You know the Cinderella stories of entrepreneurs and small businesses who start in their garages before having a miraculous success story in order to buy a whole factory? Well, what if you just need a little more space, the right machinery but don't necessarily need to own it yourself, oh, and maybe an in-house coffee shop?
Alex Bandar founded the Idea Foundry to have a place that encompasses all of the above. More specifically, a place where everyone can explore their urge to make things. It provides not only the brick and mortar (60,000 square feet of workshops and offices located in Franklinton) and equipment, but the support and state of mind to work together and bring ideas to life. In addition to the workshops and office space available to be rented out by individuals and start-ups, the Idea Foundry offers consulting, public speaking and custom production services.
I'm excited to feature Alex and to share with you the good the Idea Foundry is doing for K-12 schools, entrepreneurs and business owners, and the community as a whole.
The Reference Club: What was your original goal or dream for Idea Foundry? Has that goal evolved and if so, how?
Alex Bandar: The original notion of the Idea Foundry was to be the center of a ring of K-12 schools which didn’t have their own woodshops, machine shops, welding shops, etc (resources and talents that we used to teach in middle school and high school!) Or which didn’t have the modern incarnations of those facilities: fablabs (with laser cutters, computer controlled routers, 3D printers, etc). The idea was that students could learn design in the classroom, or on their own; they’d create their digital designs independently, put them on a flash drive, hop on a bus, and head down to the Foundry, where we could then machine, print, weld, laser their projects – whether they’re retail product prototypes, inventions, artwork, or anything else. We would maintain the tools, the insurance, the talent; the schools would supply the students and some budget. I think if someone is exposed to as many interesting things as possible at a young age, the chances that they discover a passion, a hobby, even a lifelong career are much higher. And if you can get paid to perform your passion, you’ve won at life! So I thought that was a good idea, a fun idea, and an interesting business to explore.
However, 10 years ago, the “Maker Movement” wasn’t on many educator’s radar, so the demand wasn’t there; and our product (our original shop) was very dark, dusty, and frankly, not a great place to bring kids. But thankfully, while I was trying to sell this idea to educators, the small business and creative communities approached me, and essentially said “We want a clubhouse! We want a center of gravity; a place where talented, creative, sociable professionals could hang out, cross collaborate, and learn together”. So I pivoted, and created a community workshop designed to address the needs of creative and technically talented adults. Gratefully, that resonated with a culture in Columbus, and we’ve grown as a result. I will also add that the Maker Movement has become a more popular phenomenon in K-12 spheres, so we now indeed do teach K-12 groups at the Foundry, and we bring tech and people to their schools too.
TRC: At what point were you able to walk away from your day job to dedicate all of your attention and energy to Idea Foundry?
AB: I started the Foundry as a hobby, while I was still a full-time engineer (I worked as a “computational metallurgist” for a small Battelle spin-out for nearly ten years. And incidentally, I’ve discovered that telling someone you’re a computational metallurgist is a great way to stop conversations at parties…) I figured I’d start the Foundry for fun, and if it were an explosive success, then I could quit the day job and work at the shop full time. If it were a terrible disaster, then I’d say “well, I had fun; I tried; I’ll work for 25 years in my engineering career, and try again when I retire”. However, life is more complicated than that. After about two years of running the Foundry, I had some interest (a few dozen regular volunteers/members; a handful of instructors; a growing list of equipment); however, it really wasn’t making any money, and I was subsidizing it wholly with my income from the day job. So after two years (2008-2010), I had a few choices; (1) close up shop entirely; (2) close the shop to the public, and become a small private coop with a handful of folks, and we’d simply split bills equally, but not teach classes, do outreach, etc; or (3) go big, and rent a much larger facility in which we could rent individual studios to different folks (and thus subsidize the rent a bit more easily). Thankfully, we went big, and that seemed to be a good decision. But it wasn’t until we were invited to move to a beautiful 100-year-old warehouse in Franklinton, in 2014, that I finally took the plunge, cashed out the 401(k), and quit the day job to completely focus on the Foundry. Note, however, this was still a huge gamble, as the business wasn’t really cash flowing positively. Ray Bradbury said “jump off the cliff and learn to make wings on the way down”. I thought, by simultaneously managing my day job and also running the Foundry for 6 years, that I had some experience and that I’d be prepared for entrepreneurship. Rather than taking a “plunge”, as they say, I had been making a “long, slow march into the ocean”. I thought I had experience running the business, and had a strategy to grow it, and that I was capable of personally managing myself as an entrepreneur. I was shocked at how hard it really was when I was wholly responsible not just for myself, but for a growing small but mighty staff. I can’t overstate the role that luck played in our success.
