CC031: building a network of generous entrepreneurs in the Midwest // a coffee chat with Joni Cobb (Pipeline Entrepreneurs)

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Joni Cobb 0:00
We say no to some entrepreneurs that end up being incredibly successful because we feel like they might not totally fit our culture, because we feel like the benefit of the entire group is so powerful that we’ve got to protect the culture. So, you can’t just be a great entrepreneur that’s going to build something big. There’s — when I define a super entrepreneur, they have more to it than that. There’s that other piece of them that they want to be part of the community, they want to give back.

Jay Clouse 0:26
The startup investment landscape is changing, and world class companies are being built outside of Silicon Valley. We find them, talk with them, and discuss the upside of investing in them. Welcome to Upside.

Jay Clouse 0:54
Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to the Upside podcast, the first podcast finding upside outside of Silicon Valley. I’m Jay Clouse, and I’m accompanied by my co-host, Mr. Disappointed-Browns-Fan himself, Eric Hornung.

Eric Hornung 1:07
I’m not disappointed, Jay. My expectations have merely not been met.

Jay Clouse 1:11
Isn’t the definition of disappointment your expectations not being met?

Eric Hornung 1:13
Jay, I’m not here to debate linguistics with you. What I am here to debate is the fact the Browns started a little slower than people thought. I bought into the hype. That’s for sure. But we got some problems to work out. And what we will do by the end of the year is make the playoffs. I’m still sticking with it.

Jay Clouse 1:29
Wow. By way of winning the AFC North?

Eric Hornung 1:33
That is correct…?

Jay Clouse 1:35
Nice. I don’t know. It seems like there was a lot of hype before the season, a lot of hype for the team. It seems like they had a real influx of talent, a better talent pipeline. And yet here we are, one and two.

Eric Hornung 1:48
One and two for now, Jay, but you know what’s something I really like about the Browns?

Jay Clouse 1:51
What’s that?

Eric Hornung 1:52
The Browns have the largest organized network and community of what we call Browns Backers, but it’s just fans around the country. It’s 100% true. There’s a Brown Backers bar in just about every city around the United States.

Jay Clouse 2:06
Oh, Okay.

Eric Hornung 2:07
They have presidents and treasures and a great time every Sunday for about three quarters.

Jay Clouse 2:15
Amazing. Well, we hope the Browns can bounce back. It’s a group of high performing players who are just not quite performing at a high level yet. But speaking of high performers, today, we are talking with Joni Cobb, the President and CEO of Pipeline Entrepreneurs. Pipeline Entrepreneurs is a network of high-performing entrepreneurs who call the Midwest home. Their entrepreneurs and experts give generously of their time, talent, and capital so that we can build global businesses from wherever we choose. Eric, this is a really interesting organization to me, because they do not take equity in their member companies. And they put an explicit focus on community and the culture of that network. And they’re seeing some results.

Eric Hornung 3:02
Yeah. Jay, you’d consider yourself a community builder. Right?

Jay Clouse 3:05
I would. In fact, sometimes I shamelessly asked for endorsements on that skill on LinkedIn.

Eric Hornung 3:10
Would you do that right now, do you want to plug yourself on LinkedIn?

Jay Clouse 3:13
I’m not asking for an endorsement on LinkedIn for the community building skill. But if people happen to do that, then that’s great.

Eric Hornung 3:19
Alright, Jay, well, I know that you weren’t able to make it for this interview. So listeners, you won’t be hearing Jay ask any questions. But any last words for us before we hop into the interview?

Jay Clouse 3:29
Just one last piece of research or a couple last pieces of research: companies led by Pipeline Entrepreneurs have generated over $1.39 billion in revenue, $1.4 billion in revenue, Eric, and they’ve raised over $608 million in outside capital, conducting business in over 85 countries, creating 2700+ jobs. Founded in 2006 in Kansas City, Missouri. All right, I’m done.

Eric Hornung 3:56
You’re out of here.

Jay Clouse 3:56
I’m out of here. I will see you in the outro. I’m looking forward hearing this discussion between the two of you. I’m very jealous that I couldn’t make it. If you have any thoughts as we go through this interview, you can tweet at us @upsidefm or email us Eric, can you imagine being a founder working with Drive Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners, Draper Triangle, Excel, Chicago Ventures, Refinery Ventures, Hyde Park Angels. Can you imagine being a founder and working with all of those VCs and more?

Eric Hornung 4:25
Man, if you got investment from or worked with all of those VCs, and they were giving you advice and on your board and…You just have to be probably one of the best companies in the Midwest or in between the coasts, I would say.

Jay Clouse 4:35
And that’s exactly what Integrity Power Search is. Integrity Power Search works with all of those VC partners and more as the number one, full stack, high growth, startup recruiting firm between the coasts. They partner with those venture capitalists, private equity groups, and CEOs to build amazing teams for the world’s most disrupting companies. Eric, they are working with 84+ companies in those different venture portfolios, helping fill roles related to SAS companies, autonomous vehicle companies, big data, computer vision, blockchain. If you’re looking to hire, Integrity Power Search can help.

Eric Hornung 5:07
And if you want to learn more about Integrity Power Search and what they’re doing in between the coasts, you can go to

Eric Hornung 5:20
Joni, welcome to the sow.

Joni Cobb 5:22
Well, thanks for having me. And Happy Friday.

Eric Hornung 5:24
Love a good Friday. On upside, we like to start with a background of the guest. So can you tell us about the history of Joni?

