Why iiED’s Chuck Erickson loves working with startups
For many entrepreneurs, learning to pitch is one of the first hurdles in their startup journey. At Startup Challenge Monterey Bay, participants spend weeks working on presenting their ideas before competing in the Otter Tank for prizes and opportunities.
But what happens next?
According to Startup Launchpad mentor Chuck Erickson, a lot.
“We take these people, we teach them how to make a pitch,” said the Silicon Valley veteran. “So they go out and get started, but now they’ve got to hire people and they have to fire people and they have to find suppliers and they have to find space and they have to do all these things. And it’s one thing to talk about it in a PowerPoint slide, it’s another thing to have to do it when your feet are on the street.”
Erickson is currently involved with Startup Launchpad, an incubation program for startup founders that offers mentoring and advising, access to workshops, referrals to resources, assistance in obtaining funding, and professional connections.
Startup Launchpad is one of several programs organized by the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development (iiED), an institute of the College of Business at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB).
Many Launchpad participants are Startup Challenge participants who wish to continue benefiting from iiED’s resources and connections. In Erickson’s experience, once startups get initial funding and support, many founders need additional support with an entirely new set of issues.
“It suddenly goes from being exciting, to a bit terrifying,” he said. “Every day is changing radically. They’ve got to figure out how to make a business and how to make it work. And the messy stuff, hiring people, firing people, dealing with investors, dealing with board members and customers, especially an irate customer.”
Erickson’s Road to Mentorship
When it comes to mentoring and coaching startup founders, Erickson has a long and consistent record.
“My background or experience with [starting businesses] is I’ve learned a lot of things not to do, and I’ve helped others,” he said. “While I was in incubation, I helped more than 150 companies get started. I don’t count them unless they’ve been in business for more than three years. I’ve helped raise about three quarters of a billion dollars in startup capital”
Born and raised in Chicago, Erickson started his career as an engineer working in electronics. He worked on a variety of projects, including color television, the magnetic tape recorder, and electronic calculators as well as the space program and government contracts involving the space program and atomic bomb testing.
After he helped develop the first electronic calculator with Victor Comptometer, Erickson moved to Pennsylvania to work with the Italian company Olivetti on similar products. As the company expanded into electronic typewriters, Erickson ran manufacturing operations, as well as the design and development operations for that company all around the world.
When the Italian government shut down Olivetti’s international operations, Erickson worked on successfully turning a company around, and then began working in computer and internet security.
Erickson founded and sold three security-related companies for a reasonable profit over the next three and a half years. He then accepted offers to turn companies around or close them and sell the assets.
I had a number of interesting ideas around [internet security] that I started, found some people to initially buy the product, then quickly found somebody who wanted to buy the company,” said Erickson. “And so I started up three companies in the period of three and a half years and sold them. So, which paid off the mortgage on my house pretty nicely.”
During this time, one of Erickson’s colleagues suggested he get involved with an incubator in San Jose.
“I didn’t know what an incubator was,” said Erickson. “So I went down and interviewed with the guy who was running it at that time and thought, well, this was really interesting. And started working with a couple of the companies there and realized it was really important because these poor guys have no clue as to how to start a company or what’s going to happen once they do.”
When the director retired six months later, Erickson stepped up to the plate and served as Managing Director from 2009-2019.
“I was hired to take it over and run the incubator,” he said. “In a relatively short period of time, we won some very nice awards from the National Business Incubator Association, because we had some of the most successful programs going on. And it’s been a hoot ever since.”
Involvement with Startup Challenge
Erickson was running the software business cluster in Silicon Valley, as well as assisting with the environments and international clusters when he heard his colleagues in Marina wanted to start a business incubator.
“My partner helped formulate or put together the issues of financial plan and stuff to start an incubator in Marina,” he said. “And I was asked over, later on, to help some of the companies down there help with the teaching of an entrepreneurial plan. What do you do? How do you do it? How do you raise money?”
Startup Challenge began in 2010 as the Monterey Bay Regional Business Plan Competition, created by the Marina Tech Cluster, a business incubator located at the MBEST Center in Marina.