TRC: And before this I considered my Netflix binges a hobby...What do you do to recharge when you’re feeling drained?
AB: I’m a pretty deep introvert, so I recharge on my own. At home, I love to watch movies. If I do go out, I love games, and I love drinking (heh), and I try to blend those hobbies with a small group of special people, at places like arcade bars (Pins Mechanical, 16 Bit Bar+Arcade, Arcade Super Awesome, Old North Arcade, or even the go-karts at Grand Prix Racing). There are a handful of watering holes in Franklinton that I and our staff will go to, as well. We’re a pretty close team, and we have what I like to call “Tea Time” every so often at 4pm, where we’ll go for a quick drink at one of those local spots (Land Grant Brewing, Strongwater Food and Spirits, Rehab Bar and Tavern). However, I’m glad to say that increasingly I’m finding time to actually design and build things at the Foundry, so that’s something that’s occupying more of my downtime in a very gratifying way.
TRC: If I have a business idea, what are two of the first steps I should take in order to move forward?
AB: First – write a business plan. In essence, you need to do a quick “sanity check” to put down on paper what is your actual product or service, what you think the market for that product is (and how you can prove to yourself with some limited confidence that that market really exists, and you’re not just hoping to sell products via wishful thinking), how you’ll make it, how you’ll finance yourself, what your 3 year growth strategy is, etc.
Second – ask yourself if you have the financial and emotional support to go on a 3 year roller-coaster. I actually think 5 years is a safer horizon to assume before a new business is stable, but I don’t think you should be assuming 1 year is all you need until you’re positively cash flowing and comfortable running your business. We have nearly 700 members at the Idea Foundry, of whom approximately half are entrepreneurs or small businesses, and the one correlating factor I see across the folks I’d call successful – more than talent, more than their product idea, more than luck, even – is time put in. Time spent planning, building, and growing their business. It takes a lot of time. And that means you have to cut a lot of other stuff out of your life, or you have to work so hard that you risk losing those pressure release valves of downtime, fun, passion, etc, that make life worth living. I think this is one of the biggest values of the Idea Foundry – having a community of people who feel your pain, who can help network you with folks to help fill gaps in your skillset, who can cheer your successes and soothe your frustrations. It’s hugely helpful to have a friendly, talented, and passionate community that’s got your back.
TRC: (Do you have any office space available?) What are two books you would recommend that every aspiring entrepreneur or professional read?
AB: Good to Great by Jim Collins. This book highlights, quantitatively, what a manager / entrepreneur needs to do to take a good company and make it great. A really remarkable verification of common sense, with great data.
Simple numbers, Straight Talk, Big Profits, by Greg Crabtree. We work with a lot of entrepreneurs who didn’t study business in school, and thus may be approaching entrepreneurship with some skillset deficits. This book is a very clear and succinct, and quickly fills in important gaps.
TRC: Noted. Columbus is continuing to climb the “best cities for entrepreneurs” ladder. What do you think the city still needs to do or could do, besides grow, to make a more reputable name for itself to compete with the big east and west coast cities, especially in the tech industry?
