Movers & Shakers: Ed Buchholz on coming back to northeast Ohio, mentoring young entrepreneurs and exploring Metro Parks

overs & Shakers: Ed Buchholz

On the home page of his personal website, Ed Buchholz describes himself with the line, “I love to help founders and build cool stuff,” and he has the résumé to match. A native of Wooster, Ohio, Buchholz has founded three different companies, worked in San Francisco and Chicago and now works as a mentor and advisor to startups in northeast Ohio. With 20 years of experience, he has plenty of advice, cautionary tales and good memories that he now uses to help young entrepreneurs follow their dreams. We sat down with Buchholz to talk about how the pandemic has changed his work, how he spends his spare time and what he wishes he knew when he was a young entrepreneur.

You’ve had so many titles in your career — how might people know you right now?

My primary focus is a nonprofit that I started along with a few other people called Start in CLE. It’s a grassroots organization of startup founders and the people who support them. We have just over 500 startup founders here in northeast Ohio — from Sandusky to Willoughby Heights down to Wooster. We’ve been on hiatus, but before the pandemic, we were holding events, including a monthly founder dinner. Overall, we’ve had 48 events with a few thousand people. We’re really excited about that.

How has the pandemic changed your work?

A lot of things have moved online and virtual. I think we’ve reached the point now where a lot of people are having Zoom fatigue. The idea of joining another virtual happy hour is painful to a lot of people. Just like we always have, Start in CLE as an organization is ever-evolving and we’ve started to bring an educational, one-way communication aspect to it with a YouTube channel we started called Running out of Runway. The goal is to take the lessons that I typically communicate as part of my mentoring of young entrepreneurs and bring that to scale.

Do you see any of the pandemic-related changes being permanent?

I think existing startups are really starting to understand that they don’t necessarily need that office space. Or if they need an office space, they don’t need one as big. Maybe they can primarily use it for meetings and sitting down with customers or collaboration, but maybe their staff can be 90% remote. I think that realization is hitting larger companies as well.

We look at Google and Facebook and Twitter and go down the list. They’re hiring remote employees for the first time. They’ve been very averse to doing that, but now they’re really thinking about it. I think that’s the future.

Why is it important for young entrepreneurs to have a mentor?

I’ve mentored over 100 startups and entrepreneurs over the last five years, mostly in northeast Ohio. What I like to really impart to them are the lessons that I’ve learned. After doing this for 20 years now, it’s amazing the lessons that you will read in a book but then still not follow through on. Sometimes, you have to actually burn your hand on the stove to learn your lesson. I think it’s important to have a mentor that can not only help you understand what is happening and what you should do, but also be there for you when you mess it up.

And not every mentor is a good fit. I’ve seen a lot of mentorships where it’s a person saying, “I ran a division of a public company for 20 years, let me tell you how to run your three-person startup that’s trying to raise $100,000.” That person has valuable experience, but is it directly applicable to your company? Probably not.

What have you found that every entrepreneur should prioritize?

One of the biggest things that I focus on is mental health. I think that is increasingly a priority in our broader startup community, and it’s spearheaded by those who are really open about their struggles. That’s extremely brave because it is a bit of a stigma, just like failure in a startup. The difficulty of mental health for a startup founder is usually taboo because it’s perceived as a weakness for whatever reason. When I’m working with young companies or even serial founders, that’s one of the biggest things that I focus on.

It’s important to separate your personal worth from your business and have an understanding of what you’re sacrificing to advance your business and your career. It’s not that you shouldn’t do it, but you should understand those trade-offs.

Did you fall victim to the same struggles early on?

After doing this for 20 years, my joke is that I don’t really remember my twenties. I basically dedicated 80+ hours a week to either working on someone else’s startup or my own. My wife and I got married when we were 22. I don’t remember very much of that first decade because I was usually working.

It’s a shame that that’s the expectation. It’s not necessarily bad, but I don’t think it’s noble either. So helping young entrepreneurs to understand those trade-offs when they are going through this process of starting a business is really important.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments?

The first product I ran is now owned by Paychex, a fairly large payroll provider, and is still used by tens or hundreds of thousands of users daily. It’s exciting to have that many people benefiting from an offering that I designed and helped build. Most of my career has been in financial technology with the goal of helping improve the lives of users to make their day easier and their work experience better. Everybody hates expense reports, so the idea of making those more simplistic, easier, or maybe completely automated is an incredible help to people who have to go through that.

I think demystifying those aspects of finance is really important to improving the life of that business owner. All we have is time, and the less time we can spend on annoying tasks, the better our lives are going to be. Empowering that, whether it’s for a startup founder, a small business owner or just a regular person, is really what I’ve been focused on.

How did your childhood shape your career?

I was born and raised in Wooster in a lower-middle class family filled with business owners on both sides. While that is not necessarily a bad life, the ability that I’ve had to change my life and generate wealth for investors and others is entirely unique to a software startup.

One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in my dad’s office playing Legos while he was trying to cut invoices for customers. That is very formative for me. A lot of what I do is very oriented around helping that type of person be able to spend less time on those aspects of their work and more time with their family or doing the things that they love. That really informs a lot of what I’ve done.

What made you want to return to Cleveland?

Northeast Ohio is home to me. I think many entrepreneurs and business people who have moved back here want to be around family, and I think it’s incredibly important to advance our region and our community. When I sold my company, 60mo, I was living in Chicago at the time and I was fully remote, so I thought “Why would I not move home?”

What I learned is that I wanted to focus on building our community, so that was really what I viewed as my calling in coming home. I think the region has a lot of potential. We have great people, whether you’re talking about the cultural side of being Midwestern or our really incredible talent sources in universities and businesses that can grow great staff. I think building and advancing that is the key going forward.

What are some of your favorite northeast Ohio hobbies?

The biggest thing that I think a lot of people underestimate in our region is our parks. Especially during COVID, but even before that, I spent a lot of time in Lorain County parks and the Cleveland Metro Parks. The number of trails and nature that we have available within a five-minute drive is amazing. I think that’s an incredible asset that we really are very lucky to have. I also love the food in northeast Ohio. We have this incredible melting pot of all kinds of cuisines, styles and experience in restaurants.

What’s your single best piece of advice to an entrepreneur?

Don’t hide from others. Spend as much time as you can with others who’ve been in your situation and are going through what you’re going through. Not only from a support perspective, but from a learning and a reflection standpoint. Sometimes watching someone else go through the same thing you are going through will inform you about how you can do things better or how you should not feel as bad as you do.

I think a lot of founders become very insular when they’re trying to start a business. They don’t want to talk to anyone and they’re afraid their idea is going to be stolen. No one wants to sign an NDA to hear about your new startup idea. You should be really getting your idea out there as often and as frequently and as loudly as you can so that you can develop it. You can hear feedback and grow. Don’t try to run this marathon alone.

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