In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Leonard Firestone, Fort Worth District 7 Councilmember, discusses the goals of the City of Fort Worth’s newly-founded entrepreneurship and innovation committee. He speaks about the challenges entrepreneurs face, and how the City of Fort Worth is thinking about promoting business and entrepreneurs.
Firestone is the chair of the committee, and an entrepreneur himself. He is the co-owner of Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. This conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Seth Bodine: Tell me about the entrepreneurship and innovation committee, what is the goal? And how are you involved?
I’m the chair of the committee. It was really Mayor (Mattie) Parker’s idea to lean into economic development through entrepreneurism and innovation. And so she created this committee and asked me to chair it, which I’m grateful for and excited about. I think that’s important for people to know that Mayor Parker wanted to do this. And I don’t know if any other city in the country has this kind of committee at city government.
It’s been interesting, because the way it was originally designed as a typical committee was a chair, and then other council members that would make up the committee itself. And then staff support. My feedback to her was, if we really want to make this valuable, and bring ideas to City Hall, we should bring in people from the private sector. And she said, “Great, do it. Let’s get those folks around the table.”
So, I managed to wrangle about, you know, 14 or 15 people from all different areas of the community, to be on the committee to get different opinions, different experiences, and life lessons from being entrepreneurs and a lot of business leaders. I think that kind of insight for entrepreneurism is really beneficial, right? Because being an entrepreneur is coming up with ideas and solving problems and breaking paradigms. So, I thought that was a good way to approach it.
We’ve had, I think, now four meetings, and we’re hitting our stride a little bit and, and in a way we’re, I think shaping what we think we can achieve. One of the goals was to certainly not be kind of a think tank, but really a group that could identify actionable items and bring those to fruition.
What we came up with was what we thought was some of the low hanging fruit. One of those pieces of fruit would be as a city, we don’t do a great job telling our story to a broader audience. We do it locally. Through local reporting, we track new businesses that come. But a lot of the really significant things that bring a lot of economic development to the city just go untold. What I discovered, or the committee discovered, was the city has never had a public relations firm that’s representing it for business. I, in fact, from my days as an entrepreneur in starting TX Whiskey (we) worked with Visit Fort Worth, and in turn their PR firm out of New York. And so we invited that firm to come present themselves and it turned out that they represent several cities around the country, Miami being one that’s doing some very progressive things. We liked very much what they had to say about how they could tell our story. And, you know, I’m very pleased and proud to say that, we got them hired and engaged. And immediately they went to work.
And a couple of weeks after we engaged them, Mayor Parker announced our mining of Bitcoin here from City Hall. That story got hundreds of publications, and we’re actually going to get a debrief on it next week, in terms of all the media outreach and kind of the cumulative reach that that story gained.
Notably, she was on Fox Business Channel with Stuart Varney telling that story. That’s just an example, she can tell that story, and then also pivot to what else is happening in Fort Worth.
Fundamentally, the thesis that we came up with as a committee is we need to be working on things that affect the culture of entrepreneurism in Fort Worth. Right? And you do that by talking about it, and educating people in terms of information about who’s doing what here, who’s moving here?
Just three weeks ago, we had a couple TCU graduates come in and talk about their work in studying, what’s happening here. Out of that data we learned too many kids are graduating from here and leaving. We want to try to understand what the ecosystem needs to be from an entrepreneurial standpoint, and innovation standpoint. What are we not doing?
Bodine: When we’re talking about a public relations company promoting a city, how common of a practice is it for a city to buy into a PR agency to sort of promote itself?
I think it’s very common. I don’t know what cities have engaged in it, but I do know that you see a lot of mayors and city representatives on different media outlets. That’s just not coincidental. So there’s a big engine behind who ultimately gets a story written. That’s what I mean by that engine, where if a producer doesn’t know what’s happening in a given city, they’re not going to pursue that story. So I think it’s pretty commonly done.
Bodine: Was there any big lesson from that presentation looking into the data of the economy those TCU students gave? And what take backs do you have from that?
People love Fort Worth. They love the lifestyle here. It’s unique, and I think the data showed that as a big city, it doesn’t have that feel, but has the access to everything you would want in a big city. Things very approachable, but very unique in terms of our assets, from the cultural district to Sundance. What’s going on in the Stockyards is fantastic. Dickies is doing amazing things. So we have these assets that people really are attracted to.
