Posts Tagged: starting a business

Go Big & Stay Home: Andy Stoll & Amanda West

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Photos courtesy Seed Here Studio

There’s a fine line between inspiration and intimidation. It’s so easy to look at super busy, super successful entrepreneurs and think, “Wow, look at them go!” And “I could never do something as awesome as that.”

But we call bulls#*t.

There are a lot of hard parts to being an entrepreneur, but the hardest is probably mustering up the courage to take the leap. Once you’re in it, you learn, adapt, and realize that those super successful entrepreneurs – they’re just like you. They don’t have all the answers. They don’t have any special business-owner DNA. They’re just people with ideas they wanted launched into the world. (Sound familiar?)

“Our definition for entrepreneurs is: someone pursuing an idea/opportunity/passion/ambition without regard to their current resources,” says Amanda West, co-founder of Seed Here Studio and Iowa Startup Accelerator (to name just a couple). “That’s to say, people who are going for it, even though they may not (and usually don’t) have all the knowledge, network, team, or capital to fully realize the potential of their idea.”


Amanda’s co-innovator/creator/conspirator is fellow Iowa City-based colleague, Andy Stoll. In addition to co-foundingSeed Here Studio – a program design, media, and events agency with a community mission – and helping launch theIowa Startup Accelerator – an intensive program that helps take tech-based startups from concept to successful launch in 90 days – Andy and Amanda have an ever-growing list of accomplishments in both life and work.

AmandaWaveFor real – let’s list!


• Launched a student engagement program called The 10,000 Hours Show that went on to be acquired and expanded by United Way Worldwide
• Worked for several years post-college with Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class) and The Knight Foundation to support mid-size cities around the country with their creative community building effort
• Is the current director of EntreFEST
•  Is the outgoing Project Lead for The Creative Corridor Project
• Is the co-founder and outgoing CEO of Vault Coworking – check this quote from the Vault manifesto:
“Gather your supplies, get a kick in the pants, and keep moving this city forward. We’ll grow what has been planted here, and we’ll take it to the next level. We will rebuild, reinvent and redesign and change the world in the process.”

2014 EntreFEST, Downtown Iowa City, May 14, 2014


• Recently completed a 4-year, 40-country, solo trip-around-the-world
• Co-taught and helped design a social entrepreneurial course at the University of Iowa in collaboration with faculty member David Gould and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh
• Helped produce media projects ranging from a web series on world magic to award-winning feature films
• Worked as the creative director for a new media endeavor following adventurer Charlie Wittmack’s 10,000-mile World Tri
• Designed and authored the travel filmmaking curriculum for MatadorU
• Is a sought-after speaker on leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, cities, community-building, entrepreneurial ecosystems and travel (TedX, UI commencement speech, to name a couple)

The two friends met while in college at the University of Iowa in the early 2000s. Both were part of the group of dreamers and social do-gooders that founded The James Gang, the Iowa City non-profit organization behind projects such atThe 10,000 Hours Show, Public Space One, Mission Creek Festival, the free wireless Internet in downtown Iowa City, and lots more.

PrintNow in their mid-30s, Andy and Amanda could easily be considered a couple of those intimidating entrepreneurs we talked about earlier. But don’t be fooled – they’re still just people. And they’re native Midwesterners, to boot, so you know they’re nice too.

“We both wholeheartedly care about our mission and try to genuinely live out our values,” Amanda says. “We share a no-holds-barred sense of possibility and have a similar eye for BIG ideas, great design, and world-class production. We also have consistently different perspectives and very different skill sets and personalities. After working together for a decade, we’ve learned to trust and respect each other’s differences.”

Teamwork and collaboration is, in fact, vital to their projects’ success. Really, Amanda and Andy believe all entrepreneurs will have a much better chance at success if they employ the skills and resources of like-minded partners.

