At 43, Tom Ryan has started six companies focused on everything from craft beer to clean energy.
Through his successes and the inevitable failures, he’s always treasured the role of mentor to other fledgling entrepreneurs.
This year, he’s devoted himself to it full time as an entrepreneur in residence at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and Catawba Valley Community College, two of only five sites nationwide chosen to receive grants for the two-year position.
Ryan’s role is to work with people in the early stages of starting high-growth businesses in the western part of the state – boosting the entrepreneurial culture in an area where new ventures are becoming increasingly common.
In recent months, Ryan has expanded his reach in a podcast that offers hands-on advice to young entrepreneurs.
Josh Dorfman, director of entrepreneurship with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, says Ryan has quickly worked to help young business owners to become more focused and accountable, particularly as they seek investors.
He’s also worked to build networks where they can support one another throughout the process of launching and growing businesses.
“He’s part startup guru, part mentor and part organizer, and he’s helping many of our entrepreneurs truly understand what it takes to compete in a competitive, globalized marketplace,” Dorfman says.
Ryan grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He wasn’t a lemonade-stand child entrepreneur, but he says he did start working at a young age, first mowing lawns and then at a pizza place.
“When I look back, I didn’t always want to be my own boss, but I was always very fascinated by how businesses operate and how they make money,” he says.
His own career took what he calls the “crooked path” common to entrepreneurs.
By the time he finished college, he and some of his childhood friends had hatched plans to start a business selling specialty beers to a national audience.
This was in the mid-1990s, well before the current explosion in local breweries, and the friends thought they could fill a niche providing unusual beers to a national market. Their company started as a beer-of-the-month club, and grew to a broader e-commerce business.
After he left his first company, he took a job in corporate sales, which he says allowed him to build his skills as a salesman. He then started as a consultant with a small manufacturer that helped move him to Asheville.
Ryan first came to Asheville with his wife, a native of the town whom he met in Chicago. He fell in love with the area, but had a hard time persuading her to return. The way he saw it, Asheville already had natural beauty, but was also becoming a friendlier place for young families and entrepreneurs.
“Even then when I was 22 years old, I would tell my wife this place is going to be amazing,” he says. “She just didn’t see it.”
Once in town, he started companies focused on construction and real estate that failed miserably during the housing market crash. But he was soon on his feet again, this time focused on companies selling clean energy technology.
He has continued in several companies, though he’s now focused on his work at the community colleges.
Service was always a part of his life, partly through volunteer work at the YMCA, but also in working with other entrepreneurs, whether it’s as a mentor or just a sounding board for his friends.
“I might help give them perspective, but I also get a lot out of it,” he says. “It recharges my batteries.”
So he was immediately interested when he heard about the new community college role, which he got wind of as local leaders were seeking to land the grant from the Kauffman Foundation, a national nonprofit aimed at supporting entrepreneurship.
The idea of the entrepreneurs-in-residence program was to make the complicated know-how that helps businesses launch and succeed more widely available, to people outside of large universities and established business circles.
Ryan initially signed on with Asheville-Buncombe college, but shortly before he started, the project expanded to include Catawba Valley Community College as well.
I want to be a really good connector, multiplier, amplifier for the start-up community at large.
Starting his current job in January was, in a way, a lot like launching a company, Ryan says. He tried to focus on the three goals of coaching, fostering collaboration and spreading the word to the public of what these companies are doing.
“I want to be a really good connector, multiplier, amplifier for the start-up community at large,” he says.
While his background in business might seem an odd fit for community college, he credits both schools with allowing him to operate somewhat independently.
“We need to have that nimbleness to operate at the speed of a startup,” he says.
The process is systematic but casual. Most of the business owners he works with come through referrals, often through the colleges’ small business centers or other programs.
Applicants fill out a brief questionnaire to make sure their needs fit the program’s goals, and Ryan sits down with them to chat about the obstacles they’re facing.
From there, he might counsel them or connect them with other resources and programs geared toward particular issues, such as scaling up or selling their idea to investors. His service is tailored to each individual.
“They don’t need to be wasting time on things that don’t turn into value,” he says.
He’s had 40 referrals so far to the program, which is free, and is working with a core group of 15 companies.
He’s been impressed with the caliber of companies. For just a sampling, one is developing new financial tools for organic energy markets, while others are creating educational technologies, medical devices and web applications.
While the companies are diverse in focus, their needs tend to be similar: finding revenue, selling their product, spreading their message.
The podcast, which he records in a basement studio in his home, arose from the kinds of information he found himself repeating again and again in these conversations. The weekly show covers a diverse array of business topics.
“There was a lot of redundancy there, and I wanted to get those answers out to the widest possible audience,” he says.
One of the lessons entrepreneurs must learn is among the most difficult: Failure, for the most part, is part of the process. Ryan has seen it in his own career and seeks to prepare others for it.
“You’re continually evolving and you’re pivoting and you’re reinventing yourself and you’re trying things and not all things work,” he says. “You learn a lot about failure, and if you can embrace that, it’s really liberating.”
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Born: January 1972, Glen Ellyn, Ill.
Career: Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Asheville-Buncombe Community College; Founder and managing director, Energy Investment Partners
Education: B.A. business management and psychology, North Central College
Family: Wife Twyla; children Avery, Caden and Audrey
Notable: Ryan says he didn’t always want a life as a businessman. For a while in college, he took courses aimed at majoring in sports psychology.
Learn More: Listen to Ryan’s “Success in Business” podcast at http://successinbusinesspodcast.com.