Joni Cobb 5:32
Oh, wow. Okay, well, born and raised in Kansas City. Really, as a kid growing up, I thought for sure, I would move to Washington D.C. once I got through college and eventually law school. And I did do a little work in D.C., you know, during law school and thought I was going to work in public policy, doing something to move the needle in the economy, in the world, very inspired by Founding Fathers and all of those idealistic, wonderful things. And surprisingly, just as situations happen, ended up staying in Kansas City. But I do have that kind of a different background then — I guess a lot entrepreneurs have very different backgrounds, don’t they? But no early knowledge that my tribe would be entrepreneurs until I started running Pipeline and figured out all this strange things about me, as one of my entrepreneurs says, you know, the Land of Misfit Toys, the things that I thought were misfit about me were actually perfectly in alignment with my entrepreneurs. And so, I had this kind of weevy career that led me to running Pipeline coincidentally, accidentally, whatever you want to call it. And in that process, I found my tribe. So I don’t know that you want to go into any of those specific things that I did. But yeah, so I was a lawyer for a little bit, and then I worked for a federal judge, and that I came home and tried some things on my own, and fell into a career of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs work, which I didn’t even know what the heck that meant. And did that for seven years, and then was asked to temporarily run Pipeline, which I agreed to do for three months, and almost thirteen years later, it became, you know, the professional love of my life.

Eric Hornung 7:18
Besides the calling that you felt stemming all the way back to the Founding Fathers, what, what about Washington D.C. and public policy, like, pulled you in as a potential career path?

Joni Cobb 7:29
Yeah. So you know, I went, you know, I grew up — I’m not a millennial, no surprise there. But I grew up in an era where, you know, there was more of a track, like you assumed you would go to high school and college, and sometimes people would go on to get a professional degree. And so, at a very young age, I was like, what the heck am I going to do? And I think I tried to talk myself out of being a lawyer, because it was in the era of everyone going to law school and every TV show was about lawyers. And so, I was trying to go where they weren’t, right? But what pulled me back is, I felt like all my, all my classes around that, I was taking as electives because they were just enjoyable for me. I love learning about the American presidency, about the Constitution, and much more than, you know, foreign policy and things like that. And I was just taking these courses for fun. And then I was interning at the Capitol and all of these things. And finally, I was an engineering student, and my engineering advisor is like, why are you not just over there in another department — he was getting rid of me, essentially — and going to law school and I just had to, I think the answer to my question was, I think I was just afraid that too many people were becoming lawyers, you know? So yeah, so I was in engineering just because my mom said, hey, you should go do that because you’re great at math and science. And I hated every minute of it. And working on issues that affected the public, studying those things, studying about big, big issues was fascinating to me and so enjoyable to me that I accidentally double majored in it because I was just taking them as electives. Didn’t really know what I was going to do. But I felt like if I was going to go to Washington D.C. and do things and continue to try to move the needle in some way, I probably needed a law degree. So I went to Washington University in St. Louis because it was the way I could go to a school that wasn’t terribly far from my family but had a really strong reputation on the coast. And I did that. And I worked for the former United States Attorney General the summer after my freshman year, and in that year, it was an incredible year to be there, was the year of Tiananmen Square, and we were protecting some Chinese students in the building. It was Webster v. Reproductive Health came down, which was the first limitation on Roe v. Wade, so there were a lot of protests, there was some just significant things happening in the Supreme Court. And it was really before the era of a lot of email. And so I physically got to go over and walk into the Supreme Court, and go to the back, and pick up a copy for Ed Meese, who I was interning for, and then brief him on decisions. I mean, it was crazy. And then I also was able, because his Communications Director was on break for that summer, to handle all of the negotiations for, you know, that was back when you basically had four people that wanted to do the morning interviews on the issues, you know, ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. And so we would negotiate appearances for Mr. Meese on all of those shows. And so I was working with Peter Jenning’s office and doing all these things that, you know, I had no background in, right? And then getting to brief a former Attorney General on major Supreme Court decisions. So it was quite an experience, and it underscored my desire to work more in the public good, or the public sector, but I wasn’t really sure where my place would be. And then when I graduated from law school, I kind of what I call it got on the automatic conveyor belt, which is, you think you want to do this, but then you get convinced to interview with a big firms because it’s, you know, they’re here, and they’re interviewing, and then all of a sudden, you’re like, well, wait a minute, they offered me a job, and it’s pretty good money, maybe I’ll just do that for a year, make some money, and, you know, all of a sudden, you’re back and you’re doing something you didn’t intend to do. And so two years into it, I just looked up and said, wait a minute, I didn’t intend to do this. And I quit cold turkey, no job, no plan. And fortuitously, I ended up over as a federal judicial law clerk for Joe Stevens, who’s since passed away, and really got to get back into the reasons why I thought I went to law school, which is for public good, being efficient, being effective, working on some pretty big issues. So, but then, you know, I had two little girls at home, and I kind of came home and went, well, I’m not going to work. I’m not going to fly all over the country and do all these things right now. And I hung up my own shingle and experimented with things that I could do and have flexibility. And that’s when I found my path of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs consulting. And I say it like that because I really had no idea what that was. And let alone that I was good at it. To me, I thought it was things I did for free in college. And it turned out to be much more complex than that. I got involved in helping what I call slow moving or difficult things. So slow moving, what I mean by that is, I helped a couple of different precedential libraries in terms of rallying interest in them and attention. And then it turned into also doing some seeking of appropriations for projects for them. So that’s when it kind of bled over into public affairs consulting. And Union Station in Kansas City, another slow, you know, a very exciting thing, but not, you know, we’re not talking about cutting edge issues, not not to say I was bored doing that those were really wonderful clients, and I loved them. But I really wanted to do something more intense. And so that’s — I was serving as a volunteer board member for an Economic Development Council, and Tracy Taylor came in, he was the CEO of KTech. And they were launching this 580 million dollar Life Science Initiative for the state of Kansas in 2003 or 4. And it was the first time somebody was doing a presentation where I could really understand why that every single segment was excited about the life sciences. And then this is before the crash and the realization of how much money had to go into these things. And the excitement waned a little bit. But back, then everyone thought, oh, I’m going to be the next bioscience hub, right. But Kansas was putting some serious money at the table and creating some legislation around it. And I was taking such copious notes when he was talking that I made him a little nervous; he was, like, unsure who I was. And we got to talking, and he found out what I did. And he took a leap of faith with me, hired me to help them launch the initiative, write the speeches for the governor, organize the get togethers of experts around the state, around how they were going to roadmap and create a plan. And so all of a sudden, my intellectual desire to be involved in something cutting edge and something very relevant, also something that could significantly move the needle, there I was right in the middle of it. And so I helped them for years, helped the trade association that was basically funding the initiative through a tax plan, get their sea legs, build their board, create their first delegation, which was the second largest delegation at the National Conference, you know, basically put momentum behind that initiative and make it understandable for the general public and so that they maintain support. So I did that work, and once those babies, as I said, all got launched, a tech was looking for the next big thing they might do. And I was in the room with a lot of brilliant people. It wasn’t, you know, people say, Pipeline was your idea? I go, No, no, no. This was thought of in a group in a room that was like, what are we doing well, where are there gaps? And we all agreed the gap that we were dealing with at the time, and this was 2006, was founder talent, locating them, helping them navigate challenges from where they reside and scale in a way that they, you know, cloud remain at home. So it was more of an economic development play on the front end. And everyone looked around the room at who was going to run it, and I was like, whoa, I’ll help you find the next person or I’ll help it get it, you know, because they knew I could launch something quickly, they knew I could, they knew I knew the gatekeepers around the state, they knew that I, so, I kind of knew who the people would want to get involved were, and they knew I could do something expeditiously. And so, I said I would do it for three months. And as I said earlier, 13 years later, it has since turned into a multi-state nonprofit with now an international mentor pool. It’s completely funded by foundation and private sector. The organization that launched us doesn’t even exist anymore. So we’ve been through quite a journey for the past 13 years. And so, here I am today.

