Tolstoy, tech and why Happy Valley is the #1 place for startups today

03/08/2022

Five questions with Ben Franklin’s John Sider

 

John (far left) briefing Governor Wolf and Steve Case when the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund visited Central PA a few years ago.

For the last 8 years, John Sider has been an innovation matchmaker, pairing growing companies with capital to get them to the next level (he also led Ben Franklin’s effort in creating the $11 million venture capital fund 1855 Capital based in State College). This spring, he’s been promoted to vice president of business development at Ben Franklin, focusing on strategic initiatives and external partnerships focused on growing resources for the organization and its clients.

He’s fiercely rooted in Central PA — “My skin would fall off if I left this area,” he says — and lives for those hard-won mountaintop moments that entrepreneurs strive for. He talked to us about the one thing ever successful startup has in common, solving Happy Valley’s brain drain, and why this spring’s tech events are not to be missed. Read on!

John Sider

HappyValley Industry: What’s your motivation, or your WHY, for being such a champion for innovation and startups in central Pennsylvania? 

Sider: My family has been in Central Pennsylvania for 12 generations. I suspect if I left Central PA my skin might fall off. My WHY is really the energy I draw from the founders and teams of our more than 100 portfolio companies. 

Ben Horowitz wrote a fantastic book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things that talks about the absolute grind as well as the absolute mountaintop experience founding a high growth technology company can bring. 

This book is spot on — I see the entrepreneurs we serve, with everything on the line, doing literally heroic things to win customers, hire talent or attract investment on a daily basis. I am genuinely inspired by their courage and resiliency and if there is something our team can do to ease that load, man, does that feel good!

HappyValley Industry: What do you think all successful tech companies have in common?  

Sider: I think it was Leo Tolstoy that wrote “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In my experience, I’ve noticed that thriving companies tend to have these common attributes: 

  • Capable and resilient leadership that combines passion for their company and industry
  • Decisiveness to quickly make things happen in today’s market
  • Learning from past failure
  • Humanity when managing people

On the flip side, there can be thousands of things that create existential problems for tech companies whether it be a cash crunch, a market shift or a pandemic. We anxiously worked alongside our companies in 2020 when they were facing all of those things at once and I’m thrilled to say the vast majority of the leaders of our companies proved incredibly capable and resilient. 

HappyValley Industry: Your new role will amplify initiatives and partnerships in the area — how will this solve pain points for local startups? 

Sider: A good example is our relatively new Ben Franklin Job Link program, with talent scout Mary Kay Williams. We want to ensure that new and recent graduates know about and can be super easily connected to exciting jobs with innovative, growing technology companies right here in Happy Valley. 

"I see the entrepreneurs we serve, with everything on the line, doing literally heroic things to win customers, hire talent or attract investment on a daily basis. I am genuinely inspired by their courage and resiliency and if there is something our team can do to ease that load, man, does that feel good!"

In addition, we and our partners on the project, The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, see a real opportunity to attract remote tech workers to this region that offers so much in the way of outdoor amenities and affordable cost of living. We are doing a specific campaign that focuses on Bellefonte.

This initiative started three years ago but wow, did this tight labor market and remote worker revolution turn out to be the right time to roll this out! 

HappyValley Industry: Why Happy Valley? What are the benefits of existing here in the Happy Valley ecosystem?

Sider: There has never been a better time to start and grow a business in Happy Valley. The breadth and depth of new resources available to entrepreneurs in the region compared to ten years ago is amazing. Look at all that Penn State has invested in Invent Penn State, most recently that beautiful new entrepreneurial resource on Burrowes Street.

The — amazingly — FIFTH Invent Penn State Venture and IP Conference is coming up April 28th and 29th and will crackle with the energy of close to a hundred startups and 50 or so investor groups and a lot of breakthrough technology. 

"There has never been a better time to start and grow a business in Happy Valley. The breadth and depth of new resources available to entrepreneurs in the region compared to ten years ago is amazing."

1855 Capital, a venture capital fund founded in State College in 2018 has now invested $3.5 million in 14 regional companies, five of which are HQ’d in the Happy Valley. 

There is a new angel fund, Alleghenies Angel Fund, just down the road in Altoona that is getting ready to raise Fund II. Todd Erdley’s energetic leadership of the Centre Region Entrepreneur Network ensures founders can lean on each other as a resource but also have fun together which is much needed for these high stress jobs. Our partners at the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program, CBICC and the Penn State Small Business Development Center have also brought online fantastic new programming and staff. Ben Franklin is going to work closely with all of these groups to serve and elevate the entrepreneurs of this region like never before.

And if you are someone who wants to work in tech whether you are graduating soon, mid-career change, newly credentialed or even remote worker, and you haven’t checked in with Mary Kay Williams at MKW5034@psu.edu or 814.360.9337, you are missing some great opportunities right here in Happy Valley!

Live, Work, Play…Happy Valley!

Happy Valley Industry is the voice for innovation, research and industry in the Happy Valley region of Central Pennsylvania.

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