Engaging your Startup Network

As a student double majoring in MIS and Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University, I always knew I was meant for a small company. Upon graduation, I had job offers from Caterpillar in Peoria, IL and Becker Underwood in Ames where I had interned at the Help Desk for almost a year. Caterpillar was a well known and well respected massive global powerhouse with seemingly endless career opportunities and Becker Underwood was a 20 year old biological ag manufacturing company with 120 employees and one guy working in IT. I chose Becker Underwood for its entrepreneurial spirit and spent 13 years there helping the company grow leaps and bounds (in revenue, headcount, and global footprint). I was honored to lead a team of 15 IT and Business Intelligence professionals from the US, Brazil, South Africa and Australia. I had amazing support from the CEO who allowed me run the IT and BI Departments like they were my own company - only with a global budget and our coworkers as customers.

In 2012 Becker Underwood was sold to BASF, the chemical company out of Germany, for $1.02 Billion (yes, an Iowa ag company sold for over a billion dollars with little public fanfare.) I knew that a 110,000 employee behemoth like BASF was not going to be the right fit for someone like me, so after a little over a year of helping them through the transition I set off to find a new endeavor using my “Startup Network”.

I had always tried to keep tabs on what was new and innovative in IT and to find ways to apply those ideas at Becker Underwood to keep us competitive. In 2011 I found myself noticing these things popping up nearby in Des Moines, Kansas City, and Omaha thanks to coverage by Silicon Prairie News. I started following several folks on Twitter and went to SPN's Thinc Iowa event in 2012. I often faced the question, “so what are you hoping to get out of this event if you’re not working on a startup?” My answer was always the same, “I want to meet cool people working on cool things.” Part of me was looking for startups working on something that I could use at Becker Underwood, but for the most part I couldn’t help but just enjoy being around entrepreneurs. Which is exactly why I started to go to 1 Million Cups in Des Moines and why I signed up to attend Big Omaha in 2013.

I'm not good at "Networking"

There are a lot of reasons to attend an event like Big Omaha and networking has to be at or near the top for anyone who has been there. As important as networking (or "making friends" as Andy Stoll prefers to say) has been for me, I’m pretty lousy at it. I’m usually the guy standing by himself during the social hour looking at his phone and tweeting about the event. It’s hard for me to work up the courage to introduce myself to someone, let alone break into a group of established conversationalists. Thankfully, I had made a few connections at Thinc Iowa with great guys like John Jackovin that didn’t have that problem. At Big Omaha, John was kind enough to drag me into a few circles and introduce me to other cool guys like Brian Hemesath, Andy, as well as the Hatchlings and Dwolla folks. At the time, I didn’t have anything to offer them and they didn’t have anything to offer me but that wasn’t what it was about. It was about hanging out, swapping stories and making new friends.

Asking for Help

At the end of 2013 I did another thing that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. I asked for help. I sent an admittedly verbose email to a dozen of the most connected people I had met in the Iowa Startup Community with a copy of my résumé and a request for assistance in finding a CIO type position with a startup in Central or Eastern Iowa (I was then dating and have since married a beautiful Iowa Hawkeye from Cedar Rapids). I immediately received some encouragement and ideas from those folks and was ultimately connected with Mark Nolte at ICAD in the downtown Iowa City CoLab by Brian. Mark was kind enough to introduce me to Steve Baker, the President and founder of a young company called Radiology Protocols, who was working out of the corner office in the CoLab. After a few weeks of meetings, I managed to convince Steve that he needed a CIO and after a few more weeks, managed to convince him that I would be a great fit for that role.

So here I am, a Cyclone in Hawkeye territory, hanging out in a coworking space surrounded by awesome startups and a vibrant entrepreneurial community. I'm also meeting new people every single week. I’m offering whatever support I can to the startup community and looking for opportunities to help connect people in the way that was done for me. If we haven't connected yet, send me a tweet and add me to your Startup Network.

Aaron Horn is the Chief Information Officer at Radiology Protocols and is the President of BeatCancerToday.org, a nonprofit that raises funds for childhood cancer research and patient/family support programs. He was the first to be internationally #StyleLabApproved by Men's Style Lab and may or may not have gotten married in a Dwolla t-shirt (he did).

Photo Credit: Thinc Iowa photo by Thinc Iowa/Anna Jones/Philip Harder and head shot by Eric Bailey