Print“One of the great benefits of working in Iowa is if you want to get involved with things at the highest levels, even if you’re young or new to the community, you simply have to raise your hand, let people know, and be willing to work with it. In my experience, people will help you,” Andy says.

It’s this notion that drives the direction of Seed Here’s current focus: EntreFEST.

EntreFEST, Iowa’s entrepreneur conference set for May 20-22, 2015 in Iowa City, is geared toward small business owners, high-growth startup teams, innovators inside large existing companies, ecosystem builders…you get the picture. This year’s attendees will get to check out keynote speakers such as Jacquie Berglund (founder/CEO of Finnegans Inc.), Trevor Owens (Lean Enterprise), Ben Milne, (founder/CEO Dwolla), and have the opportunity to seek out mentors, funding, and even new team members through this networking-filled event. You never know who you’ll meet.

“I love that Iowa is a one-degree state. If you want to connect with anyone, you are not more than about one degree away. It’s easy to access the top leaders in nearly every field, industry, community, and build genuine relationships,” Andy says.


2015 marks the 8th year for EntreFEST, and the third year that Seed Here Studio’s been behind the production. In the last two years, it has doubled in size and scope (twice), with another increase of that size anticipated for this year.

It makes sense; it’s the era of the entrepreneur! Folks are taking a look at the ways we’ve done business over the decades, as well as the current issues facing our world, and thinking there must be other ways to live, work, and affect change.

“Our society is ready for and needs a fresh approach and true/big problem solvers,” Amanda says. “Couple that need with access to a global network of people, knowledge and inexpensive tools to create with, and what we get is a growing number of empowered problem solvers setting out to make the world a better a place.”

Are you one of those people with an idea you’re waiting to launch? Now is the time!

“In the past 10 years, entrepreneurship and creativity have really been democratized, especially because of technology. If you have an idea in your head of something you want to create, the barriers of entry have just collapsed,” Andy says. “It has never been easier to make an idea happen and to find a global audience. There is no better time to start than today.”


Literally, you should probably start today. The 2015 Iowa Startup Accelerator (ISA) is accepting applications through June 2. ISA is an intensive program that matches tech-based startups – especially those in ag, health, education, manufacturing and transportation technology – with world-class mentors, Midwestern work ethic, seed funding and development expertise to take them from concept to launch in 90 days.

“The application process is competitive. Only 10 teams go through the program each year,” says Amanda. “Those teams get $20,000 of investment, a network of mentors and resource providers, training in Agile project management, lots of instruction on lean startup building, and a sweet office.”

EricAccording to Amanda, the program was practically willed into existence by their friend and fellow entrepreneur Eric Engelmann (pictured at right). Engelmann founded his software company, Geonetric, in 1999 and recently made a bold move to transition his company to self-directed teams, removing all middle management.

“That freed up some time for him, and when he saw Brad Feld from Boulder talk about TechStars at an event in Des Moines, he found his next project,” says Amanda. “From there he was off like a bullet train, and it’s been an amazing ride.”

The very first round of teams went through the Iowa Startup Accelerator last year, and everyone’s expectations were met or exceeded.

“From the know-how and tenacity of Eric and our program manager, David Tominsky, to the quality of the mentors, to the progress of the businesses, to the relationships of the founders to each other, to the investments that came immediately after the program, everyone was very happy,” says Amanda.

But even if you don’t have a tech start-up idea, or you don’t want to go through the intense – albeit amazing – process of ISA, you should still “trust your crazy idea.”

“There is a growing entrepreneurial community around Iowa and if you can plug yourself into it, you will find resources, moral support, and encouragement that will help you get your idea off the ground,” Andy says. “Surrounding yourself with other entrepreneurs is the fastest way to become one.”


Andy and Amanda should know. Last year they had the opportunity to travel with Steve Case, founder of AOL and Revolution, through the Rise of the Rest road trip – two bus tours to nine American cities including Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville Madison, Minneapolis, Des Moines, St. Louis, and Kansas City. They met with “hundreds of founders, CEOs, investors and civic leaders, heard dozens of pitches, and invested $1 million to foster emerging startup ecosystems in America’s heartland.”