Eric Hornung 15:47
Were you doing all of that after you left law? Like, were you a freelance entrepreneur at that point?

Joni Cobb 15:54
For seven years.

Eric Hornung 15:55
What was that change like? Going from the structured world of law school into something that you’re now kind of in control of your own cash flow and destiny?

Joni Cobb 16:06
It was scary and thrilling, and it felt like breathing clearly for the first time. You know, it just felt like who I was all along. I mean, I woke up every night at 3:13 in the morning, when I was very first launching Pipeline, I was newly divorced, I was terrified I was going to have to go back to work at a firm. I had nightmares about it all the time, where they were, they had bunk beds waiting for me to sleep at a firm, and, you know, they were going to punish me for leaving, it was crazy that I was so motivated to be not just self-sufficient but self-sufficient and flexible and challenged, and in control of my destiny, but also available for my girls. And so I woke up every night at 3:13 in the morning, terrified. And then would talk myself back down to sleep in the morning, and then just hit it hard every single day. And I was so grateful for cell phones and laptops and the new generation of working with virtual teams, because it just played into my strengths, and it played into my ability to be efficient. One of the things I did not like about being a lawyer in the private sector was there was really no reward for being efficient. I mean, billable hours are not about efficiency. You know, I was always like, oh, give me a plaintiff’s case or something. Because this is, this is not gonna work for me that were billing me, you know, and I think I was the first law clerk ever for Joe Stevens that had a current docket. I just was like, we don’t need to write these law review articles. Let’s make, you know, let’s give them a decision. Give them a, you know, the basis of an appeal if they want to, get this out the door. I’ve just always been about getting stuff done. So it was wonderful to have a consulting career and then eventually, in the Pipeline, where it’s just been about getting stuff done, getting it done well getting it done quickly. You know, executing is just, you know, it’s my, I think it’s my number one or two strengths on my Strengths Finder. It just makes me so happy every day to get things done. So yeah, so, to answer your question, that transition from being in a structured environment where someone else is kind of telling me how to structure my day and moving to a place where I structured my day, I worked with my own highs and lows of energy, and I was rewarded for efficiency, I felt like I had found my place. That’s why it took quite a little, little bit of convincing to have me actually run Pipeline as an employee of Pipeline. And you know, for like, for a couple years, I said, I’ll do it on a contract. I mean, it was crazy, because it was obviously what I was doing full time with my heart and soul. But it was I was just unwilling to give that much control to something over me.

Eric Hornung 18:49
When did you make that mental shift from, I’m a contractor working for Pipeline, and I’m just kind of holding this position for the next person and getting it ready, to all right, this is my thing, I’m all in?

