Claire Mitchell and Sara Yeatman Currier took a roundabout path to starting a small business.
Both have full-time careers in education — Mitchell as a research associate at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and Yeatman Currier as a teacher at Brownsville Elementary School — and young families.
The two founded treadHAPPY, a group exercise studio that uses treadmills to build endurance and strength, early last year.
Their education background, Mitchell told attendees at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Entrepreneurship Conference on Friday, prepared them well for the business world.
Education gave them the tools to engage their clients in ways that other studios did not, Mitchell said.
“Clients love it when they see you at other places, when you know their names,” she said. “Even by the clients knowing they are not anonymous … you build relationships, and the only way to do that is to be present in the community.”
Darden’s eighth Entrepreneurship Conference, held at the Rotunda, gathered entrepreneurs across a variety of business sectors to share advice and encouragement for budding businesspeople.
W.L. Lyons Brown III, a member of Darden’s advisory board and one of two entrepreneurs in residence at the school’s i.Lab startup incubator, delivered the keynote address.
Brown, who founded Altamar Brands, a boutique spirits importer, after working at his family’s Brown-Forman Corp., which manufactures Jack Daniel’s whiskey, encouraged students to take bold steps to found their own ventures.
“I have lived a life of quiet desperation; I went to work for the family business that is now six generations deep,” he said. “I cinched up my tie, I polished my shoes and fell in line … I stifled my creativity.”
Angel investor Brett Brohl, a serial entrepreneur and director of startup accelerator program Techstars said his program is designed, in part, to insulate investors from risk. The models, he said, are complementary, not competitive.
“We are not going to replace angel investors, we are not going to replace institutional investments,” he said. “It’s actually symbiotic because we help those investments succeed.”
As the number of startup accelerators — institutions that provide investment, space and mentorship for early-stage companies — has exploded, the model has raised questions about whether it will supplant venture or angel capital.
The pool of startup accelerators in the United States has ballooned from just two in 2006, the year Techstars was founded, to more than 150 in 2015, according to the Brookings Institution.
Those accelerators add a step to the traditional model of company growth, Brohl said. After initial investments from family and friends and angel capital, startup accelerators can serve to strengthen companies.
“When I started my first company, I made a lot of stupid mistakes, from hiring to wrong business decisions,” he said. “In this model, we put you in a room with tons and tons of smart people.”
Eventually, Brohl said, the growth of accelerators will slow, and those already in the market will begin to consolidate. Even as that happens, though, the model will continue to work.
“I don’t know where the number of startup accelerators will end up, but I don’t think the model will go away,” he said. “We have succeeded in de-risking investments.”
Brown, who launched Altamar as the 2008 financial crisis hit, told students not to fear failure.
“Never settle. Never give up your dreams. A lot of you are out there thinking, ‘I will never give up my dreams, that’s ridiculous,’” he said. “Nobody cares that you failed. What matters is what you do after you fail. Dust yourself off and get back on the field, because you have dreams to realize.”