Andy and Amanda joined Steve Case for pitches at SXSW in Austin this year, and will hop in on another Rise of the Rest road tour for 2015.

“We went across the Midwest on this tour to learn about and cheer on growing entrepreneurial ecosystems. This movement is everywhere, and the cities that will be the Silicon Valleys of tomorrow are forming right now,” says Amanda. “I see this shift as a great moment in time. It’s definitely the era of the entrepreneur/innovator/creator, and it seems we’re only getting started.”


Aryn Henning Nichols is totally agrees that it is, indeed, the era of the entrepreneur… and it’s gonna be awesome. Aryn actually knew Andy in college, and had a blast learning about all of his latest projects with his “partner-in-crime”, Amanda. See you at EntreFEST, folks?


8th annual EntreFEST
Iowa City, Iowa • May 20-22, 2015

EntreFestWhy you should go:
• Feedback for EntreFEST 2014 in downtown Iowa City was so positive, organizers have chosen to host an even larger version this year.
• All three public Iowa universities – University of Iowa, Iowa State, and University of Northern Iowa– have joined forces for the 2015 event.
• Iowa City is awesome.
• We (Aryn & Benji) are going to be there. (Hey, totally worth mentioning.)
• Of course, amazing keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and fun parties!


Iowa Startup Accelerator
Applications open through June 2, 2015

Print“Heard of the Midwestern work ethic? You’ll experience it first hand here at the Iowa Startup Accelerator. From the minute we hit ‘go’ we’ll all be working around the clock with you to make your business work. Make no mistake. If we pick your team, it’s because we believe in you. Be ready.” Eric Engelmann, managing director Iowa Startup Accelerator.

Tips from co-founder Amanda West for applying:
Entrepreneurs with early-stage scalable companies should apply. Last year, we received applications from all over the world, and we expect the same and more this year. My best advice to companies applying is to get a jumpstart on your customer discovery and minimum viable product. If you have a prototype to test and have already started talking to customers, you’ll stand out much more. If you can, I highly recommend you go through a pre-accelerator program like the University of Iowa’s Venture School. That program walks you through customer discovery and designing your business model canvas and serves as a great introduction. With that knowledge in your pocket, ISA can help you get much farther to launching by the end of its 90 days.

Trust Your Crazy Ideas: Danielle Ameling + Iron Leaf Press


Trust Your Crazy Ideas print by Danielle Ameling, of Iron Leaf Press

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Fall 2013 Inspire(d)

Ossian, Iowa, native Danielle Ameling trusted her crazy idea and started her letterpress and design business, Iron Leaf Press. Turns out, it’s a winner.

Everybody knows we love a good entrepreneur around here. Starting a business is… dare we say… inspiring!

It’s damn hard too.

The first step is, obviously, a really great idea. The next? A really great plan.

So to help build a fire under everyone’s collective bums, many cities and states are hosting business plan contests. To enter, you submit your great idea, all laid out and ready to go in a plan that says “I could start this tomorrow”. Winnings range from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars to more abstract – but equally helpful – booty like free rent and business consulting.

IronLeafPress_danielleSuch was the case for Ossian native Danielle Ameling (pictured at right – photo by Michael Wagler). Her business, Iron Leaf Press, won free rent for two years – plus support services and a utility stipend – through the 2013 Project Bright Idea Business Plan Contest.

Project Bright Idea was created by a group of volunteers partnering with Lisbon-based Moon Eye Ventures. It was created to encourage regional entrepreneurs to take the leap and get their plans on paper, with a goal of luring new startups to fill in vacant downtown buildings in Mount Vernon and Lisbon.

