Episode 75 — Joe Benesh of The Ingenuity Company

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Geoff Wood: Welcome to the Welch Avenue Show, episode number 75. Our guest today is Joe Benesh, an architect with Shive-Hattery and the CEO of The Ingenuity Company. Joe has helped us in design and planning at Gravitate and is doing great things for innovation in Iowa. Before we talk with Joe, a quick reminder that this is the perfect time to go to bit.ly/welchavenueitunes to leave a rating for our show. Even if you don't use iTunes to listen to the show, it is still the best place for new people to discover great shows and your ratings help them do that. Thanks in advance.

Chris New: Now Geoff, that is all lower-cased, correct?

Geoff Wood: It doesn't matter. Does it matter?

Chris New: With bit.ly yes it does.

Geoff Wood: All lower case.

Chris New: So you learn something new today. Thank you.

Geoff Wood: And now on episode 75 with Joe Benesh.

Geoff Wood: Hi Joe how are you?

Joe Benesh: Good Geoff. How are you?

Geoff Wood: Good. We usually ease into these things so it doesn't feel as staged as that but that's OK.

Joe Benesh: That sounds good.

Geoff Wood: Why don't you tell people who you are and what it is you're building.

Joe Benesh: My name is Joe Benesh. I've been ... Should I talk a little bit about my background or ...

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Go for it.

Joe Benesh: All right. I'm from Newton originally, I moved to Chicago in 1999 and lived there for about six years and Miami, Florida and lived there for about six years. Came back, was recruited by RDG to come back in 2011 and worked there for three years. I now work as a senior architect at Shive-Hattery and also own an independent strategic planning design thinking company. That's a little bit about me.

Geoff Wood: The company you own is called ...

Joe Benesh: The Ingenuity Company.

Geoff Wood: Tell us a little bit about what you guys do as The Ingenuity Company.

Joe Benesh: The Ingenuity Company does design thinking, it does strategic planning for non-profits and corporate clients, any kind of organization actually that has a need for some sort of strategic vision and planning. We also do a little bit of software development, web applications, mobile applications and things like that, so ... We make stuff, so if a client calls us and say, "Can you do X?" Generally speaking if it falls in the digital or planning realm we can do it.

Geoff Wood: You're an architect by education and training, I guess ...

Joe Benesh: Yep.

Geoff Wood: How did you get started in founding your own company that's in that space?

Joe Benesh: Through the architecture that I was doing in Chicago, I started a young professionals group. One of the guys in the group had a PMP certification, a Project Management certification and he and I got together and started planning with this group could look like so working through vision and vision and strategies, objectives, things like that. That was in 2004, and I found that I had a real interest in it, a knack for it, and started doing it at work and started doing it for some other companies.

I moved to Miami and did the same thing. On my own started up an emerging professionals group and started writing plans for that group and some of the other orgs and organizations like Rotary that I was part of. When I moved back, got heavily involved in Capital Crossroads and started doing strategic planning in that sense or that sphere and then from there permeated down to some other groups and was asked to do it for the chamber, different chamber organizations and now I've been referred to a bunch of different groups that I work with on a day-to-day, so ...

Geoff Wood: Any exciting stories you can share of some of the plans that you've worked on that have come to fruition?

Joe Benesh: I think the biggest success story I've had as a planner has probably been Downtown Chamber. We started our planning cycle probably right after I got back and I wrote the first strategic plan that that organization really had after they've been gone for three years or so. Maybe less than that. Through that I've seen explosive growth. We've gone from having, I forget how many members we had when I started, around 100, I think we're over 200 now. We have robust programming, we have committees that are fully operational, we started to move to more of a manager board with fully functioning committees and people are just engaged ... It's exciting to see that level of success permeate through an organization and it's allowed us to really look at the future and what we want to do, what we want to become moving forward, which is the reason I do that, so ...

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Gravitate is a member of the Downtown Chamber.

Joe Benesh: Sure.

Geoff Wood: Part of that is through your influence and your discussion. You helped us a lot with Gravitate as we were planning out the space as well and jumped up and showed an interest I think when we first announced we wanted to do this crazy thing, so we appreciate that.