Joni Cobb 19:02
Yeah. Gosh, I’m kind of guessing, but I’m going to say it was somewhere near the middle of the second class. So that would have been the 2008 class. And you know, they all call themselves the best class. So I can’t say that. But it was somewhere in that 2008-2009 transition that I said…I realized that these people were my people. So the first year, I was just frustrated with myself that I didn’t completely understand venture capital, that I wasn’t an expert in every single area around entrepreneurship, you know? I felt unqualified for the job I had. And so I was just trying to assemble the best resources I could to provide all this elegant content and this amazing network for these entrepreneurs. And I saw that as not being legit. I didn’t realize till later, that was totally the legit way to run this organization. Not to be the expert, but to bring in the best. And I think I had to get through that and realize that the skills I brought to the table were actually exactly what a CEO needed to do. So it was a little bit of my insecurity of not being a serial entrepreneur myself, not having some big tech background, and all of a sudden realizing I didn’t need to do that to run Pipeline, number one, and we can get into it later, but I didn’t need to be an expert in those areas to run Pipeline. I needed to be an expert in how to build this organization in this community, in this riding group. The second piece of that was, these were my people, like, I came home and didn’t realize I came home. And I think it took me through that, kind of through that second year to go, wait a minute, I don’t want to leave these people. These people, they resonate, I, like, to my core, they feel like my people, and I did not realize that before that I felt like a fish out of water and a lot of other environments I was in, and now all a sudden I didn’t. And lastly, I guess I would add, anytime you’re building an organization out of your strengths, you know, no one’s telling you how to build it, s you just intuitively build, I think, towards your strengths. And you shore up your weaknesses, of course. You end up with an organization, it’s pretty hard to leave, you know. So this was an organization that was becoming about longevity, and never leading, and a family culture huge around building a network so that you can deal with issues as they arise, being a little less pedagogical or curriculum based. I mean, certainly we have that. But that stickiness of why they never leave is about that kind of inevitable quality of being with each other and peer mentoring, and supporting each other, and having kind of some times to be very goofy and let their hair down, you know. So we were able to build together, my friends and I were building together. And so you just, you know, you just don’t get up and leave that. It’s rare, and it felt like home.

Eric Hornung 21:58
So, we’ve kind of danced surround it a little bit. And I want to make sure that we say it explicitly: What is Pipeline?

Joni Cobb 22:05
So Pipeline is an entrepreneurial fellowship. And that’s a critical word, because I always get asked, is it like an accelerator? Is it like a mentoring? And I say yes to all of it. So the best way I can describe Pipeline is, if you were looking at a pie or a pie chart, all of those elements are there, but it’s done within the context of a fellowship. So to break that down, you competitively interview to be part of Pipeline as a person, as an entrepreneur, as a founder, not as a company. And obviously, we care about what you’re doing, we want you to build something of scale, we want you to have enough traction and progress that it’s worth spending the resources we do on you. But we’re really looking for that founder that’s potentially going to build multiple companies, and their company right now is a platform that they’re coming into learn and refine their skills. And they go through this really super intense year. But once they get to the end of that year, of coming to modules and working on their skills, and working on their companies, and getting connected, and all those things that happen in the fellowship year, they can become full members of the organization. So I’ve got entrepreneurs, who are members of Pipeline that have been around for the thirteen years I’ve been here who have built multiple companies are now building investor groups. And so it’s a, that’s the fellowship piece, right? They, they don’t just do a fellowship year and they’re out. That’s kind of their entree into an organization where they learn skills, they learn culture, they start trusting each other, and then they start leaning on it more and more further down their career as they start new companies, as they need candid feedback, as they want to, they have various roundtables and other professional development opportunities. So, it’s this organization that feeds the professional and personal needs of great — what I call — super entrepreneurs for the lifetime of their building. And so, that’s very different than a program that you go in and come out the other end of and say, quote on quote, an alum. And it’s very different than being focused on a company, that is really about building that group of founders that want to be knit together for their entire careers.

Eric Hornung 24:12
How do you pick those founders, besides this idea that they want to start multiple businesses, and they’re just, I think you just called it, a superstar engineer, or a…

Joni Cobb 24:20
Super entrepreneur.

Eric Hornung 24:21
Super entrepreneur. What’s the evaluation process like?

Joni Cobb 24:25
So you know, that has kind of been tweaked and evolved over the years. But here’s what I would say the magic is: First of all, we’re not looking for a particular threshold because, since we are sector agnostic, you know, everybody looks different, right? You might have a life science entrepreneur that is maybe getting a phase two grant. You might have a software entrepreneur that’s got revenue positive and maybe an angel round. We’ve had people come in that are 15 million in revenue, they’re all over the board, right? So what we’re looking for is that, just, that desire to scale and that timing that this is the right year to come in, right. So the best way that we have found to do this is really to have a cross section of our community interview them. If you just have investors interview them, you know, their normal tendency is to look for what’s wrong with the deal. You know, it’s just, that’s just how they’re trained. And there’s always going to be something wrong with the deal, you know, so I like having those people in the room because they poke at the soft underbelly, maybe, of the entrepreneur, and really ferret out how well they understand their weaknesses and how they’re dealing with challenges to the company opportunity. But then, you want other entrepreneurs who’ve walked that walk in there. So we have a lot of Pipeline entrepreneurs, and they’re interviewing them, and they can really get into…They’ve sat where they are in this interview process, they’ve been building companies, they’re not that much further ahead of them. And so, they can kind of figure out not only talent but also character. So I always have some of our entrepreneurs in the room. And then I have national advisors that are mentors and involved in programs around the country in the world, who have a really great wide perspective and landscape, both for the types of companies that they’re leading, but also talent. So usually, it ends up in a very friendly argument and fight among people who care desperately for their viewpoint, and we battle it to the ground. And you know, we’ve had a pretty, pretty intense success rate, in terms of entrepreneurs that have continued to build their companies, start new companies, are still in business, that type of thing. So, you know, there’s no perfect method for doing this or else you know, we’d all be gazillionaires, not that we’re only looking for financial return. But still, we don’t be gazillionaires, right? But we feel like, you know, we say no to some entrepreneurs that end up being incredibly successful because we feel like they might not totally fit our culture, because we feel like the benefit of the entire group is so powerful that we’ve got to protect the culture. So, you can’t just be a great entrepreneur that’s going to build something big. There’s — when I define a super entrepreneur, they have more to it than that. There’s that other piece of them that they want to be part of the community, they want to give back. They have, they balance their give and take and they aren’t just takers. And so, we’re looking for all those things, right. So it’s not just looking for the big moon-shot entrepreneur. So having the community there represented in every room so that we’re getting a full 360 perspective of that entrepreneur is the way we go about it.

