TK Kuegler Attracted to Upstate’s Secondary Startup Market
Making waves in Upstate New York’s venture ecosystem, Tom “TK” Kuegler is an experienced entrepreneur (Skyline Network Technologies, SpinBox), NY Times bestselling author and startup investor who specializes in creating great companies from scratch.
Managing Partner at Wasabi Ventures, a venture capital firm and incubator that has cofounded, incubated, advised and invested in over 200 early-stage technology companies throughout the nation, TK spends his time managing daily operations and advising startup founders.
Through Wasabi Ventures, TK and his cofounder Chris Yey also created the Wasabi Ventures Academy that teaches startup ecosystem contributors the fundamentals for success. Over 2000 students from around the world have already participated in the program in partnership with leading education institutions like Dartmouth and Babson to catalyze entrepreneurial education and incubation.
For his next venture, TK is committed to extending his footprint into Upstate New York. Wasabi Ventures has already taken leadership of The Commercialization Academy, a Griffiss Institute entrepreneurial education program sponsored by AFRL/RI. Hitting the ground running, nine startup teams from our region have been selected to the Spring 2016 Cohort, and TK says new partnerships to grow Upstate’s venture ecosystem are on the near horizon.
We asked TK a series of 10 questions, ranging from serious to not so series, to gain greater insight into the mind of this innovative and successful entrepreneur.
- What interests you about being an entrepreneur?
I’ve never really been anything else. As long and as far back as I can remember I was being entrepreneurial, and it’s not because I was cut from an entrepreneurial cloth. I come from a family where both sides, mom and dad, for multiple generations are union carpenters. So my interest came from being able to look at a problem in the world and figure out ways to solve it. Beyond this, is to figure how I make money from the solution – the transactional part of being an entrepreneur. Those two pieces are what defines an entrepreneur, and I love that.
- What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
My very first business idea (and no one except for my family knows this exists) goes back to elementary school. At the time your school lunch consisted of a milk and a juice. I am not a milk drinker – never have been. But I figured out there were people that like milk and people that like juice. So I arbitraged this by taking an extra juice or a milk, and trading them for other things, like cookies. That was my first step towards being an entrepreneur. The system created this problem, and with it there was a solution that could create money. I identified regular daily customers. People would be throwing away full containers of milk or juice, so if they didn’t want them, I took them to make a deal.
- What was the best piece of advice you ever got? What was the worst?
The best piece of advice was from a basketball coach, and I still have the sign he gave me. It says, “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” I’ve kept this card for 30+ years. People talk about luck, and there is a great deal of luck in life, good and bad, but when you work hard you put yourself in more situations where luck can happen. So the advice I received was to put myself into as many situations as I can, work hard and some of them will turn out.
The worst piece of advice is controversial. It’s that the greatest path to success is formal education. I think that is the biggest hog wash in the whole world. Not that I don’t think having an education is useful, but we’ve been sold a bag of goods that to solve our career problems we need a degree. I was told this many times growing up, and I just don’t think it’s true.
- Did you ever have an idea that flopped? What did you learn?
There are so many here. I’m in a business where everything tanks. Only one of 40 ever work. I’m too stupid to know at all what’s going to work and not going to work. But I do have some really good experience to know that certain things almost certainly won’t work. At the same time I’m always confounded when something does work. Why does the world want that? Why does the world want to listen to the Kardashians? My first true company that that failed was when I was in my late teens in the Baltimore area. I had a buddy with an idea that seemed very plausible at the time. What we were going to do (pre internet days) was use survey cards at restaurants. We’d compile data and know which of the customers were most valuable to them, and how the restaurant could reward the customer to come back. This was a big data play before big data was even being discussed. Again, it seemed plausible. I’ve heard startups pitch the idea ever since. But what I didn’t realize as a kid is that restaurants don’t really care to think that deeply about their business. That’s why they go out of business. The care about making cool food. So we had no chance to make any money out of it. We spent 6-9 months working like crazy, but it wasn’t going to work, and it didn’t work. So they lesson learned, was create something that matters.
- Are you on social media?
— TK Kuegler (@TKKuegler) January 21, 2016
Yes. I primarily use Twitter a lot, but my Twitter activity is one way – me broadcasting to the world – this is what I’m doing and if you care have at it. I don’t read other people’s post unless they message me. I use LinkedIN as a business social directory. Anyone who is a first level contact with me on LinkedIN, I know extremely personally and I would expect that person to do me a favor if I asked them. I receive 25 – 30 requests per week on LinkedIN from strangers and I don’t accept any of them. I want to meet someone in this industry, have them go to my LinkedIN and know I can do an introduction to any of my contacts who will absolutely take their meeting. I check out Facebook from time to time. I mostly for personal, family use. Instagram however, I try to post something every week. These pics are usually a combo of travel, food or business. What I like about instagram is its mobile app is easy to use, simple and not complicated. I like that. I don’t need it to anything.
