After graduating high school in 2000, Bobby Zappala went off to Duke University and everyone figured he was gone from Pittsburgh for good.
But a career in politics, working in Washington D.C., proved unfulfilling to him.
"I wanted to do things that changed the world…or whatever," he humbly laughs. "I got a little sick of the political theme. I was disenchanted by the way the federal government operated and decided I would rather go into the private sector, make some money and do something good with it…generically speaking, have an impact."
He always wanted to do something that mattered, he says. He grew up in what he calls "the investment banking generation." "They weren't doing anything that mattered expect lining their pockets, and they were already rich kids," he says with chagrin.
After D.C. he chose to return to Pittsburgh permanently and establish his roots, entering the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2006. Everywhere he went he saw new residential, commercial, and retail development happening around town. "A lot of interesting physical growth was happening." It was a different Pittsburgh from the one he left, and it was something he wanted to be part of.
"I'm a second generation Italian American. My grandparents came here from Italy and ended up in Pittsburgh because of my grandpa's multi-lingual abilities, working in sales in the steel industry," he says. "There's a lot of Pittsburgh pride in my family, and that's pretty important to why I'm back here now."
He ended up working in corporate law at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a large law firm that employed 600-700 attorneys that was headquartered in Pittsburgh. It was during this time that he and his friends started throwing parties on their lawns as fundraisers and FUN-raisers to get to know other people in the increasingly vibrant community. "We were all looking for new networks and to find out everything that was happening in the city," he says. "The benefit of Pittsburgh is the size – everyone is two degrees from everyone else."
By the time he graduated law school in 2009, about 1,000 people were attending their parties held a few times each summer, so they decided to incorporate as a nonprofit. They donated the money they raised to charities like the UPMC Hillman Center for Cancer Research.
"We weren't going to cure cancer though," he reflects, so they changed their strategy to catalyze more of that vibrant, entrepreneurial energy they were seeing in the crowd. They started charging $20 for the day-long event that had live bands, beer sponsors and food trucks. "It was a fair price for a fun Saturday, and all the money raised in excess of covering costs we would invest back into early stage startup ideas in Pittsburgh."
, as it would eventually be called, has since grown into a week-long music and innovation festival with over 11,000 attendees, more than 100 speakers and 50 strategic planners, 40 live music performances, over 35 innovation-focused programs, and a dozen host locations.
In talking with a friend from San Francisco, Luke Skurman – co-founder of Thrill Mill and founder of College Prowler (now Niche.com
), the second-most trafficked site for college guides next to U.S. News & World Report
– Zappala heard Skurman's experiences seeing other entrepreneurs who didn't have the resources to grow their ideas. "It became clear to us that there's just a gap there, and with our backgrounds we could develop these entrepreneurs who were looking at Pittsburgh as a place they could stay and build their ideas, versus college students coming in with the intention of leaving."
In their first round of their business plan competition in 2011 – "Business Bout," as it was called – they raised $5,000 and received 125 applications from all different industries, from restaurants to technology.
"These were really smart, talented people, and, even more than money, they were really looking for people to help them," says Zappala.
He remembers being asked, "If you had real grownup money to do this, what would you do?"
Of course, they thought it would be cool to throw these parties for a living, without thinking that would actually happen. "We also really wanted a physical space to bring in these entrepreneurs and these really hungry people to an environment where we could help them and corral them."
So they pitched the largest foundations in the city seeking funding to support Thrival and their business incubator concept Thrill Mill
in a significant way. "Our goal was to make the party into a real festival that is a platform everyone in the city can participate in and be a part of. We wanted to build the music component because that's a draw for people."
They received $750,000 in funding from an anonymous donor in November 2012 and Zappala, initially as the sole employee, was able to focus full-time on building the festival and creating a startup incubator space for their entrepreneurs. Now the festival has $3.5 million in private foundation funding, corporate sponsorships, and proceeds generated through the festival. They are also approaching its fourth cycle of applications for Thrill Mill, a 5,000-square-foot space in East Liberty, a neighborhood that was once the third largest commercial area in the state before the steel industry collapsed and poor urban planning killed the neighborhood. Now hundreds of thousands of square feet are being redeveloped in the neighborhood, including Google's office in Bakery Square, a former Nabisco factory.
"We wanted to be somewhere we could define the area culturally and have it be a place where entrepreneurs could define what they wanted to do and get help," Zappala says. Their building is now the location of three different incubators and accelerator programs, and they have received another $1.25 million from the Hillman Foundation to expand their space an additional 10,000 square feet and add a coworking element.
Thrill Mill continues to refine their strategy and determine the best way to attract and help early-stage startups, and they don't follow the rigid structure of traditional incubator programs. "We don't really define the time they're here. There is no, 'Your three months is up, good luck.'"
They're also very focused on having a wide diversity in the types of companies they bring in, anything from venture capital-ready investable software startups to local retail shop concepts. They also work with healthcare tech and education-based startups, triple-bottom-line social ventures, and nonprofits.
"Our theory and belief is that at a certain stage everyone is facing the same fundamental issues," Zappala explains. "We see a lack of attention to the basic financial modeling a person needs, and we end up with people who can't even create a basic spreadsheet of projected cash flow. Sometimes you have to have the tough conversations with people. It can't all just be cheerleading and unicorns."
It is very important to the Thrill Mill team that the companies they bring on board share in the spirit of "rising tides raise all boats" and are willing to work with
, and not against, each other.
"They're all in a collaborative space together. It's helpful for them to get ideas from each other, get different perspectives. It's important that we have people who understand the value of idea sharing. We don’t want someone who is uncoachable. You have to be cognizant of why you're bringing someone into a collaborative work environment. We try to curate that well and it creates a better community that way. We see a lot of 'failed' teams that still end up in the startup ecosystem because of their willingness to work together."
For this fourth round, they are reducing the number they bring in at the beginning in order to better help all of their startups.
"We brought in 13-15 startups historically, but half of them just needed some guidance and didn't need the space," Zappala says. "This time we're just going to select four to six then help the rest once they're really making progress, need space, need financing, then
we bring them in. We're going to hold back the bullets a bit. We can't expect that come December 18, the initial deadline for the next application cycle, everyone is in the right position to take advantage of our resources; it's foolish."
This allows Thrill Mill to offer a tailored approach to each company, then, once they've reached a certain point, connect them to other resources, other accelerator programs, other stakeholders that they are now in a position to work with to accelerate their trajectory.
"We have become very much a connective tissue in the Pittsburgh startup scene. We have identified really strong partnerships with industry leaders. Our goal was to look at the whole Pittsburgh spectrum – where do we have good resources for startups and where do we have gaps, where can we be helpful acting as a bridge to the stakeholders. If part of defining success for startups as part of this ecosystem is to see big wins happen it's going to take time and it's going to take critical mass so that we're doing everything we can to help them succeed."
For Zappala, Pittsburgh's greatest strength is its collaborative spirit and the feeling that everyone is in this together. "There's no sulkiness from 'competitors,'" he says. "We actually do have a great environment here of helping each other. Raising the profile of one [company] is recognized as a massive benefit for everyone. It's a different time for Pittsburgh. It's a little bit of a humble town, but we are a pretty damn good example of a post industrial city where we can make a big splash.
'You don’t need to be a city of 10 million people to make an impact."
Urban Innovation Exchange is presented in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, click here and follow @UIXCities.