Eric Hornung 27:30
Where do these entrepreneurs come from?

Joni Cobb 27:32
So right now, we are in, our region of service is the entire state of Kansas, the entire state of Missouri, and then the Kansas City metropolitan area. We have also an affiliation with Washington, St. Louis. We, we would love for St. Louis to be back in the region, but that has not happened recently. But if you have an affiliation with Washington, St. Louis, you can apply. There’s no quotas, though. There’s not like we have four from Nebraska, four from Missouri. It’s like, it’s a, it’s a very competitive process, where the best are who get in the in the class. And also we look at kind of a great mix and dynamic among the group. There might be somebody that’s fantastic that we decide to have them hold off and interview again because we’re looking for a particular mix in a chemistry of a group. So our entrepreneurs hail from basically a three state region with some exceptions. And then, our mentors and advisors and people involved in it are from all over the US. And then we have some in Canada, in Ireland, and I can’t keep track.

Eric Hornung 28:30
Have there been states and regions that have tried to copy this?

Joni Cobb 28:34
You know, I’ve heard through the grapevine that some folks have tried, but they…it’s a difficult thing to copy. Because it’s not, as I said, I spoke to the National Governors Association a couple times. And I think the thing that resonated is, I said, there is no magic binder with the curriculum and a format that will give you this, right? This is a very hands-on, intensive, cultural program. And let’s face it, there is incredible, especially over the last, what, five, six years, a credible amount of information out there on the internet and in accelerators and in programs of every shape out there, where you can learn some amazing, amazing information about building and scaling your company. Iis out there. So what is special about the way we do it is the format in which it’s delivered, ecause you can have entrepreneurs — I have one entrepreneur that is, like, maybe this was the third iteration of his company. And so we were working on business models, and you would have thought, okay, he absolutely knows his business model, I mean, this his third bite at the apple. But by him being forced to sit for three days and turn that dang phone off and focus with people around the country in the room with him, staring down at his spreadsheets and all these things, he had an “aha” moment about his business model that changed it, for the first time, in the way that, you know, brought it to scaling, and he would exit within a year and has started a new company since then. And so it’s the format in which you shut things off, you fly in, you drive in, you’re locked in, basically, you’re with people that you learn to trust over a long period of time, you can’t rush this in three months. And it’s the environment in which they learn and the environment in which they continue to be candid with each other and trust the people that we bring in and know that they’re all there for the right reasons, that’s the magic sauce. And so, I think when people just try to start something like this, they may be missing that quality of why the entrepreneurs are so passionate about pipeline, why they don’t leave it, why they tell everybody, you’ve got to do this, is because they’re getting some needs met their beyond just education.

Eric Hornung 30:58
Take me back to 2006. What was the value proposition for entrepreneurs at that point before this flywheel got spinning?

Joni Cobb 31:09
Money. So for the first two years of Pipeline — this was not my idea, but I kind of was stuck with it — somebody decided that we should give them stipends. So for the first two years, they were like, man, I’m going to get, you know, some money. And it might be good, we’ll see. But we didn’t have any street cred. We didn’t have a record yet, right? So for the first two years, we just had to deliver, deliver, deliver, deliver, so that at the end of those two years, when we got rid of stipends, people were like, well, it doesn’t matter. The good news is, you know, it doesn’t cost you $100,000 to do it, you know. And it took a few years to kind of make that transition. But in the first couple years, we didn’t have any credibility for why somebody would, you know, because we’re not talking to people who are just brand scratch new, we’re talking about people who are growing and thriving and taking three days a quarter to drive in and, you know, basically check out and in some ways of their active leadership with that a big ask, given the stage they were in. And so, I think those first couple of years, you know, it was some of the mentors that I was able to convince to give this a shot were very attractive to people to be around. So there was that. The stipend was very attractive because money is money. But that kind of went away pretty quickly onc,e you know, there were a couple of years under our belt, and people were like, whoa, this is pretty special. And the timing couldn’t have been either…I consider the timing couldn’t have been better. Some people would say that the timing couldn’t have been worse. But you know, in those first couple of years, we had a crash, right? And we helped entrepreneurs navigate, in a crisis situation, how to handle lines of credit, what to do with their employees, that kind of thing. And people came out stronger at the end of that. So we ended up, after a couple years, with some powerful advocates, who went to the mat for pipeline and who were very vocal about how important it was to their growth. And so I think that credibility was clearly there after year two.

Eric Hornung 33:09
Let’s zoom out a little bit. You have been around the Midwest, middle of the country entrepreneurship scene for 13 years now, give or take. What has changed the most? And what do you see as, like, the current landscape of entrepreneurship outside of the coasts?