AB: I’m not sure it’s in Columbus’ best interest to compete with other East or West coast cities. I think if one takes a step back, and asks what is the “purpose” of a city, it’s probably closer to “provide opportunity and quality of life” for its citizens, rather than to be a giant tech industry hub. (And I’m saying this as a technologist and technophile). The city scale is probably the most human (as opposed to county, or state, or national); we spend most of our time in just a few square miles, where we see the same people, ride the same roads, go to the same schools, attend the same entertainment venues, etc. So my question might be – what is the best mission for the City of Columbus? I love the slogan “Smart, Open, and Collaborative”, put forth by Nancy Kramer and the Columbus Foundation. And certainly, tech is a high growth sector, and an emphasis on technology may attract, grow, and retain amazing companies, which can lead to opportunity and quality of life. But I subscribe to Prof. David Staley’s concept of what Columbus’ “aspirational city” should be. Rather than striving to be like Portland, or Austin, or Boston, or San Francisco (and face it – we’ll never be more Portland than Portland) – we should strive to be like renaissance-era Florence, Italy. Prof. Staley is a professor in both the design and the history departments at OSU, and I think his vision of a place where artists and scientists, merchants and customers, apprentices and guilds all congregate, learn, work, and play together, is really inspiring. And that’s something I see Columbus moving towards – with centers of gravity like the emerging arts and innovation neighborhood of Franklinton, where COSI, the Idea Foundry, 400 West Rich, Glass Axis, and a handful of other organizations all collocated means that you have science, art, technology, and entrepreneurship all within one neighborhood. Add to that mix walkable bars and restaurants, and residential zones like the Gravity Project by Kaufman Development and the River and Rich project by Casto development (which has a high affordability component, to keep Franklinton affordable to local residents, to artists, and to entrepreneurs), and you have a real “startup neighborhood” or “innovation community”. And I think that dovetails with the “smart, open, and collaborative” vibe, and also makes for a vibrant engine for technical and creative startups, while also being a really interesting place to live. So I think the best thing Columbus can do to keep being an amazing city is to continue to foster cross-sector collaboration in a creative placemaking methodology. That will support, encourage, and attract interesting people and businesses, which I feel in turn will create a city of opportunity and joy.
TRC: Where did your organization’s funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it?
AB: I bootstrapped this business with the disposable income from my day job (which I was very good at disposing of!) I poured pretty much every penny I had that wasn’t my personal food, rent, car, or insurance into the Foundry for about 6 years. However, the business had plateaued at our location in Milo-Grogan. Thankfully, Jim Sweeney, the executive director of the Franklinton Development Association (FDA), invited us to rent a beautiful 100-year-old factory in Franklinton. It had been the Godman Shoe Factory nearly a century ago; after they left, the AD Farrow motorcycle company was going to move in, but decided not to at the last minute. When there was no tenant in the factory, the city was concerned that the building might turn to blight, so Mayor Coleman purchased it and granted it to the FDA (the local community development corporation). The FDA then invited us to come across town and rent their warehouse. Now, I’ve regularly seen creative organizations move into downtrodden neighborhoods, bring art, festivities, and sidewalk life. This in turn attracts people, coffee shops, restaurants, retail shops, condos, etc, and property prices rise. Eventually, and tragically, the creative group may price themselves out of the neighborhood that they were largely responsible for helping to turn around. So we counter-offered to the FDA that, rather than renting their building, we’d buy it from them; that way we would have the confidence that we’d be in the neighborhood for the long haul; that we were captains of our ship. Gratefully, Jim Sweeney and his board were visionaries, and they understood or request, worked with us, and provided us an affordable 20-year seller-financed arrangement. Seller-financing means that our mortgage payments, rather than going to a bank (nothing wrong with banks!) – would go directly to the FDA, since the city had granted them the building outright. That meant that I didn’t have to scrape up a 20% down payment (which I wouldn’t have been able to do) nor secure a mortgage from a bank (which I also couldn’t do). It also meant that the FDA had a long-term sustainability revenue model, where we would pay them a good chunk each month in mortgage payments, which they could use to sustain their mission, and in-turn redirect those funds and those energies into the neighborhood. I love this public-private-partnership, and I think this is a scalable model throughout the Midwest, where there’s a glut of old warehouses and factories. If neighborhoods once-heavy with industry would like to evolve into hubs of creativity, technology, and entrepreneurship, then I think a clever alliance between grassroots groups, city leaders and local CDCs make a lot of sense. (Indeed we’re consulting with a number of groups in Ohio, across the US, and even internationally, to bring this model of “startup neighborhoods” to other parts of the world).
