Published: Dec. 9, 2019 By

This semester, I’ve had the pleasure of growing and iterating on one of our flagship programs, Startups & Sandwiches. What started as a desire to get the university to fund my addiction to gourmet sandwiches has evolved into an opportunity for students to have lunch with the founders of some of the coolest companies in our backyard. 

The premise of each of these events is simple: a local founder joins a group of roughly 25 interdisciplinary students, both grad and undergrad, for lunch at Leeds. Each founder is tasked with telling their story, doing some Q&A, and, if time permits, posing a question to the students in the room. Beyond that loose framework, we give founders the floor for an hour and let them have at it. 

Here’s a glimpse at what our students have learned from our fantastic guests this semester. 

startups and sandwiches leeds school of businessIan McGregor, Skratch Labs

In our inaugural event of the semester, we invited Ian McGregor, CEO of Skratch Labs, to join. Skratch Labs makes hydration and recovery drink mixes targeted towards performance athletes, and is based here in Boulder, Colorado. Ian’s background as a bicycle-racer-turned-businessman well embodies his passion for helping to steer a company rooted in sports performance products. After an injury left him unable to compete, Ian eventually joined his old coach and friend Allen Lim at Skratch, taking the reigns as CEO. 

Ian’s talk instilled some of the classic tropes one expects from an entrepreneur, like figuring things out on the fly and focusing heavily on culture at the front-end. With no formal background in business, Ian demonstrates how an entrepreneur has to be adaptable and willing to continuously learn to build a company from the ground up. 

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Ian’s talk was his candor in what it takes to scale a company. Skratch started out as a drink mixed prepared in Allen’s garage, and has grown into a product sold at cycling shops and REI’s everywhere. Their decisions on who to do business with and how to fund the company have allowed them to carve out a unique brand image and company culture—calculated risks that have fortunately let the company thrive. 

Greg Stroh, Stroh Consulting 

Greg Stroh’s name may ring a bell for a few reasons. For one, his family’s namesake, Stroh Brewing Company, invented the 30-rack. After its demise decades ago, what was the son of a beverage mogal to do but start his own beverage company? Thus, the second reason his name might ring a bell: Greg is the co-founder of Izze, the lovable natural soda company he and his partner eventually sold to PepsiCo. 

One thing Greg made clear in his talk—the natural foods industry, particularly beverages, is not an easy game. He mentioned that before $20 million in revenue, it’s unclear whether or not a product is a fit for acquisition, let alone whether it’ll be a long-term success. He’s also sold a second company to Hershey that was shelved, showing that an exit may mean giving up the vision for the product entirely. 

In his latest venture, Greg’s taken his knowledge of the beverage industry and turned to consulting, helping companies pre-$5mil in revenue grow and scale. He brought in a case of Howdy Beer, his latest client, asking students pointedly what they look for in a craft brew. One thing is clear—when you’re competing for shelf space with 8,000+ other microbreweries, moving a new line of pilsners isn’t easy.  

startups and sandwichesMark Hansen, Topo Designs 

Walking around a college campus like CU, it’s difficult to miss the vast number of students sporting the colorful, unique backpacks and clothing designed in Colorado by Topo Designs. For our final Startups & Sandwiches of the semester, it only made sense to bring in one of the co-founders behind the brand that’s exploding in popularity with our students. 

Mark’s story embodies the quintessential entrepreneur. From teaching elementary school students to doing field biology work, Mark’s varied career eventually lead him to meet his co-founder at a production company. Finding a shared love of backpacks, his co-founder began to experiment with sewing some himself, and Mark realized he could sell them. 

Mark utilized the audience in the room to the fullest, putting them to work throughout the lunch and asking them to think through questions about brand identity. How does a brand create a perception of value? What about quality versus price point? As Mark’s questions were answered around the room, so, too, were the students’, as he told his brand’s story through these lenses. 

The story of Topo Designs shares much in common with Skratch—building a product literally out of a garage and eventually growing it into a sustainable business. Though spanning different industries, each of these entrepreneurs has found a way to figure out what they don’t know in order to succeed and thrive.

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