Joni Cobb 33:29
So — and I was around entrepreneurs, I would say, you know, during that Life Science Initiative a lot as well. So, I have the advantage of seeing kind of, and not only just, you know, my local area, but working with people from around the country. And I would say that the big difference was, back then, you had to explain what in the heck entrepreneurship really was and why you should care. Right? You know, people loved throw failure rates out there and oh they, you know, fail, or they would like to equate it to small businesses. So at the very beginning, right, it was all about, there was a really small group of people working in the industry, either as entrepreneurs or as supporters of them. And so, if you were trying to engage other people to get in the mix, whether it was to, to invest in entrepreneurs or support organizations that were trying to help entrepreneurs scale, you had to do some pretty basic education about what is entrepreneurship, what’s high growth, entrepreneurship? How is that different from mom and pop’s small business or lifestyle company? So there was a lot of education on the front end early on. I mean, we started making super big, loud public events, mainly to educate and get people excited about entrepreneurship in general, right? And then we’ve gone through — now we’re in a totally different time, right? Everybody’s excited, or at least I like to think everybody’s excited about the potential of entrepreneurship. Most cities and regions and universities and chambers of commerce and everybody’s in the game, right. They’ve got a program or an accelerator, or they’re trying to put together more Angel groups. So the awareness of what entrepreneurship is and why it’s important seems to be pretty pervasive. And the initiatives and the organizations around it are all over the place. I think we’re starting to see some settling down of that because it probably needed to happen in terms of not having, you know, accelerators every five feet. I’m a big advocate for more funders, that’s kind of where I go, more investors. But I think that that is a big difference. I think the awareness of what it takes to be an entrepreneur happens much earlier. When I see people apply for Pipeline or I meet people at events, they’re far more savvy and understanding of, you know, what are the basic things about market validation and customer validation, and whether it’s the methodology of the month, you know, that they’re excited about it. They’re educated about it, coming into it. So that I think is different. I think we’ve seen a lot of fluctuation in where regions and cities and places get excited about industries. But what I find is entrepreneurs don’t wax and wane with that, you know, they build things because they see a problem, and they’re excited about solving a problem. And that happens in all types of industries. And I’m not the big proponent in the world of cluster tech, you know, cluster strategies, and all of that, just because, I mean think that’s great, if interseason folks want to do that and that’s their forte. But I’m a big fan of the entrepreneurs who see opportunities to solve problems and get behind it. And so, we work with entrepreneurs that are life sciences, and clean tech, and ag tech, and consumer facing products, online subscription boxes. I mean, they’re excited about all sorts of stuff, and they don’t really look to, hey, what’s our cluster strength or anything like that. And so, I think that those things can wax and wane, but entrepreneurship in general has stayed broad, is in all types of industries; but the entrepreneurs are more prepared on the front end, then I think they used to be. And so, now, we’re dealing more, I think, with issues in the Midwest orm between the coasts of, wow, we’ve got entrepreneurs solving some really important problems. Not just you know, creating apps to help you locate where your friend is to eat you lunch with, right. Not that that’s not important. But we’ve got entrepreneurs solving some massive world problems in health and agriculture, artificial intelligence, etc. They’re working to do some pretty giant things. And what we need them to be able to do is have the resources they need. So I think now people are focused more on, okay, we’re putting together Angel groups, and our region, and people understand what entrepreneurship is. So yeah, so now that we’re doing a great job with support organizations, educating the public about the importance of entrepreneurship perfming, you know, more Angel groups are popping up. You know, now our issues tend to be of issues of scale. You know, as our entrepreneurs are growing, they’re facing growth issues, they’re looking to raise $5, $10, $20 million, and more. What are we doing to support those issues of scale, because the reason you support entrepreneurship is you’re, you’re hoping that you’re going to get to these issues of scale, right? Your marching down the field, and you’re ready to score, right? And you want these these entrepreneurs to be able to survive and thrive and scale and exit or IPO, or whatever, where they reside. And so now, I think we’re being called to answer these issues of scale, of increased funding, you know, at higher levels of talent attraction, of all those issues of scale. So I think we’ve come a long way. I think that’s our next challenge. And I’m excited to be part of that, whether it’s running Pipeline, whether it is being an advocate out in the community, whether being an investor. I’ve started doing some of my own investment, let’s just not say it’s 10 million, because it’s not. But I think that’s really where our next place of evolution is in the entrepreneurial community, you know, outside of your San Franciscos and Bostons and, to a certain extent, you know, Austins and Chicagos and Seattles, etc..

Eric Hornung 39:04
So you alluded to something earlier in the interview, and I think it’s where I want to wrap up. You said that your DNA is kind of intertwined with Pipeline. You’ve been here since the beginning, you’ve been here for 13 years, and it’s really become like a family. And because of that, you as the founder and the founding CEO, it’s part of you. But you’re going to be leaving Pipeline, as you announced. How do you, how do you do that, and how do you think about that?

Joni Cobb 39:33
Well, let’s, let’s reframe that. I’m not leaving Pipeline because I don’t think you can. I just no longer want to spend all of my waking day on all the myriad, wonderful, beautiful, vast details of Pipeline every day. And I want to move to just being a strategic thinker and an advocate and those things. The Board of Directors has asked me to remain on the board. So I’m working with this wonderful guy that’s coaching me on the transition of what he calls the role of source, which is, you know that, that quality that you have as a founder that you can’t just hand over to someone, it’s, it’s a little more magical and mystical than that, right? And so he’s helping me understand how to move to this advisor role without getting in the way of a new leader, with strategically supporting the organization, so blending those two things elegantly. And so, I’m super grateful for that support. And I’m really excited about moving to the strategy level and giving myself the bandwidth to really pay homage to the past 13 years of Pipeline, because those past 13 years, I’ve gotten a PhD, you know, ten times over in entrepreneurship, and I have got the itch and the desire to put my skills to test in the profit world. I have friends, I have creative drive, you know, it would have been very easy for me to just be on autopilot and continue to run Pipeline forever. But I have a desire to do some other things. And so I think this staying in this role of source, staying as a board member, coaching and encouraging not just the next leader of pipeline, but also the members as they continue to grow the organization, but giving myself the ability to do what they do every day and shoot for some fences myself and put some of my skills to test outside of Pipeline. I think it’s the biggest compliment I can pay to the mission of our work at Pipeline.