Joe Benesh: Absolutely. Glad to do it.

Geoff Wood: How do you manage having a full-time career as an architect ... Doing The Ingenuity Company ... Is it a side project? I just told you before we recorded how offended I was when somebody referred to that as a side project. It takes all my time. It's how I get paid. Is it a side project?

Joe Benesh: I would consider it right now to be a side project.

Geoff Wood: How do you balance your career and I know you do the chamber, MBA student ... You have all sorts of things going on but how do you balance all of those pieces in your life?

Joe Benesh: You have to be very strict with your time. Time management becomes important. You have to prioritize and you have to emphasize things the right way so you're successful at the right things. Having a full time job is important. You need to make sure that you're there, that you're able to contribute fully, be passionate about that, be respectful of clients, fulfill and exceed their needs as much as possible but you also need to do that in your other businesses too. Ingenuity Company clients have to be satisfied and see results, they see you're being effective, that the plans that you right for them are implementable, that you're there, you're present, you're responsive ... A lot of strategic planning groups don't do that. A lot of strategic planning groups, I won't mention any by name, but they come it and they write a plan, they give you the plan and then they say, "See ya. Go for it." Which to me is like giving somebody a computer who's never used one before and saying, "This is a great tool. You're gonna love it," and then leaving the room. Where's the power button? What's the mouse for? It becomes an ongoing cycle and I pick clients through The Ingenuity Company that I really want to work for, that I believe in the mission of their organization and as a result of that it makes me work that much harder on what they're doing because I could see their vision, I can see where they're headed and help them fulfill that which ... I don't know if it would be as present if I didn't see it the same way so ...

Geoff Wood: Sure. Because you're involved so actively in the community, Downtown Chamber groups like that, and that community's probably also your client base for a lot of The Ingenuity Company thinks ... How do you walk that line between giving your time to organizations you care about then making money and being paid for the hours you put in on things?

Joe Benesh: This is a terrible question for me because I’m horrible at it. 

Geoff Wood: I'm the only one that's here, so that's why I'm asking.

Joe Benesh: I think that somebody had a conversation with me and I'm not going to say which client this was of mine but I always get into the mentality when I go in that I want to do the job no matter what. As a result of that I'm very amenable on fees. At some point somebody stopped me and I had a very specific conversation. She just stopped me, she was chill .... "Your time is valuable, all right. We're not going to let you work for us for free, it's not fair to you." I said, "I know but I really want to do this project." She goes, "No no no. You tell us what you want to charge. What's the fair price? If we have to go and hire somebody, that's the value. You have to value yourself enough to express to somebody else to say, "OK, this is what I'm worth. I'm worth $150 an hour or I'm worth $3000 or whatever it ends up being, whatever fee you end up charging ..."

That conversation meant a lot to me because it's like, some of the stuff, you do have to value yourself and value your efforts. That isn't saying that I'll never donate any time because I do and I'm happy to do that. At the same time, you have to define your relationship with that client to make sure that there's a transactional value that exists. That's a really tough line for me to walk because I love to work for free for everybody because I believe in these organizations but at the same time, I do want to build this into a robust offering for people and make sure that there is a value attached to it. 

Monetary resources do help companies grow regardless if they're side projects or not. You have X amount of dollars in the bank that allows you to take on somebody to help you or find office space or buy computers or pins and pads and things that you need, so ... Believe me, it's a tough question to answer.

Geoff Wood: We appreciate you donating your time to Gravitate to help with that.

Joe Benesh: Sure.

Geoff Wood: I get into the exact same thing with startup community building and working on conferences and meetups in different things like that. It doesn't ever feel like it's a big commitment to take it on but what I realize is sometimes I've devalued myself, because people are like, "Oh, Geoff will just work on that." Or, "Geoff will provide that entity," and then you're stretched so thin on those things that you're not really providing the value I want to. Plus, when I do, when I get paid for something like that, people know that they just ... "Why would we pay someone for that? People do that for free, like you." That type of thing. It's a tricky line.