Today, Startup Challenge is an annual competition for new businesses that teaches, coaches, mentors, networks, and connects entrepreneurs to the knowledge and resources they need to succeed in the marketplace. After weeks of workshops and mentoring, participants pitch their businesses to judges in the Otter Tank. This year’s competition will be held on April 28, 2023.
“We came up with this idea of starting a business plan competition to try to encourage local people who had an entrepreneurial bent or thought they did and wanted to try to get a business started to enter into a business plan competition, ” said Erickson. “And that worked.“
During the first few years, the Challenge received 30-40 entries. They did not have a lot of money to give away. When Erickson was asked to participate, he jumped in.
“I got asked to help promote it, judge it, and work with people in it,” he said. “And I met a lot of really, really smart entrepreneurs from that event. And then CSUMB wanted to participate in it as well.”
When the Marina Tech Cluster closed in 2013, the Challenge moved to its current home at iiED. Deeply invested in the program, Erickson continued to participate.
As Erickson’s involvement in Startup Challenge grew, he realized a serious issue— the participants were not trained to pitch. While they could talk about themselves and their business, they lacked the ability to introduce a clear business problem to which their business presented a definitive solution.
“The advantage of the pitch is not only that you’ve got slides that you can present, but rather when you sit down on an airplane with somebody or you’re at a cocktail party with somebody and they say, what do you do? You want to tell them in a way that gets them interested and excited and potentially could become a partner, could be, know somebody who could become a partner, could maybe invest in the thing.
Erickson addressed the issue by designing a ten-slide pitch deck to use in the incubator.
“After we had it, it worked really, really well. And then after we had the first round with everybody in it, we had the next people who were in it and we created this slide deck that was called in it to win it. And once again, I was asked to author the deck, which I did. And it’s been just a hoot ever since.
Since he became involved in Startup Challenge, Erickson is impressed with watching the competition change and evolve.
“It’s gotten much more professional, obviously more organized. I think overall the Institute does a significantly better job and probably one of the best jobs of many, many of the communities that I’ve been involved with. I was on the board of the international business incubator for a number of years. I’ve never seen anything as good as what we’ve got right now in the iiED.”
Erickson still loves working with entrepreneurs to develop or improve their pitches. During Startup Challenge, he and other mentors conduct sessions on pitching.
“We teach how you write a pitch, how you do a pitch. I do about 15 minutes or so of basically a pitch that says, this is what you should have in it and these are the things you should be doing with it. And this is what works and this is what doesn’t work.“
According to Erickson, iiED and Startup Challenge have helped create a sustainable startup community in the Monterey area.
“I think that the program is providing a base of not only education but kind of a pool of intellectual knowledge around starting up companies,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more people involved in startups today in the Tri-County area, dramatically more than what we had when this thing started.”
The Institute runs several entrepreneurial programs throughout the year, in addition to Startup Challenge and Startup Launchpad. Startup Factory invites students and the community to form teams and build a business over a weekend. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and community members interested in local business news flock to Startup Monterey Bay Connect meetings on the second Tuesday of each month.
“From the standpoint of the entrepreneurs, their community is becoming far more aware of the concept of startups and startup companies,” he said. “ And CSUMB is right at the heart of that. It’s right at the forefront of that. I think it’s an incredibly important adventure. It’s taken a while to get it where it is today. But it’s growing and it’s growing fast and it really has contributed a lot of entrepreneurialism into the community. People know it exists now.”
The Joy of Mentorship
During his time working with new startups, Erickson has enjoyed working with a diverse selection of founders and loves mentoring and working with people new to startup culture.
“I love it because I’m working with people who are half my age, four times my intelligence, and 10 times my energy level,” he said. “I mean, it’s just really good people. They get excited about it.”
Erickson also spends time teaching fledgling founders how to plan financially for their projects, providing them with an outline and tools to help them ask for money and plan. According to Erickson, Launchpad is crucial for supporting businesses in this post-pitch stage of development
“How do you forecast what your expenses are going to be as you’re trying to start your company? How do you build a three or five-year financial plan? How do you figure out how many people you’re going to need, how do you figure out how much space you’re going to need? So when you go out and talk to an investor, banks, or FFF money,—family, friends, and fools— how do you do that, and how do you do that concisely? With a lot of spirit.”