There's a not-so-secret society of entrepreneurs taking shape in Cleveland

How can Cleveland get its entrepreneurial scene on par with places like Austin, Boulder, Chicago, and Silicon Valley?

By encouraging startup founders to break bread together, naturally.

And that’s exactly the point of StartInCLE, a growing collective of entrepreneurial types that meets monthly for informal group dinners and other events. The first dinner was held at Tremont's Prosperity Social Club in August 2017, and the group has been going strong ever since. In fact, last September, StartinCLE was named "Startup Catalyst of the Year" by VentureOhio.

“The whole reason we started this thing was to get [startup] founders to know and support each other like I’ve seen in other great [entrepreneurial] ecosystems,” says StartInCLE co-founder Ed Buchholz.

One of the ecosystems to which Buchholz is referring is Boulder, Colorado, where he spent 100 days as part of the Techstars accelerator cohort in 2014. During that time, Buchholz says he attended dinners virtually every evening alongside other startup founders, engineers, and tech gurus—an experience he says he’s seen replicated in other cities, but not Cleveland.

“After I came back from Boulder, I was struck by how weak, or undeveloped, our community was in comparison,” shares Buchholz. “I started to dig into why that was the case—because we have tons of great startups in Northeast Ohio and tons of really smart people who are founders or supporting these companies, but we didn’t really have a community.”

Founder Fest panel (Sauber-Buchholz and Buchholz on far right, seated)Buchholz joined forces with his wife, Anna Sauber-Buchholz, Vlipsy’s Rakesh Guha, and Leadfeeder’s Jenn Morton to host the first StartInCLE dinner in August 2017 at Prosperity Social Club. The dinner attracted 17 people, which was “about double what we expected,” according to Buchholz.

“The biggest surprise was that many of them didn’t know each other, which was disconcerting,” says Buchholz. “That’s the lifeblood of any good community, so we thought we might be onto something. And we’ve done dinners every month since.”

Buchholz says the dinners now sell out every month (with a cap of around 30 people to encourage more meaningful connection), and they’ve spread the love geographically with dinners in Akron, Canton, and around Greater Cleveland. The dinners have also attracted sponsors ranging from SkipList to Venture for America to LaunchHouse.

“On average, we try to keep the meal cost under $20/person,” says Buchholz. “People are welcome to donate whatever they like to cover their dinner; our goal is to be inclusive.”

StartInCLE entrepreneursTo that end, StartInCLE has attracted everyone from students to fledgling entrepreneurs to seasoned startup veterans, and that’s just how Buchholz likes it. He estimates that roughly 60 percent of the companies who’ve participated in StartInCLE programming are software-based; other heavily represented industries are food, medicine, e-commerce, and augmented/virtual reality.

And despite the moniker, Buchholz sees StartInCLE as a resource for all of Northeast Ohio.

“Our goal is to serve founders out to Youngstown and Hudson and Wooster,” says Buchholz, who currently works in Akron as the managing director of Bounce Innovation Hub's product accelerator. “I really view Northeast Ohio as one community, and that’s an extremely important part of my personal goals. It will be key to the success of our region for those areas to think cohesively, whether the cities or governments do or not.”

With the aim of serving more entrepreneurs, StartInCLE also offers additional programming along with the group dinners. Since its launch, StartInCLE has held 22 events—from cofounder speed dating (designed to help founders meet their business match) to community office hours (where notables like JumpStart’s Ray Leach and Embrace Pet Insurance cofounder Laura Bennett offer free mentoring over coffee).

Laura Bennett and others share insights on a Founder Fest panel“We’re hoping to spark collisions and connections,” says Buchholz.

In October, StartInCLE hosted its first annual “Founder Fest” for 70 local founders at Jumpstart and the Midtown Tech Hive (where Sauber-Buchholz works as manager). The event featured panels, networking opportunities, and group discussions about the challenges of doing business in Northeast Ohio.

This year, Buchholz hopes to attract “closer to 200-250 people and make [Founder Fest] akin to something like Startup Scaleup with the sole focus of being by founders, for founders. All of our programming is around founders helping each other.”

Other current initiatives include Cleveland Built and the Disloyalty Card. The former is an online seal of pride for locally-made products (built in conjunction with Destination Cleveland), while the latter is a punch card rewards program designed to encourage exploration of Cleveland’s various coworking spots.

“One of our goals is to cut down on the tribalism that exists [in Cleveland’s entrepreneurial scene],” says Buchholz. “People don’t like to drive or get out of their comfort zones, so this is our effort to get people to mix things up between different coworking spaces.”

With their work at Bounce and Midtown Tech Hive, that's a mission Buchholz and his wife are certainly invested in. (Sauber-Buchholz also used to work at Startmart.) But Buchholz says StartInCLE is truly a labor of love—they've done it all with no outside funding, and the organization is 100 percent volunteer.

"We exist simply to help founders," says Buchholz. "We feel that the key to improving our regional economy is to have more successful startups; we need to empower and protect the ones we have, while trying to attract others. The best way to do that is to make sure the founders of those companies have better lives."

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.