A Midwest Entrepreneur's Ride from Idea to VC Funding

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By Katie Hill (Founder, Commuter Advertising) Started with an Idea on a Train in Chinatown

The idea for Commuter Advertising came to us on a "L" train in Chicago coming back from a White Sox game. The train stopped at Chinatown and it dawned on us, "Wouldn't it be cool if a restaurant could distinguish itself by broadcasting a message that would pull people off this packed train and into their restaurant." At the same time, the Chicago Transit Authority was facing funding challenges so it seemed like a good way to get money into transit and a viable new business venture.

We voluntarily left our jobs in the midst of the worst economic crisis in 30 years

Leaving wasn't easy; I loved my company and my role as a technical manager at Arc Worldwide, an affiliate of Leo Burnett. Friends and family thought I was nuts to leave a corporate job two weeks after the stock market went bust. But I was encouraged by the three-year contract we had just secured with our first transit client, the Greater Dayton RTA, in Dayton, OH. With a lot of passion but no guarantee of revenue we moved our business and our life to Dayton. I'll never forget collecting our first check for the new media product we created. Even better was getting our first renewal from an advertising client and the sense that it's working. The Biggest Struggle was Funding

One of the biggest challenges we faced was finding capital - a process that took more time and energy than we anticipated. We were hesitant about VC at first because in the Midwest startup community the culture is really about bootstrapping and doing it on your own. VC can be seen as big and bad and overly sophisticated and we were regularly advised to avoid that path. We managed to secure key investments from friends and family at key points that kept us afloat but we knew we needed more capital to execute a fast-growth model.

The SBDC in my community told me about a non-profit organization called Springboard Enterprises that was running a venture capital forum for women-led businesses. I wasn't sure about the investment focus but applied anyway and was excited about the opportunity.

Thinking Big

I participated in the Springboard AllThingsMedia Venture Forum in the summer of 2010. From the first day of the Springboard program, they pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me how to promote myself. My coaches were amazing; I couldn't believe the amount of time they spent with me and how honest they were with their feedback resulting in a total overhaul of my pitch.

Around the same time, we won the University of Dayton Business Plan competition which led to an invitation to the DFJ-Cisco global business competition. Through that competition, we met our venture partners, Draper Triangle Ventures. Talking to them, I realized they weren't so big and bad like we had been warned. They were entrepreneurs themselves, with invaluable experience and a vision for Commuter Advertising that aligned with ours. It was a great fit and we closed a deal with them in March 2011.

The Future is Super Bright

Now, at Commuter Advertising, we are starting to set our sights internationally where there is a huge opportunity for us. Springboard was instrumental in forcing me to think global and 'play with the big girls' and I could not have come so far so fast without my Springboard experience, mentors and supporters. I tapped into their network at least a dozen times, as my VC deal took shape, resulting in fair terms that position my company and me for success. Now that we're funded, we are turning a page and executing ideas we've been planning for a long time. If all goes as planned you'll soon be able to hear, or even better buy, an audio message on a bus or train near you.

Deadline to apply for the Springboard Enterprises 2011 Venture Forum is May 2, 2011.

Interested companies are encouraged to review the guidelines and submit an online application here. Email questions to Katie Gage at programs@springboardenterprises.org.

About the guest blogger: Katie Hill is Founder of Commuter Advertising, an innovative transit media company that delivers relevant location-based media while contributing to sustainable public transit. Previously, Katie led technology development projects for domestic and international clients at Leo Burnett. Katie graduated from Illinois State University with a B.S. in Marketing and is currently an MBA Candidate at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.