Iron Leaf Press, a custom design and letterpress studio – in business since 2011 (although Danielle started printmaking in 2007) – has now set up shop in the grand prize: a completely renovated, 1,000-square-foot historical building in downtown Lisbon, Iowa. Danielle has moved in her three presses – the Nolan proof press, a Kelsey 6”x10” tabletop platen press, and a Chandler and Price 10”x15” platen press – and has been busy making all sorts of cool stuff from invitations to posters to packaging to business cards. The only real printing stipulation: It should be flat. In addition, Iron Leaf Press provides graphic design and branding services. It’s a business that’s been a long time in the making for Danielle.


Above photo by Studio eM Photography

After graduating from South Winn High School in 2005 and from Grand View University in Des Moines summa cum laude with a degree in graphic design in 2009, Danielle worked at Main Street Iowa, then as a graphic designer at Cedar Rapids-based RuffaloCODY. But she had other ideas in the works. Really great ideas. (Remember: That’s the first step.)

“I’ve always been crafting, painting, and drawing since I was a kid,” she writes. “I really enjoyed drawing lettering in particular and that eventually led me to graphic design.” Which eventually led her to printmaking which then led her to letterpress and finally to Iron Leaf Press.

We caught up with Danielle via email this summer (2013). In between runs on the press and helping run her boyfriend’s fiancée’s farmers market beignet stand, Sweet Dee’s (for which she developed the branding), she managed to share some of what’s inspiring her now and some strategies for starting a new business and entering a business plan contest yourself.

Interested in doing just that? Check out the listings at the end of the article for some business plan contests in the tri-state area.

Q&A with Danielle Ameling, founder of Iron Leaf Press

What’s inspiring you right now?
Everything and anything really. I particularly enjoy vintage typography and illustrations, especially vintage packaging. I usually get inspired by my surroundings and friends. At one point I decided I was going to host a show called “Fun with Paper” (a la Sheldon Cooper) after trying to describe the difference between text and cover weight paper to a group of friends (paper nerd!). A lot of the greeting cards come about from off the cuff comments in these discussions. (ed. note: one of her cards reads: “sh*t happens when you party naked”.)

I also am a member of both the Ladies of Letterpress and the Amalgamated Printer’s Association. Both groups have some amazing printers and I continually am inspired by the work that they put together.

View More:

Photo by Jen Madigan Photography

Why letterpress?
Letterpress, for me, is a way to be creative not only in the design, but in the production. I like being able to work with clients on special projects – those that have a very personal impact. I also really enjoy the challenges of working through production. Using antique printing presses can create their own challenges, but I like being able to have that control over the end product.

I create the majority of my greeting cards using hand-set type, which is a challenge in itself. Each letter is a separate piece of metal or wood type and must be locked in place or the type will be “pied,” meaning the type will fall and have to be re-set. It really makes me appreciate how much skill and craftsmanship went into printing in the past.

Beyond all of that, the machinery related to the printing field (especially those in the late 19th century) are amazing feats of engineering and technology. It’s amazing to know that I can produce these items with this antique machinery, and currently all of my equipment runs on NO electricity (other than my computer). Everything is human powered.


Photo by Jen Madigan Photography

You’re kind of a jack-of-all trades, design-wise. What else do you do? (Or should we ask what DON’T you do?!)
🙂 I do work on a lot of different projects. The main projects I focus on are commercial and social stationery including invitations, notecards, business cards, packaging, posters, and greeting cards. I also do logos and branding. I can print on most things, as long as they are flat, so there are many options out there – I’ve even printed on boxes and gift bags before.

In addition to the custom and commercial work I do, I have a line of greeting cards and paper goods that I sell online, at art/craft shows, and in select retailers.

I have some experience doing email and web design (I take care of those for Iron Leaf Press) but that’s really the only design area that I don’t do a ton of work in –I’ve always been more of a print designer.

Out of all that, what’s your favorite?
I think my favorite projects are the ones where I get a chance to really connect with the recipient. Hearing the story on how a couple met for a wedding invite or how someone is looking for a gift to celebrate a promotion, etc. – the stories behind the pieces are always fun for me.

