Randy Eager, a lifelong entrepreneur and Pittsburgh resident of 27 years, realized in the summer of 2017 that Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial ecosystem lacked two key things — entrepreneur education and corporate investment.
While developing his company Aqualibrium LLC, he noticed a need for mentoring programs hosted by entrepreneurial experts when speaking with local startup accelerators. That’s when he found out about the Founder Institute.
“How I first got interested in this was really trying to give back something to the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Eager said. “[I] wanted to find the best way to help folks that don’t have access to all the things the ecosystem has to offer, and the Founder Institute is absolutely the perfect way to do this.”
Eager and Greg Coticchia — former leader of Pitt’s startup accelerator Blast Furnace and the current director for Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Science in Product Management program — launched a Pittsburgh chapter of the Founder Institute in January 2018.
“We had a handful of events starting January 20. About every two weeks we’ve had discussions about ideation, where to raise money from [and] how to raise money,” Eager said.
The Founder Institute is an international company headquartered in Palo Alto, California, with chapters worldwide in 60 countries. It provides guidance and networking so that selected entrepreneurs can develop their own products and create startup companies.
“It is entirely focused on helping folks, even pre-idea founders, to learn how to do it right, how to start and form a company,” Eager said.
Eager and Coticchia first pitched their idea for a Pittsburgh chapter to the Founder Institute headquarters in September 2017. By November, the two began planning events for their chapter.
“We did all this homework of finding the right mentors, finding the right partners and we completely surprised the headquarters of Founder Institute,” Eager said. “They like to test the markets to make sure that it can withstand a chapter, and we passed all of their tests with flying colors.”
The Pittsburgh Founder Institute chapter began marketing Jan. 2 and had its first meeting Jan. 23. The organization hosts weekly panel discussions — which are free, but require registration — on different business-related topics, including legal advice for startup companies.
Eager and Coticchia reached out to Jon Veschio, Truefit’s vice president of business development, last December in hopes of finding a location to host the Pittsburgh chapter. Truefit is a software company that provides startups and large corporations a way to turn their ideas into products. Veschio has allowed the Pittsburgh chapter of the Founder Institute to host panels and classes at their location on Grant Street.
“It’s the all-star team of Pittsburgh,” Veschio said. “[We’re] on the side of these budding entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs and helping them validate their product concept and build their startup business.”
The Pittsburgh chapter provides classes to teach entrepreneurs how to start up their own companies, and acceptance into these classes is mainly decided by a psychological test provided by the Founder Institute headquarters. Applicants must apply through the Founder Institute website.
Eager said the cost per student for a two-and-a-half-month semester is $999. The first semester started in early April and classes are held every Tuesday evening.
According to the Founder Institute’s website, the company’s admission processes are meant to identify founders based on their leadership skills, including openness, determination and problem-solving skills. Eager said he thinks the test adds credibility to the program because it presents a hurdle for entrepreneurs to overcome.
Rachel Sheppard, the global marketing manager of the Founder Institute, said the focus on an entrepreneur’s qualities rather than the entrepreneur’s product or idea makes the Founder Institute different from other early-stage startup accelerators.
“We focus on people versus ideas because people often change their idea or program — like you start with something, you might end up working on something completely different,” she said.
According to Veschio, being an entrepreneur requires tenacity, the ability to assess risks and problem-solving skills.
“It’s not for everyone, to be an entrepreneur. It’s a risky pursuit in general,” Veschio said. “But having other people come alongside [entrepreneurs] to give them resources and mentoring? That’s the goal of Truefit, and the goal of the Founder Institute.”