I had a similar conversation with someone as we were starting up Gravitate, they said, "Really, you need to make sure that whatever people do there they pay for or those people won't understand there's value to them using that. Like with user groups that we have here, people that meet ... I don't want them to walk away, I want them to meet here. Not all groups have budgets, the way I've done this, I've said, "Here's the per hour honorarium for using this space if you have a budget. If you don't have a budget, you can use it for free. But if you've got a budget, you're buying pizza and you have sponsors and things like ... Then kick us a little bit of that for use of the space and so far that's worked out. That's more physical piece of that, but ...

Joe Benesh: That's a good model.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Yeah. I'm not going to turn anybody away really for that. One of those things you've never really thought in putting this space together that I would ever deal with, but ... It's interesting from your perspective.

What are some things coming up in Des Moines and around the Des Moines community that you're really excited about? I know you're one of the progressive leaders, thinkers, whatever involved in many organizations and groups that are that way. What are you excited about the future of our community moving forward?

Joe Benesh: I see a lot of really interesting things happening. I think it has a lot to do with the way that there's a tectonic shift in the way that people are viewing what happens downtown. I think we had tectonic shift already, probably in the 2011-2012 range in terms ... It's sort of ongoing, we're seeing a ripple effect through our rankings that we see in Forbes and things like that ... Those are very exciting.

I see the next generation start to ... Already forming a crest though as these downtown architectural developments happen with come-and-go and what's happening in Cowles Commons and I think there are sixty-two development sites or something like that around downtown with residential-mixed use, the Hy-Vee project on Court Ave., things like that.

Geoff Wood: Is all the East Village stuff in there too?

Joe Benesh: Yeah, the East Village stuff ... I forget to mention that, but ... I see permeating from that energy that's in the East Village, that Gen Y millennial energy that's happening there. I see a lot of that stuff happening on the south side of the river and wrapping around some of those areas or over by flora and south of the river there. A lot of development I see happening there to start to lace up downtown even further than it is and help it expand into ...

I think we're a small city right now but I think we're headed for a big city in terms of the way we're looking at our land use, the way that we're looking at zoning, the way we're recruiting young talent, the way we're looking at young talent instead of just status quo, how do we recruit people who are in the tech industry or who are innovators or how do we maintain ... It's not just about rankings, it's about creating a culture of innovation that permeates the downtown area.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. I would agree. Do you know who Brad Feld is?

Joe Benesh: I've heard of Brad Feld.

Geoff Wood: He wrote a book called Startup Communities. It's the book that a lot of us in that field look to and really taking lessons away from the Boulder community, I sometimes wonder if there're things that just work in Boulder but if they work everywhere ... It is interesting, what he said is it's not about the size of the community, it's about the density of the community ... What he says, the entrepreneurial density and he created a formula for that to measure ... 

I would imagine in lots of different communities around Des Moines it is that density we're looking for and that's what I think makes downtown so special because most Midwestern communities are sprawling, they're suburbs, that's how they're characterized and it's different to build up a downtown in a city of half a million people. Interesting either way.

Outside of the physical spaces what are you looking forward to with Des Moines on our horizon?

Joe Benesh: Outside of the architecture you mean?

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Because I know that's where you'd go first.

Joe Benesh: Sure. No I think the sociocultural stuff that I see and that's what you're alluding to, right? I think that just an expansion of how people think and how people are innovating about what they're doing and how they're addressing things differently. I see the tech community as some of us said, like you said, are more progressive in thinking and involved in the business world in different ways. As an architect, you look at things differently than a financial planner does and maybe a city planner does.

I think that there's going to be this shift in the way that we use the physical environment and we use our work spaces and the way people are addressing how to do their day-to-day activities and I think that Des Moines is set up right now to create this paradigm shift in the way that people are actually functioning at work and how they're using the urban environment. Sorry to keep going back to the built stuff, but that's my thing.

Geoff Wood: That's all right.