However, this agreement was a long-term contract to purchase the building, but it didn’t provide for any of the funds we needed to build the factory out so that we could run our business there. (We still needed a lot of new electric, new plumbing, new lighting, new ventilation, and more). Before we moved to Franklinton, we wrote an application in conjunction with the Franklinton Development Association (now rebranded as FUEL – the Franklinton Urban Empowerment Lab) to an amazing organization called Artplace America, and thankfully we won $350k to go towards building out the first floor of our warehouse. That wasn’t enough for other soft costs (such as architecture fees, legal fees, and more), and we were hugely grateful to the Columbus Foundation for filling in our gap with an $84k grant. Those moneys went to the FDA, and in turn were added to the purchase price of our building; so they served essentially as a grant to the FDA and a long-term loan to the Idea Foundry. That helped us move into our 1st floor and manage our workshop space, but we’ve always known we wanted quiet places to work and design, too; events spaces, classroom spaces, offices, coworking spaces, and more. We’re grateful that a pair of amazing investor-partners found us – Nancy Kramer and Christopher Celeste, and they invested in us through their angel firm HATCH (which stands for “Help at the Critical Hour” – and believe me, they found us at a very critical hour for us). They invested in us and helped finance the build-out of our coworking space, and that really took us to the next level.
TRC: I love the aspect of parts of the mortgage payments being reinvested back into the neighborhood; interesting concept, like you mentioned, for communities with empty factories. If you had 5 more hours in the day, how would you spend it?
AB: I’d research the best way to bring education in innovative fields (creativity, tech, entrepreneurship) to underserved populations, in a way that provides people with exposure to amazing ideas and skills through a sustainable social enterprise model. Then I’d implement it. Think of the national library system, but for makerspaces, with an entrepreneurial bent. I’d also design and build more absurd and fun “for-the-hell-of-it” widgets and toys. I’d probably also watch a lot more Netflix. 😊
TRC: Ok, I'm back to counting Netflix as a hobby of mine. How does Idea Foundry impact the community or more specifically, Franklinton, if at all?
AB: Impact is a hard thing to measure; but I can say that we host ~25 meetups each month; we teach dozens of classes each month; we’ve supported the launch of nearly one hundred entrepreneurs; we empower hundreds of makers with our tools and community; we’ve taught thousands of people in Central Ohio all sorts of skills, from design to laser cutting to marketing and more; I hope we inspire the ten thousand+ people who follow us on Facebook about exciting ways to realize their ideas. Specific to Franklinton, we regularly collaborate with 400 West Rich, with COSI, with other groups, and with the residential developments. We also teach K-12 students at various Franklinton charter schools within the United Schools Network, and we also teach classes to students at the Homeless Families Foundation (both of which are within a few blocks of the Idea Foundry). I’m also very proud that we recently hosted a fundraiser (called “MAKE Love”) wherein people could purchase a ticket to a “make-and-take” event, to turn a wooden pen, experience a virtual reality simulation, participate in blacksmithing, etc; and in a “Tom’s Shoes” kind of model, when they bought a ticket for themselves, they were also buying a future class for a student who couldn’t otherwise afford a class at the Foundry. These are some of the programs I’m proudest of at the Idea Foundry.
TRC: That's incredible, Alex. What or who inspires you?
AB: I’m inspired by folks who have built amazing things from nothing, that positively impact others’ lives, and do so in an economically sustainable manner. People with big vision and the capacity to execute to match. Folks like Elon Musk, like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, like Jeff Bezos. Technical entrepreneurs who have created organizations and communities that bring enormous value to folks. But of course that’s only a small handful of people. I’m also deeply inspired by anyone who has a passion and doggedly pursues their goals through self-education, discipline, creativity, and grit; whether it’s creating a piece of art, an unusual tech project, or a business. Many of the members at the Idea Foundry, and many of the other artists, makers, and entrepreneurs of the Central Ohio scene inspire me deeply. It’s hugely motivating to be part of a community of people who do amazing things!