Eric Hornung 41:37
Joni, this has been fascinating. If people want to learn more about you or Pipeline, where should they go?

Joni Cobb 41:44
So Pipeline is And for those of you frustrated, remember the E’s always come first. And then I’m going to have my fun website that I’ve been working on, ready in the matter of days, and that is

Eric Hornung 42:01
How much are the wasabi peas you buy at Kroger?

Jay Clouse 42:04
I think they are about $5, maybe $3.99.

Eric Hornung 42:08
That’s pretty expensive for a little snack.

Jay Clouse 42:10
Just a little snack, but you know the value is there. And I think it’s worth it.

Eric Hornung 42:14
How do you afford that on a podcaster’s budget?

Jay Clouse 42:17
It’s tough. It’s tough. I gotta dig deep, and I gotta lean on my other business sometimes.

Eric Hornung 42:21
Well, you know what, I think the listeners could help us out here because there’s one thing that they could do that directly correlates with our ability to raise some advertising revenue on this platform.

Jay Clouse 42:31
I think I know where you’re going with this.

Eric Hornung 42:32
Oh, yeah, I’m going to It is our 2019 listener survey. And it is a key part of our growth strategy here at Upside so we can keep on telling stories about founders, community builders and venture capitalists outside of Silicon Valley. And we can get Jay some more wasabi peas.

Jay Clouse 42:52
That’s right. So dear listener, if you would do us a solid, if you would do us a kindness, please head over to, answer our 2019 listener survey. It should only take a couple of minutes. Myself in my wasabi peas thank you.

Eric Hornung 43:15
All right, Jay. We just spoke with Joni Cobb of Pipeline Entrepreneurs. And it’s always interesting when you and I don’t do an episode together. Do you find that you’re sitting there thinking, oh, I would have asked a different question?

Jay Clouse 43:27
Well, here’s the thing, Eric. Because of the way that we record this podcast, when I listened back to this interview, I didn’t actually get to hear your questions. It would have required me to either put the pieces of audio together and listen in one piece, or to flip back and forth between yours and hers. And sometimes I like to play a little game of “can I guess what Eric asked based on her response.” And so, I don’t actually know what you asked, but I really liked all of her responses. So I’m going to give you a pass on this one.

Eric Hornung 43:57
Are there any topics you wish we would have covered that we didn’t?

Jay Clouse 44:00
Something that I think is interesting that you asked, I think, or I inferred that you asked, was if there have been other organizations try to copy this model. And I liked her response. And I liked that in her response, I did glean some information of, if you wanted to do something like this in other regions, here’s how you would do it. But I almost wish you would have asked a direct question of, given what you know now, how would you recommend people start and get this started in other regions? You know, would you do the stipend approach for the first two years, give people a stipend, use the money to incentivize people to jump in and then hope the flywheel starts from there? It may be that Pipeline itself grows larger and larger across the country. And you don’t need multiple organizations like this. But I don’t necessarily believe that to be true. I think there’s room for both Hamilton and me in this situation, and having more of these organizations would be a benefit. So what would it look like to have more organizations like Pipeline Entrepreneurs?

Eric Hornung 44:55
I loved the just intense focus on, like, the founders and the people first. I think that a lot of times you get or we hear from companies and organizations that are founder focused, or they say their founder focused, or they say they’re people first. But in actuality, they’re tied mostly to the economic realities of what that founder can create.

Jay Clouse 45:17
Yeah, and I low key…I mean, Joni was pretty high key about this being one of the big core reasons why this organization works. But if you want to think of it from the lens, I was just talking about how to get this start and how to get it working elsewhere, I really think that is the core component of this, because you and I both talk about thinking long term more and more. And to me, this would be a difficult model to pull off for 13 years if you’re seeking outside funding all the time, forever into perpetuity, whereas, if you focus on the people first and really doing right by the entrepreneurs that you’re serving, over time, as you get into year 13, 15, 20, those entrepreneurs that you helped in the beginning are going to have so much affinity for the organization, as we heard from Joni about Pipeline Entrepreneurs, that they become a sustaining force for the organization with their giveback mentality. It’s very much like the TechStars give first mentality right? And we heard our interview with Johan of Inkind how much that organization means to him and how that has played into his life now post-exit and having some success. And I think Pipeline will find similar success because of this people-first approach.

Eric Hornung 46:30
I think willingness to give back to an organization is probably the number one lagging indicator of how successful a community is or was.

Jay Clouse 46:39
I would agree with that, totally. And it was really fun for me…Listeners, this is obviously an audio medium, but I certainly encourage you to go to the Pipeline Entrepreneurs website, which is in the show notes, go to their About page and just enjoy the scroll down, walking through their coat of arms, talking about Pipeline Entrepreneurs. It’s one of, like, the most delightful interface experiences I’ve had in a while. Really showing what they care about and what they are about. And then it goes down to a grid of their entrepreneurs. And this is something also I wanted to focus on, Eric. Looking at this grid of entrepreneurs that are part of Pipeline, you know, when you think about startup and the sexy, romantization of startups over the past 10 years, the image is like a young 20’s guy like us wearing a hoodie. And the entrepreneurs in the Pipeline ecosystem that you see in these photos are much more akin to what you see in the statistics being successful entrepreneurs. They are, they’ve got some gray hair, some of them, but they’re middle of their career, they probably have some industry experience, they probably have a lot of relationships and connections. But it’s an interesting case, I think. Still see a lot of white dudes, a lot of white dudes, which also is probably still pretty representative of entrepreneurship at this point, unfortunately. But yeah, the about page on this website, I thought, was really phenomenal.

