For those unfamiliar with Innovation Works, or IW for short, it’s been a pillar in the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial ecosystem for years. They work with over 335 portfolio companies that span key sectors in the Pittsburgh region including robotics, artificial intelligence, medical devices, retail technologies, enterprise software, and others. According to their website, some high profile and fast-growing portfolio companies they support include 4Moms, Wombat Security, Bossa Nova Robotics, JazzHR, ALung Technologies, Civic Science, Vivisimo (acquired by IBM), Modcloth (acquired by WalMart) and NoWait (acquired by Yelp).
Once a company joins IW’s portfolio, they can draw on people, contacts and their expertise forever. They have resources for any stage company, create a number of different pathways for startups, and with the initial investment, IW aims to lower the barriers so that their companies can be successful.
Terri’s journey in Pittsburgh began before the tech community took off, but Terri remembers it was really clear that was where the city was going. She was hired by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA) to market and package Pittsburgh so that businesses would locate and grow here. During her time at the PRA, she also noticed how startups were going to be the focus of Pittsburgh and were in Pittsburgh’s future – they were also in Terri’s future.
“I was recruited to be in a startup, and that was like catching a comet,” said Terri. “But like many startups, that one didn’t make it. It was right in 2001 and hiring was tough post 9/11. I had some time off to do consulting work for robotics companies and life science companies, and it was clear to me that that was where the startup scene was. I kept working in that arena and looked for these types of companies to get their marketing in order. And then, this position opened up at IW, and it was the perfect marriage of what I had done at the PRA and what I was doing in my consulting work for tech startups. It couldn’t have been more exciting.”
Even more gratifying is the feeling Terri gets while working at IW currently because she witnesses people truly believing in investing in Pittsburgh’s startups, arts and culture, lifestyle, and tech activity. She focuses her talent for messaging on IW’s portfolio companies now, which is always an interesting marketing challenge that she enjoys.
For more on Terri, check out our Q&A below!
Q: What does a typical day look like? / Can you describe what you do as if I knew nothing about it or the market?
My typical day revolves around community building and a lot of events – either that Innovation Works puts on or that I want to attend elsewhere. The more we think we live in communities online, everyone still wants to have an event in person. There is an insatiable hunger in the tech community to learn more and connect more. We know people are connected to the digital world, but there is this pent up desire for real world interaction. Something I love about Pittsburgh and also the tech community is that while I live in my circle of community, the lines blur when I’m at an event – I’m still doing my job, but I’m now in this colorful blurry area of someone else’s picture and community, and I really like that.
So most days start with an event, such as a breakfast panel next door at Alloy 26. Following the event and networking, my day is spent making connections and focusing on media relations. We support IW companies through every phase, and so I’ll connect our companies to the media or vice versa, I’ll connect them with someone in the city, or with a corporation. A good example is a writer or reporter will ask me for information on a portfolio company, and I’ll make introductions and help the company tell their story. This helps expose companies to potential investors, talent, and customers. I often end my day with some kind of event – for example, a couple weeks ago, The Incline hosted an event where one of our staff members was honored. I go to events to represent IW and for educational purposes, but I also find that everyone I need to do my job supporting and growing connections, flocks to the same events. I need to know what their projects are, and they need to know what’s going on with IW. I never expected to do so much event planning, and I’ve become much better at it. I’m a naturally shy person, but I’ve learned how to be good at networking and how to make others comfortable with networking.
Q: What has been your biggest company success story?
I think one that a lot of people in Pittsburgh can relate to is 4Moms. When 4Moms was just two founders, before they were called 4Moms, they had an idea and some great expertise (technical and business) that they were weaving together. We knew the founders from some previous work and knew they would come up with some dynamic stuff. I’m picking them as a success story because they’re really the example of going from two people to a company making a product and a name for themselves. They made a brand that people can identify and want to pay for. That’s what we’re trying to do with all of our companies. That’s the point that we want all our companies to reach. When I pass their display in Target, it’s thrilling to me that this company came so far and now the real live touchable product is there on the shelf in a box that I can take home and give as a gift at a baby shower.
Q: What keeps you going when things get tough in your business?
A: I’m going to tell you why this is hard for me to answer. Because I love what I do. When things are hard it means I can’t quite see the solution to something right away. Occasionally, I will come across something that needs a solution set that I don’t have yet. I need the time to think about it and percolate and you just get to the “aha moment.” That moment isn’t on demand and doesn’t always happen when you need it, and so you have to wait for it. I find events and educational interactions really useful because they are my creativity boosters. You’re out of your realm, but you’re still in your realm at the same time.
I’ve found that when I’m not in my routine, it allows my mind to be creative and message a hard to understand idea or figure out who to have speak at a panel at an upcoming event. A lot of my job is connecting dots for someone, and you just need some breathing room to think about how these various pieces fit together so you can see the puzzle in a new way. I’m typically working with the same puzzle pieces over and over, but I’m making a new pattern all the time.
Q: What do you do when you’re not in the office?
A: I read a lot. And I love to cook and to bake. I’ve found that the kitchen is where I like to experiment and try something new. I love to be outside – hiking, being on the water (paddle boarding or kayaking), or just walking. I also love to plan a trip, be on it, and then come home and plan the next one.
Q: What 3 things does anyone starting in your industry need to know?
- Everything is still all about human relations. It’s media, investor, or community engagement. The “relations” word is what it’s all about. It’s not about you – it’s about the other party. When you think about relations, it’s all about who you need to interact with.
- Don’t forget about the building blocks of communication, writing, and ways to build communication. They are the building blocks to master.
- You have both internal customers and external customers. The more you can solve the issues with both the better. I have my teammates that need my help communicating something and they need support. But we’re all trying to build programs to our external customers. It’s hard to move the needle. But you have to have a sensitive ear to what you think your external customer needs and internal. You just trying to keep the plates in the air and keep them moving.
Q: What’s it like working in a Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial sector?
At the exact same time you want to let your breath out and celebrate the amount of success we achieve, we have to be clear eyed that there is a lot of work ahead. Fortunately I work with people that have a sense of optimism, realism and acceptance that there’s still a lot of work to get Pittsburgh to where we aspire to be. But if you never celebrate the successes, you miss a lot. We like to do that. This is exactly how a startup has to think. It’s good to recognize early milestones but you have to remember that there are so many milestones to go an it’s important to realize that you have to get there.
Q: Where do you see the future of your industry?
I do think that as a whole, we do have to figure out what our next message is, which is why what I do continues to be exciting and interesting. We have to figure out a new way to talk about Pittsburgh. We used to talk about the transformation from our past to our updated version. We have to reset the clock in exactly the same way. We’ve gotten to a basecamp, but now what is the summit? There are many paths, but we have to figure out which path is going to have a better outcome.
I think that the whole Amazon HQ concept has been an amazing kick in the pants for so much of the tech community because it gives us something to shoot for. It’s helped us reimagine what the next leap forward could be. In our future, I think there is some leap like that – may or may not be Amazon HQ2 – but the opportunity for Pittsburgh tech to have a huge leap forward and grow is something to aim for. So what do we need to put in place to get there? Amazon gave us a gift, whether or not they come here because it’s a huge motivator for people to imagine something big, and bold and shiny. We’re going to go for that, whatever that is.
Thanks Terri for taking part in our interview! As mentioned in this blog, IW has a full event schedule, and if you’re interested in joining in the conversation, check out their event page and follow them on social media to stay connected!