Joe Benesh: The flexibility in thinking, the flexibility as an architect, I could go and start a strategic planning company. You can't do that everywhere. Not every urban center is willing to accept that as a change. But in Des Moines I see a lot of people working in the tech community or programming community starting to work in different areas or starting to be utilized in offices. As an architecture firm, I have seriously considered on several occasions hiring a developer because I see the way that we transmit information to clients is completely different than it was ten years ago and why not be on the cusp of that if you can design a software architecture to act as a mechanism to get your message out in a certain way. It looks for value as a differentiator, I think that that person becomes this, again I use the word ecosystem, but it becomes part of this machine that changes things. It develops differently. I think Des Moines has this unique density of talent that's going to allow some of these other organizations to think non-traditionally about how to deliver their business model and value.

Geoff Wood: We probably should talk more about the architecture piece, what is Shive known for and what is your role?

Joe Benesh: I'm a senior architect at Shive and I do a lot of educational planning work and design. I worked on schools for many years actually going back to my time in Miami but have gone into other things too. I've done recreation centers, commercial work, run the gamut really. I've tried to focus my career on doing a wide-range of things so I don't get sick of or get burnt out on any one thing but ... Shive-Hattery offers everything, as a firm, it has testing, it has engineering, it has architecture, marketing ... It runs the full gamut which was very attractive to me because I work to work with people who have a lot of distinct and unique abilities and distinct and unique viewpoints.

Again, that idea of what does a traffic plant think differently about than an architect does? What does a mechanical engineer with a physics degree think differently than I do about something ... And being to seek all these people out, and have really intelligent conversations about architecture and about the built environment and just overall business development or what's the future going to bring ... Has led to this really robust offering that I think Shive continues to grow and expand into.

Geoff Wood: Very cool. As far as the Ingenuity Company, if people are interested in getting involved with what you do or seeing some of the results, what's the best way for people to reach out to you in regards to that?

Joe Benesh: Specifically they can send me an e-mail, they can text me, is there a way to convey that information or audio or ...

Geoff Wood: You can say it because it'll be transcribed.

Joe Benesh: My phone number's (305) 450-9120, you can send me a text day or night and I can get back to you that way or it's joe@ingenuitycompany.com is my email.

Geoff Wood: Is that a Miami number?

Joe Benesh: Yes.

Geoff Wood: You're in that club with me of people who moved back to Des Moines and kept their foreign area codes. Is there any pieces from what you've done in places like Miami and Chicago that you apply here or similarities you see in the communities that are developing around what you're doing?

Joe Benesh: It's interesting because there are wild vacillations in certain aspects of working in Chicago and Miami and Des Moines. There are parallels and alignments but they're different. Miami culturally couldn't be any culturally different than Des Moines. I'm not saying it in a negative way, I'm just saying it's different. Chicago is like Des Moines at large to a certain extent, it has a Midwestern vibe, it has a Midwestern work ethic but it's interesting the way that I interface with each one of those situations ... 

I moved to both of those cities not sight-unseen but I didn't really know anybody in Chicago and I knew very few people in Miami but having to fight your way through that and interface with the culture and understand how it works and how the city operates ... It created an adaptability in the way that you view where you live. Not everything is set. I think that if I stayed here, maybe I would be just set, it was like, "This is the way we did it in Newton, this is the way we do it in Des Moines." But Miami especially, you get completely rocked off your foundation. Nothing is the way you think it could be or should be necessarily, so you get this swing back and this adjustment.

When I moved back to Des Moines, it forced me to look at every single decision I've made in terms of groups I work with, things I do, organizations I participate in because once you see the other extreme, it helps you appreciate more fully what you have when you have it.

Geoff Wood: Random question but based on what you've been talking about I wonder if you have a good answer to this, entrepreneurship in the Midwest, Des Moines specifically, one thing that I think most characterizes here is that the people who start companies here are people who came here for other reasons and then decided to become entrepreneurs. What do you think are ways for us to attract people here specifically for the chance to build something? This has come up briefly because I don't know if you know ... Derian Baugh that was on Fox Business recently. 

Joe Benesh: Okay.