Probably the weakest link in the ecosystem we have for an entrepreneur, is capital from venture to private equity. We have some for sure, but it’s pretty focused on energy. We need to do a better job at either bringing the capital here, or reaching out to where that capital lives, and have those venture firms or private equity firms invest in companies here. That’s a really significant issue.
Bodine: So remind me why funding local funding, such as venture capital matters for someone who wants to start a business?
Firestone: Well, it’s the first step. If you’re an entrepreneur, it’s very difficult to go to a bank and get a loan when you probably don’t have your first sale yet. So there’s a lot of risk. And that’s where private equity and typically even angel investment and venture capital are typically the first steps that are the high risk, high reward.
There are more of these ecosystems that exist on the coasts in New York, and certainly, Silicon Valley. That’s the biggest challenge when you have an idea and you want to bring a business to market is getting that funding that’s just not widely available. That was our experience in starting the distillery, friends and family got us going. Then we knew we had to raise a bit more to get the business really up and running. We got some local support. But ultimately, we had to go around the state and a couple investors out of state as well. It’s challenging, just to simply get money from your local community without the investment professionals there that might get on board.
Bodine: When you were first starting your business, were you surprised by the lack of funding that you had to go around the state to find that funding?
Firestone: Yeah, in a way we were. But it was fairly rational. I mean, when we presented our plan to make whiskey, bourbon, people asked a very valid question: How the hell do we know what you’re doing? There were misconceptions about the industry. In our particular area that we wanted to build in whiskey, it really had never been done here. So we had to educate a lot of people to get their support. But, you know, we’ve got a lot of doors slammed in our face as well.
Bodine: When you were first starting as an entrepreneur, what did you wish you had in Fort Worth in your local community? And how do you think as a chair of the entrepreneurship committee how would you plan on bringing those resources?
What ultimately helped us was, we were very thorough. And I think that helped us overcome some obstacles. That’s what I would certainly advise people, that you’ll probably get more support if you’re thorough.
We were making money very quickly and a success in all regards, but we made the decision to scale the business and really grow it and be a player in the industry.
So when we decided to do that, we had to go out for professional money, the friends and family, our small pool of investors weren’t going to invest at the level that we needed to build a new factory, essentially. The professional money really just was not here. So we had to go elsewhere to find it, which we ultimately did. That’s, again, the biggest point. Access to capital is critical for entrepreneurs. Back to the ecosystem of what we’re trying to focus on, and identify and take steps to, hopefully remedy: Attracting capital, attracting businesses and entrepreneurs, to come here and be confident that this is a community that’s going to support them in all ways.
Ultimately, I’m incredibly grateful to the Fort Worth community because they did support our business in ways that we could never imagine. Not just from buying the product, but it was, as we discovered, word of mouth very powerful marketing.
Bodine: How do you attract more funding sources like venture capital or angel investors?
Firestone: It snowballs. I think, again, it goes back to, you know, telling our story. People need to know that they can start a business and the city is going to help them. Because we have the resources to do it, that’s one of the things we’re working on is to make our resources from an education standpoint, particularly more available to people.
That’s from your neighborhood, and your local community. Giving people the knowledge, and hopefully the ability to do arger, more significant corporate recruitment and development process from an economic standpoint, economic development standpoint.
If we can attract from sort of the top, top down and bottom up, if you will, from the basic sole proprietor to Fortune 500 businesses, I think people begin to see an atmosphere here that’s very dynamic, and very welcoming. You add to that lifestyle and quality of life attributes that the city has, that’s a great combination of things. And so that’s what we want to get people more aware of, and then I think you’ll begin to see stories that are happening out of District 7, for example. Up at Alliance and Hillwood, particularly, really becoming a leader in mobility in innovation, autonomous vehicles, drone delivery, all those kinds of things that are very progressive.
And in that room, it was the first Innovation Summit, I think, ever anywhere. And there were several hundred people there, and you had entrepreneurs, you had venture capital, you had existing businesses that are emerging, and growing and actually working in these areas. That’s a really good example of an ecosystem being developed for a very specific purpose. So we need to tell that story. And I think that’s something that we’re going to be focused on, and they’re doing their part as well. But, you know, it’s all these different elements. And, you know, there’s no easy recipe that if you do this x you know, x and x and y, this will result, but it’s an investment of our time as city government and, and the investment that comes from capital to the entrepreneurs, to certainly our educators, right and preparing people to to embark on those kinds of careers. So all those things begin to align. I think you’ll really see some positive things.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.