- What meal can you cook the best?
I like to cook, but don’t cook nearly as much as I use to. My wife is a great cook. We are kind of “foodies” so we do dine out quite a bit. The only thing I don’t like is peas. My favorite hot spot in Upstate NY – I was just there and the food was fantastic, is Seabar in Buffalo. It’s a sushi fusion place. Last Thursday we ordered a bunch of different sushi-type stuff and a beef dish that I had to order twice.
- What’s your secret to productivity?
Well, I don’t sleep a great deal, which is my secret because I get to throw a lot of hours at things that others might not get to. Here’s what I tell people, no one in the world is going to out work me, I won’t let them, that’s how I’ve always been. I throw a ton of energy at everything until it breaks or works. I’m a person that multitasks a lot, often. That’s how I approach things.
- What gets under your skin?
My biggest pet peeve in life is people that are late. I’ve been late for 2 or 3 things in my entire life. It drives my nuts. My four kids know this. We don’t do late. On time is late, so don’t be late. It drives me bonkers. It basically means your time doesn’t matter, I’ll show up when I want and you’ll just have to suck it up because I want to waste your time.
In business, specifically the pitch world, what drives me crazy is when a founder says they’re trying to do something that has never been done before when I can rattle off ten people doing the same thing. Recently I had two people come in and pitch the exact same business, and they both thought they were doing something completely unique. Stop! No you’re not! Now this doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. There were always hundreds of search engines before Google came out. But don’t tell me that no one else is doing it. The reason why this annoys me, is that they don’t understand how to evaluate competition. Whether you get your groceries delivered by a drone or you go to pick them up at the store, yes, it’s a completely different tech, process, set of logistics, but at the end of the day the guy using no technology is the same as Amazon because the person with the money is going to either buy in person or buy online. This means they are direct competitors. It all comes down to execution. I don’t need to hear unique. What I need to hear is that a founder understands the landscape perfectly, including the domain experts and players. That they understand the industry top to bottom. Having them pitch that there are 14 other people trying to solve this problem inaccurately, and here’s my solution to solve to really solve it, is gold. The management team really falls down when I know more about an industry then they do. I listen to nothing out of their mouths after that, so let’s move on.
- Who would you most like to collaborate with on a new project?
Upstate New York is geographically huge, so if you’re at Clarkson University or you’re in Buffalo, all of that is Upstate NY. That is a 5-6 hour drive. That is like saying Boston and New York is one region. No one in the world considers them one region. So here’s how we (Wasabi Ventures) are looking at Upstate. We want to partner with people already doing a bunch of stuff. Universities, research centers, incubators, people who are already there and know they have something missing. Then we can come in, fill a hole and augment. Right now I’m talking to everyone and anyone, and cherry picking people to produce early stage startups that I can help fund. It’s a broad stroke area. I will meet and talk to anyone. Last week on Monday night I spoke in Troy NY, by Friday I was in Buffalo, and I literally had meetings all along the way throughout the week. We are going to go anywhere and talk to anyone and be as useful as we can to as many people as we can. You’ll have to wait and see where the collaborations pop up.
- What can the entrepreneurial community do better in Upstate New York?
What I have seen is two-fold. The region, like many secondary startup ecosystems, needs more people, more founders that are willing to take risks in their lives to build scalable companies. I have not found enough prospects to roll the dice with in a big way. Now here’s what I love about Upstate NY. Upstate has three unique advantages 1. It has the largest economic engine in the same state, Manhattan, which pumps out of 80% tax revenue that gets spread out to the entire state. 2. Unbelievably, insane number of undergraduates coming out of universities. SO much talent. If you can just direct some of it. 3. I have met almost no jack-asses in Upstate New York. Other markets, I won’t name them, they don’t want me there. But life is too short. I’m not going to work with something I don’t like. I think it’s because people recognize there are holes we can be useful for. So what can Wasabi do to help? We represent people who have really done this before. Upstate needs knowledgeable people that are willing to role of their sleeves with startups and know what they are doing. We can uniquely bringing this to the table. When you have this large, spread out area and you haven’t produced a large amount of startups like Austin or Silicon, it hard to make it happen. We can be a glue to help this.
Have a questions for TK? Post your comments below and let’s see what else he has to share with us!
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