want to sing and play guitar.
Sometimes it comes down to personality. We know the instructors really well, and try to get a feeling by asking really poignant questions with new students so we match folks whose styles work too.
George: We are what’s called a two-sided managed marketplace. With AirBnb, you don’t need to speak to anybody. We’re much more hands on, and that’s by design. Maybe at some point we’ll be like that, but for now, it’s important that we’re not only vetting the teacher but also the family.
Liz: Any final words?
George: Keep in touch! I love meeting people, shoot me an email at email@example.com. We do a lot of posting @boldmusic on Instagram. I’ve always been a team-type person, and collaboration is something we’re super fired up about. If you have ideas, just shoot us an email. You never know what’ll come from a conversation.
Dean: We hope each of you follows up with us and has another question or wants to have coffee. We’d consider that a success for sure. The Davidson community has done so much for us, so we want to be sure to give back.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you found yourself in an artistic career.
After graduating from Davidson in 2004 with a degree in Studio Art, I moved to Chicago on a whim with a group of friends and worked at various odd jobs for a while, ending up as a high-end cabinet maker for seven years. I kept making artwork nights and weekends, showing at small art fairs and maker marts. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by the arts community here and been very lucky to build a successful professional practice here as a self-employed artist.
How did you come to work with the Hurt Hub?
After inviting me to be a part of an alumni exhibition at the Van Every Gallery in 2019, Gallery Director Lia Newman suggested my name to the Hurt Hub, who had just started their search for a mural artist. I had previously been commissioned by the city of Hopkins, MN, to design a series of metal screens depicting the history of the city through vehicles, which was similar in approach to what the Hurt Hub had in mind, so it was a perfect fit!
What was your overall goal or what were you trying to convey with the piece?
My main goal was to bring some funky energy into the spaces, especially the Student Project Rooms. I also wanted to amplify the vibe of the Hurt Hub’s design elements — bright colors, youthful energy — while acknowledging the building’s history as a cotton mill.
What made you choose the specific colors that you chose in the mural?
I wanted each room to have its own identity, without losing any cohesion to the overall design. In working with the Hurt Hub management, we came up with color combinations that hopefully feel fun and inviting without being distracting from any work or presentations being made in the spaces — nothing too high contrast on the color wheel within each Project Room.
How long did the murals take you and what went into the planning process?
We worked on this project off and on over the course of nine months, delayed in large part because of the uncertainty around the pandemic. In December 2019, I spent time working in The Hub, walking the campus, and digging into a pile of materials that addressed some history about the cotton mill and the cotton mill industry. Turns out, to no one’s surprise, that the story of cotton in this country is one of racism, misogyny, and labor exploitation. We all agreed it was important to create designs that did not overly romanticize that past but paid respect to the labor that was done in this place.
How do you come up with ideas for your pieces?
I mostly just try to keep my antenna up, to catch what interests me so I can stay excited about my work. In the case of the Hurt Hub murals, we went through several different ideas and inspirations before finally landing on the gears and driving belts from old photos and diagrams of cotton mill machinery that I found in my research. The idea was to abstract what this space actually looked like 120 years ago. I see it as both an homage to the work that had been done here and a metaphor for the overarching energy of the Hurt Hub, driving different entrepreneurial endeavors forward.
How has art in general impacted your life and what is your most favorite project that you worked on?
Really good art punches you in the gut and pulls you in for a hug at the same time. Sometimes it whispers a joke in your ear as well. It’s some piece of a person’s humanity distilled into an object or a performance or an experience. Art is also a craft, a discipline, a practice of seeing and thinking and asking and making. It can connect you to people across cultures, across experiences, across eons. It’s the best.
I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, although it took a while to get comfortable calling myself an artist. I come from a family of preachers and teachers, and being an artist, to me, is very similar except that I filter my experience of the world into images and objects, in the hopes that they will resonate with someone else and help them make some sense out of this hot mess we call reality.
As for favorites… the key to my success is that my favorite project is always the one I’m working on right now.
ermoreauInterview with Russ White: The Hurt Hub Muralist
The Hurt Hub is excited to announce our Fall 2020 Hub Herd Team. The team is comprised of several different positions, including Resident Storyteller, Resident Vlogger, Graphic Designer, and Social Media Guru. Each team member shared a bit about themselves and what they love about The Hurt Hub.