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Club E: Networking Group Supports Twin Cities' Startups

Club E

Rick Brimacomb

A year ago, David Harig introduced his company, Change Lane, at Club E, a monthly gathering of entrepreneurs started by venture capitalist Rick Brimacomb at the venerable Minneapolis Club. Change Lane, which will use roving mobile trucks to provide at-home oil changes, is targeted to be operational this fall in the southwest metro. Harig, 37, admits he was intimidated the first time he went to a Club E event at the stately club. “You walk into that place and it’s so hoity-toity that you ask yourself, do I even belong here?”

But after attending a few sessions, Harig says he realized that all the accomplished business people in the room had been in his shoes at one time. “Every one of those guys was a 30-something once and walked into that club for the first time, so thinking about that helped me relax,” he says. “It isn’t about the status in this old-world men’s club environment; it’s much more about the innovation, determination, and drive of those entrepreneurs. The people who come to Club E are living in the here and now.”

Brimacomb started Club Entrepreneur six years ago, with an eye to helping business builders, startups, and emerging companies find a place to develop productive business relationships, and walk away with a bit of actionable content and knowledge. Well known in Twin Cities’ business circles, he’s been making a name for himself with some angel network successes. An inveterate networker, Brimacomb took a look around the Minneapolis Club, where he was a long-time member, and saw a problem—and an opportunity.

Learn at lunch, act that afternoon

“Whenever I heard anyone talking about business, it was CEOs talking about economics and treasury policy, very high-level sort of stuff,” he says. “I wanted to add some value for people who are in the trenches, something you can learn at lunch and then put into action that afternoon.”

Initially Club E was a volunteer effort, run solely by Brimacomb, who says, "I originally thought it would be like the CEO groups that my venture fund, Sherpa Partners, was doing for our portfolio companies, but it’s clearly grown into something well beyond that." He decided on a monthly format, with time for networking and lunch, followed by a guest speaker on a designated subject.

He started small. Like, lonely small. "The first year, the biggest audience for any of the events was eight people, and that always included a couple guys who were only there because I had called that morning and begged or twisted their arms," Brimacomb says. But the Minneapolis Club thought he might be onto something, and they asked him to stick with it.
"The second year, I began to send targeted meeting announcements to individuals I thought might be interested in the monthly topic. It grew the attendee count, but it was time-consuming." He began to access some technical tools to streamline his efforts, including an email-marketing database and a LinkedIn group.

Slowly but surely, attendance built. These days, events usually push 150 attendees and often sell out. "I'm afraid we're going to start growing out of the meeting space. I have to admit, back in those days where we could all fit at one table, I never thought that would happen," Brimacomb says with a laugh.

Harig, for one, is enthusiastic about Club E, because of the entrepreneurial support it provides. “There really hasn’t been a launch pad focus here, the way there is with Silicon Valley incubators. We do have some things like CoCo, but we need more,” he says. “It takes years to build a business, and you’re by yourself, grunting it out for weeks, months and years. So it helps to connect with someone who has already walked that path, who can say, ‘Hey keep going, keep with it.’”

Beer, tech, pitches, connections

One recent event included a locally brewed potable, Shot Beer. Greg Pomerantz, a consultant who describes his job as “helping entrepreneurs bring their new products to life,” met the beer manufacturer’s management at a Club E event, added them to his client roster, and then, with the Shot Beer team, convinced Brimacomb to allow product sampling at a monthly meeting.

“People have lots of beer options, but their two favorite kinds of beer are free and cold,” he laughs, adding that the sampling was such a success that even six months later, people still introduce him as “Club E’s beer guy.” That’s fine with Pomerantz, who keeps returning because “every month, I meet at least one new person who is smart and interesting, and I always learn something from the speakers. I really respect what Rick’s doing with this.”

Muhammad Abdurrahman, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Minnesota and a Club E veteran, recently traveled to Munich, where he presented his product, Reemo (which stands for wrist remote action), at the Wearable Technology Conference. “It’s a product that allows you to use gesture control for electronics,” Abdurrahman explains.  He created Reemo out of a desire to find a truly useful device to help his father, who has suffered a series of debilitating strokes. It allows users to control such items as lights, doors, and window shades with a simple gesture.

Reemo has been receiving plenty of buzz, winning first-place and audience-choice awards at the University of Minnesota Business Pitch Competition. Abdurrahman was recently named a winner of the AgePower competition to improve senior care. He also received a University of Minnesota Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award last year.

So why does this young hot-shot still show up at the Minneapolis Club once a month? “Rick spoke at the University’s Student Entrepreneur Club, and I really wanted to get to know him, because I think a lot of developers and inventors don’t take the time to learn about the ‘other side of the table’ and venture capital,” he says. “After my first few funding pitches, Rick told me I should come to Club E and learn how people connect directly, not just virtually. He’s really transitioned himself into a connector and communicator, working as a catalyst, which I think is quite brilliant, actually.”

Coming up on the Club E roster is the wildly popular 20 x 20 Pecha Kucha event May 1. These sessions allow presenters just 20 image slides, at 20 seconds each, to get their point across. Recent Pecha Kucha topics have included the nonprofit art exhibition space The Soap Factory; microgrants, biorefineries' future economic boom, and the “stress bomb” epidemic; sunken treasure as an investment opportunity, and the art and science of terminating employees. On the slate for May are the nonprofit theater group Youth Performance Company and the ClearCause Foundation.

“Something for the next century”

Brimacomb has some thoughts as to why, six years later, Club Entrepreneur is an overnight success. "We've been lucky enough to attract people with good energy and attitudes, so it's really productive networking,” he says. “Also, I try to find speakers who will provide not just interesting content, but something of value. On the practical side, the Minneapolis Club lays out a fabulous lunch, provides parking and charges only $25, so the value seems high," he says.

He opines that one key to the success of the grassroots group is what might be called the Jewish mother factor. "I've been told that I'm a pretty good matchmaker," Brimacomb laughs, "and I know there are several successful business relationships that began at Club Entrepreneur."

Harig describes Brimacomb as coming “from a conventional venture capital background, but he’s a kindred spirit to many of us, in the way he believes in taking chances on things that didn’t exist before. That’s a rare thing to find today, and I don’t think there are any other venture capitalists in Minnesota who embrace that spirit the way Rick does.”

In the end, though, what can possibly come from a bunch of people getting together for lunch and talking shop? You might be surprised, says Harig. “I feel like something weighty and monumental will come out of Club E. It’s like being part of something for the next century, and I love feeling like I belong here.”

Julie Kendrick is a freelance corporate, interactive and editorial writer, and a frequent contributor to The Line.
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