“Founder Friday” is a weekly series that profiles founders and entrepreneurs connected to The Ohio State University. Today, we are featuring Jay Clouse, a graduate of Fisher College of Business, and his company, Unreal Collective. Read how this entrepreneur is actually focused on other founders.
Tell us about your business or organization.
Unreal Collective is a community for founders and freelancers. Our flagship program is a 12-week, online accelerator to help those founders and freelancers reach a major milestone.
We also allow individuals to join the community itself and produce guides to help people navigate some of the technical sides of running a freelance or startup business without the intensity of a hands-on program.
Outside of Unreal, I produce and cohost a podcast called upside about startup investing outside of Silicon Valley. Every week, we interview a pre-Series A founder in an area outside of Silicon Valley and break down the opportunity from an early stage investing perspective. Sometimes we interview institutional investors and community builders as well.
Why did you decide to take a leap and become a founder? How did you reach that decision?
When I was an undergrad, I became enamored with entrepreneurship. I started an online marketplace for students, interned for startups and ran the Business Builders Club at Fisher College of Business.
So it was always there as the path I wanted to take. Right out of college, I joined as employee #1 at a startup based in Cincinnati called Tixers. I was given ownership in the business and worked as the COO of the company; we raised nearly $400,000 in startup capital and were acquired in 2015.
It was such a great experience — but exhausting too. So after Tixers, I joined a venture-backed startup, CrossChx. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I really missed the autonomy of working on a startup or my own business.
So in April 2017, I made the jump back out on my own and started Unreal Collective.
How have you had to develop your leadership skills as a founder? What leadership lessons have you learned through leading your organization?
With my current business, Unreal Collective, I’m a one-man team most of the time. And while I’ve had interns from time to time, leadership to me comes down to leading myself — which is its own challenge.
When you’re a solopreneur, you are only responsible to yourself. And so it becomes absolutely critical that I can create systems and mechanisms that push me to push myself and deliver on the tasks and timelines I assign to myself.
Specifically, I’ve learned a lot about prioritization, understanding my own personal capacity, how to empower and inspire others and how to say no.
It’s come through a lot of trial and error — I’m constantly “looking back at the tape” as if I’m an athlete. I want to make sure I’m honest and realistic with myself and acknowledge both the areas that are going well and not going so well. To grow, it’s about growing your strengths and learning from your weaknesses.
Describe a success that has been made possible through your leadership skills.
The biggest example of success for me has been my ability to grow my business in multiple facets simultaneously.
Just two years in now, I’ve been able to serve 75 individuals through Unreal Collective, build an online course catalogue on Linkedin Learning/Lynda.com, publish a weekly podcast called “upside” about startup investing, write a weekly newsletter and serve as entrepreneur in residence with Smart Columbus.
I wouldn’t be able to do nearly that many initiatives to the level that I have without being excellent at prioritization and time management. But even while having such a divided focus, I’ve built a sustainable business without needing to ever dip into my personal savings.
Based on your experiences as a founder, what is the most important leadership trait that founders must possess? How did you foster that trait in yourself?
This is tricky to articulate — but it’s finding the right balance between being very welcoming of feedback and listening to your instincts.
Most founders will fall on one side of the spectrum or the other, but the magic is really found in the middle. You can find product/market fit and build a business so much quicker and easier when you are very attuned to your customers and listening to their needs.
You can really improve your product or service quickly when you’re seeking out feedback from those who have experience with it.
But at the same time, founders are (by definition) doing something that isn’t already being done. And so there is no blueprint or roadmap of how to make everything work.
This is where a founder really needs to listen to his or her instincts and know when to follow them if they are in conflict with the feedback he or she is receiving.
In my experience, this comes from practice. In the past, I’ve really erred on the side of feedback, and now I’m making it a priority to take more risks by following my gut and taking more of the unknown paths.
What other advice would you give a current or future founder about leading others?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for building your organization. Leading others starts with creating a fit between the individuals and your company culture. The company culture comes from you, the founder.
So, be sure that you are “hiring” the right people who fit the culture, whatever it is. And “hiring” may be enrolling people into your mission or movement, even if you are not directly employing them.
Then play to your peoples’ strengths. Some organizations are built around people who need a ton of specific direction and that’s what they prefer. A lot of modern organizations are built around people who crave autonomy and the ability to make an impact.
In the case of those people, loosen the leash. Trust that you’ve built the right culture, hired the right people and get out of their way. Allow them to feel the connection and sense of pride and ownership they crave.
Often, the small edit or criticism won’t have as big of a positive impact on the final product as it will have a negative impact on the person who did the work. When you change their baby, it will no longer feel like their baby. Is that worth it?
Is there anything else you’d like us to include in your profile?
To me, there is nothing more fulfilling than building a business and life of your own design. It doesn’t have to be a complicated, huge, or world-changing idea if you don’t want it to be. It’s never been easier to start a business and monetize the unique skills that you have. If you’re drawn to being your own boss, I highly recommend it.