Eric Hornung 48:01
I’ve never heard you geek out over a web page so much.

Jay Clouse 48:04
It’s remarkable, like, I mean, from the literal definition of remarkable, I’m remarking on it. It made me want to remark on it. But yeah, I think you’re right about the community and everything too, because Joni said at one point in the interview, this is a quote I wrote down after listening to it, she said, “it’s clear that there are some needs being met for these entrepreneurs beyond just education.” She said, “there’s no magic binder that has like the perfect curriculum or the way of doing things.” And their success is a clear indication that the needs that are being met for these entrepreneurs are not just about the education. It’s about the network. It’s about the people.

Eric Hornung 48:38
Who do you talk to when you’re struggling with Unreal Collective and what to do next?

Jay Clouse 48:42
My own, you know, community and network of people who are in similar trenches doing similar things, the more specifically aligned you can ask questions. Here’s, here’s the problem, you know, if you’re talking to people who are doing exactly what you’re doing, then they may be competitors, and that may be a difficult conversation. But you want to do that where you can and where you guys can coexist. So when I can talk to other people running membership organizations or mastermind groups, I’ll go there. But a lot of times, most of my communication comes in the form of people and sort of, like, ancillary services. And honestly, most of the time, it’s not about learning directly from their experience, it’s just about the feeling of not being alone and seeking comfort in them also going through the same. I’m sure that’s a huge part of this programming in this fellowship, which I like that word as well, this fellowship as well.

Eric Hornung 49:36
That might be some of the stuff Joni was referencing when she was talking about outside of education. Well, Jay, it’s always interesting for me to be the interviewer and to hear your thoughts, because I don’t get to hear your questions in the interview to kind of know where your head’s at. Any last thoughts on Pipeline or Pipeline Entrepreneurs

Jay Clouse 49:56
Well, what about you, you were in the interview. What are your last thoughts?

Eric Hornung 49:58
I think one of the things I’m most jealous about for people who sit in Silicon Valley is their ability to have a community of entrepreneurs at the ready, who are willing to sit down with them, who are willing to bounce ideas off, who are willing to kind of talk about any issue. And those entrepreneurs range from pre-seed to series k, to people who’ve taken companies public. And they all exist within this very close, geographic quarters. And from what I’ve heard about Silicon Valley and from what I’ve seen, if you’re building a company there, there is a proclivity to engage back in that community, to help the next person up the rung. I think when you lose some of that density — and this is a question we’ve talked about a lot is — density between the coasts, how do you create the community that exists in Silicon Valley with just people who are more spread out? I think as you lose that density, you need organizations like Pipeline to be connecting people of all kinds of different backgrounds to each other with the same goal of helping each other get one rung up, or answer a problem, or just vent about how annoying it is that Slack’s raising their prices. It doesn’t really matter what it is, I don’t know if Slack’s raising their prices? I hope they’re not. This is budget show, Jay! But you see what I’m saying, like, I think that these kind of organizations, and the more of them that spring up, and the more of them that can create real community and real people that you can go out and talk to and interact with and that are on a similar trajectory as you, I think that is better for entrepreneurship outside of the coasts.

Jay Clouse 51:35
Absolutely. Well, Eric, before we wrap this up, I believe that the timing is actually pretty fortuitous. If there are people who want to learn more or become a fellow with Pipeline Entrepreneurs,

Eric Hornung 51:46
Look at us, plugging away here, Jay. The application is open right now for Pipeline Entrepreneurs. So if this community sounds like something you are interested in, and you are a supercharged founder between the coasts, the applications of opened on August 28th, and they close on October 21st. So you can either reach out to Joanie at the email she provided or go to Pipeline Entrepreneurs calm to learn more.

Jay Clouse 52:11
That link will also be in the show notes. But as always, if you have thoughts on this interview, you can tweet at us @upsidefm or email us, and we’ll help whomever we can.

Interview begins: 5:20
Debrief begins: 43:15

Joni Cobb is the founding President and CEO of Pipeline Entrepreneurs.

Pipeline is a network of high-performing entrepreneurs who call the Midwest home. Their entrepreneurs and experts give generously of their time, talent and capital so that they can build global businesses from wherever they choose.

Pipeline takes zero equity in their Member companies, focusing on the entrepreneur first.

Companies led by Pipeline entrepreneurs have generated over $1.39B in revenues, raised over $608M in outside capital, are conducting business in over 85 countries and have created over 2700 jobs.

As CEO, Joni has led the development of every aspect of the organization, including the curriculum build-out, pivoting the business model, building a national advisory board, launching an angel investor group, securing multi-state partners and raising over $12M in outside funding.

We discuss:

  • Beginning with law and public policy at the Capitol (5:30)
  • Transitioning to entrepreneurship (15:55)
  • What is Pipeline Entrepreneurs (21:57)
  • Pipeline’s process for picking their next entrepreneurs (24:10)
  • Do other Pipeline-like organizations exist? (28:30)
  • Initial incentives for the first Pipeline classes (30:58)
  • Changes in entrepreneurship in the last 13 years (33:10)
  • Joni Cobb’s next moves (39:05)
  • Plug: Upside 2019 Listener Survey (42:00)

Pipeline Entrepreneurs was founded 2006 and based in Kansas City, Missouri.

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This episode is sponsored by Integrity Power Search, the #1 full stack high growth startup recruiting firm between the coasts. They partner with venture capitalists, private equity groups and CEOs to build amazing teams for the world’s most disrupting companies.

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