Geoff Wood: The lady that was interviewing him ... I watched the whole hour of this show and they teased it every time. They say, "Entrepreneurs are fleeing Silicon Valley for places like Des Moines." I just laughed every time I heard her say that because ... I talked to Derian about this later, he's like... "No I started Men’s Style Lab here because I was here" and he liked being in Des Moines. I'm not sure our entrepreneurial committee's ever going to grow to the extent that we want it to if we aren't able to actually people here for the purpose ... If they see the resources in the place that we have, as a place that they can start specifically, but I'm not sure at all how to do that. Like what that bridge is. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Joe Benesh: I absolutely do. I was just having a conversation with somebody about something similar to this. What we decided was that we say yes, and a lot of people say no. A lot of other places say no. Chicago, Miami, the thing is, when you get to a dense corporate situation where there are so many layers ... I can't call the mayor in Miami. I can't call Rahm Emanuel if I lived in Chicago. I could, but it's like there's so many layers between me and that person, it's like what's the conversation. What does that actually mean? Here you can call and there aren't so many layers.

The parallel I'm trying to make is when you start a company there are so many people in front of you who are ready to say no to you that it's like running through mud. In Miami and Chicago, when I started that EP group, that emerging professionals group in Miami, there were so many layers in front of me that it was just literally, you had to fight and fight and fight and fight and that organization ultimately became more successful than the parent organization did but it took so much effort to do that.

Here, people are ready to say yes. They just need you to give them a reason why. It's like, "This is a worthwhile effort." I don't know that Gravitate could exist in Miami, I don't know that it could exist in Chicago in the form that it does now because here we have community partners that are only a level or two ahead of where you're at, so emphasizing the people in Des Moines, we say, "Yes." You might be used to hearing, "No." But to me that's the brand, that's the marketing tool that you use is that if you want possibilities, come and explore what we have to offer here because it might free you up a little, it gets you out of that mud and lets you turn loose a little bit. That's how I feel. I don't know if that's accurate or not but ...

Geoff Wood: I would definitely say I never put it in those words but I think that's awesome. I think that the number 1 people thing people say about why you should start here or move here is always this: quality of life thing. We're both friends with Brian Waller who was recently on the podcast and when Brian was in economic development, I don't know if he wants me to say this, but he said ... 

He doesn't let himself say quality of life is a reason to be in the Midwest because it's a non-differentiator. Everybody thinks that where they live ... Nobody thinks that where they live sucks or else they would leave there. You can't be like, "Come here because it's a better quality of life." That's our go-to of why things are great in Iowa, so quality of life is ... You'll here politicians say it, you'll hear economic development people say it, all that type of stuff. I like the direction you're going a whole lot better of, "Here's a tangible thing we can give you that's not "quality of life".

Joe Benesh: That comes directly out of the Chamber stuff. Marketing is selling, right? You can sell things. And you can say quality of life. You can say the eighteen different phrases that you're supposed to that everyone responds to in a focus group. When you're marketing something, you have to be able to tell them something they could put a handle on and walk away with, right? It has to be a tangible outcome. To me that's what the meaningful part of this is and when you asked your question, it was like, "Oh. There's Iowa Nice, there's quality of life, there's the rankings ..." A lot of that stuff if statistical data. It's substantiated but only to a certain extent. If you say, "Come to town and we can go meet with a city councilman on Tuesday after you come." That's a tangible thing that happens, so it's just important that we stress that we're focused on adding value. That's what it's about, so ...

Geoff Wood: Instead of saying quality of life, maybe talk about efficiency because that all goes into that. I think a lot of times when people try to say quality of life what they're really saying is the cost of living in a way.

Joe Benesh: Right.

Chris New: If you talk more about efficiency, that goes more to what you were saying, it's very easy to get into the halls of the power.

Joe Benesh: Tangibility, efficacy, all that stuff ... 

Geoff Wood: I think that's great and unfortunately we're out of time but I think that's a great topic. We'll have you back on, just talk about why you should start here ... So we already told people how to get ahold of you, did you give the website too for The Ingenuity Company?

Joe Benesh: We're actually working on the website, so ...

Geoff Wood: So don't go on the website?

Joe Benesh: Don't go to the website right now.

Geoff Wood: What about Shive? What's the best place to find about Shive?

Joe Benesh: You go to Shive-Hattery. Shive-hattery.com or you can e-mail me there at jbenesh@shive-hattery.com.

Geoff Wood: All right. Joe thanks so much for coming in.

Joe Benesh: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Geoff Wood: Sounds good.