Tell us about the business plan contest process.
I had participated in the Dream Big, Grow Here regional contest back in the fall (run by University of Northern Iowa’s MyEntre.Net). I didn’t end up winning, but that helped propel me forward into pursuing Iron Leaf Press more full time. I had been on the lookout for a larger studio space to add some larger equipment and heard about Project Bright Idea in Lisbon. Each applicant had to provide a detailed business plan (prior to winning this space, everything was in a small room in my second-floor apartment). The committee met and reviewed the applicants (I wasn’t privy to this part of the process so I’m not sure all of what happened behind the scenes). Eventually Moon Eye Ventures wanted to meet with me and discuss my business plan and goals. I met with them a few additional times and they ended up choosing me for this space.

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Photo by Jen Madigan Photography

Advice to others who want to start their own business? How about others who want to enter a business plan contest?
Keep your chin up and keep moving forward. Throughout this process I kept asking myself if I was crazy – especially once I bought my largest press that weighs in at over 1500 lbs – but I bought it anyway. If you believe in your business and it is a passion, you will find ways to make it work.

Also be sure to surround yourself with people that love and support you with your crazy ideas. My family and boyfriend and friends have been extremely supportive and that makes a huge difference. Meeting with other business owners is a great resource as well. They know the type of things you are working through and often have ways to help you grow.

Specifically with business plan contests, plan your business like you are going to win. Make your plan show exactly how you are going to use the winnings and how it fits into your overall goals. Be confidant, but humble. For someone to “buy into” your business, they are just as much buying into your personality and demeanor.


Aryn Henning Nichols is also a paper and print nerd. Wouldn’t it be fun to print Inspire(d) all old-school? Okay, maybe just one. Okay, maybe just one cover. Oh wait! No need; it’s already done. You can buy those at! Seriously, folks: trust your crazy ideas!

P.S. Danielle says the Printer’s Hall in Mt Pleasant, Iowa, is worth a visit for any print inclined folks. “It has some amazing printing equipment, including a machine that lines paper – that’s all it does (in the past it would do mostly ledgers) but it looks similar to a giant weaving loom.” The old Ossian Bee printing press is also there, as well as the lock up for the last front page it printed for the Bee. “It runs off a steam engine and is a wild machine.”

Got a Great Idea? Make a Plan. And WIN!

Dream Big, Grow Here / NE Iowa Business Network
Deadline: Current contest deadline has passed, but stay tuned and start planning for the next round!
This is a grant contest is open only to Iowans.  Dreamers compete online for votes for a shot to win a $5,000 regional grant, and then become eligible to further compete for a chance to win a $10,000 grand prize to be announced at EntreFEST 2015.

Wisconsin Govenor’s Business Plan Contest
Deadline: 2015 deadline has passed, but stay tuned and start planning for the next round!
The mission of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest is to encourage entrepreneurs in the creation, startup and early-growth stages of high-tech businesses in Wisconsin. Finalists will share in more than $100,000 in seed capital and in-kind services. Since its inception in 2004, nearly 2,300 entries have been received and about $1.5 million in cash and services have been awarded.

The John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers Iowa Business Plan Competition
Deadline: June 20, 2015
The plan must be an original idea for a business in operation for four years or less or have not yet reached cash flow positive financial status. The principal business operations of the business must be located in Iowa. One Grand Prize Winner will receive $25,000 and, in addition, recognition of their work on the website for the competition. ($15,000 for Second Prize and $10,000 for Third Prize.)

The Minnesota Cup
Deadline: May 8, 2015
Since 2005, the Minnesota Cup has attracted over 7,000 entries and is now the largest new venture competition in the country. This program is for Minnesota’s entrepreneurs, inventors and small business people. It is for those individuals or early stage businesses that are pursuing their dreams and working on their breakthrough business idea. Prizes range from $5,000 to $40,000.