112: Mary Louise Helbig (ITEN)

Mary Louise Helbig on Innovation City

“[When working with startups] I’ll take the guy who hits the single every time he gets up to bat versus somebody that you’re waiting for to hit a home run.” — Mary Louise Helbig

Welcome to Innovation City—powered by Venture Cafe—where Tyler Kelley and Michael Johnson, Co-Founders of SLAM! Agency, interview innovators, creators, and disruptors to discover how business is changing in the modern world.

Created and produced by SLAM! Agency in cooperation with Venture Cafe St. Louis and Venture Cafe Miami, Innovation City gives you an inside look at how rapidly business and culture are changing thanks to increasing diversity and inclusion, heightened creativity, and a stronger and better-connected business community. Venture Cafe is the largest combined gathering of entrepreneurs and innovators anywhere in the world. Events are held every Thursday in St. Louis, Miami, and other leading innovation cities around the globe.

Today’s guest is Mary Louise Helbig, Executive Director at ITEN. ITEN provides programs for rapid development of scalable tech ventures, engaging experienced entrepreneurs to help others build successful, growing companies. Mary sits down with the team to discuss her passion for entrepreneurship, what makes a scalable business and what does not, the importance of the validation and proof of concept processes, what it means to be a successful startup, the future of ITEN, and much more!

They discuss:

  • Her early career experience working for an entrepreneur was what sparked her interest in working with startups
  • Her work experience has ranged from startups to corporate entities
  • What is ITEN?
    • A nonprofit organization that helps tech startups through the commercialization process.
    • The services are free of charge.
    • They work with the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem, as well, to help find resources for all entrepreneurs.
    • ITEN = IT Entrepreneur Network
  • ITEN focuses on working with scalable and innovative tech companies
  • What makes a scalable business?
    • Someone who is creating an application that solves a problem and can be used on a broad-scale (nationally or internationally) basis
  • What isn’t a scalable business?
    • Someone who creates something specific to their business needs and problems, but not really something anyone else could use.
  • ITEN success story: Label Insight
  • Seeing the homegrown successful startups in St. Louis is what makes ML excited to go to work everyday
  • Not every startup has to be a unicorn, as long as they are scaling up, bringing in jobs, and providing something useful, they are successful
  • A common challenge that Mary hears: “I can’t get access to money”
    • Mary believes you can if you understand what you have to do to validate and do your proof of concept and go through the stage gates in order to make the ask.
    • Understand when to make your ask to a venture capitalist
  • ITEN plans to focus on helping startups with the validation and proof of concept areas
  • What are you doing in between the idea and the prototype to make sure that your idea is truly a good enough idea to become a reality
  • Many tech entrepreneurs skip over this step
  • The top reason tech startups fail is because they didn’t validate the market need
  • The importance of talking to your customers and putting your product in their hands
    • Don’t try to sell them, just listen to them
  • There’s a difference between real customers and friends who are customers
  • Looking to the future for ITEN:
    • Focusing more on validation and proof of concept areas for startups
    • Looking at ways to get access to funding for startups needing to create wireframes or prototypes
    • Being a better “welcome wagon” for tech entrepreneurs in the St. Louis area
    • Looking to add a Navigator role to the team where someone would be paired with a new startup and help them find their way around the resources available in St. Louis
    • Start looking for gaps in the ecosystem to start filling them in and telling a more cohesive story for St. Louis
    • Understand how to cross-refer entrepreneurs to each other more effectively
  • ITEN is getting close to hitting their 1000th startup mark
    • Each year they work with around 75+ startups
  • If you have a tech startup idea and are not sure what to do next, reach out to ITEN
  • Reach out to ITEN on their website and sign up for their newsletters
  • November 1 – 9th is St. Louis Startup Week
  • November 6th is the Startup Connection event, an annual event for the startup community