Skyline Chili & Venture Capital
A 17,000 Credits Listicle
In January of this year I took a new investing role with a Venture Capital firm based in Cincinnati - Refinery Ventures. I am excited to be back in the world of venture capital and to get back into the business of helping technology startups bridge the gap between idea and hyperscale. There are a plethora of reasons why I took the role - a not-even-remotely-exhaustive list can be found below:
The Mission. At the center of everything Refinery does is the entrepreneur. While we are investors and this is a finance role, we are in the business of supporting founders and early stage employees. I have written about my interest in venture capital in the past, but the short version is that I think entrepreneurs deserve all the help they can get, and I think Refinery does an excellent job providing that in our own way.
The Region. I am extremely bullish on the Great Lakes / Midwest technology ecosystem, something else I have written about in the past. Refinery is well poised to help play a role in furthering that ecosystem for the betterment of all players. While we will invest in a company anywhere in North America, we love stuff in our own backyard.
The People. Tim, Abby, and the rest of the Refinery family are exceptional people to work with and learn from. I have known some of the Refinery folks for a long time and they have always been supportive and helpful whenever I have needed it. I have been blessed in my career to have been able to work with some smart, kind, thoughtful, generous, ambitious people over the years, and that’s no different at Refinery. Who you work with is where you work.
Of course, there is much, much more to it than that, but that’s just a small piece of what excites me about this role. However, the thing that gets me really psyched is the fact that I get to work for a world-class (if not today, someday soon) venture firm based in my hometown of Cincinnati.
From an early age, I developed a deep-seated desire to help Cincinnati be the best version of itself that it could be, in whatever way made the most sense. I genuinely love the town that I was raised in and I want to help pound the drum for how great of a place it is and could be. Of course, I don’t think I can do this alone, and I am not conceited enough to think I am great enough to make this happen by myself. However, if I can play a small role in the advancement of the Queen City, I will strive toward that end.
Within Refinery Ventures, I found a like-minded organization. Refinery can play a small part in this journey toward furthering Cincinnati excellence, helping to set an example for what venture capital could and should look like for the rest of the community. It can support some (not all) of our finest startups and help spur a perpetual startup talent dandelion effect. It can also play connector to other venture firms outside of the regions to local, early startups.
While all of that might sound crazy, conceited, childish or self-centered, it comes from a place of love. At my core, I love Cincinnati with all my heart and soul. I grew up here. I went to school at the University of Cincinnati. I met my wife, also a Cincinnatian, here in town. I love the Bengals, the Reds, and FC Cincinnati (even if they don’t love me). I know that deep down, we have the best Oktoberfest in the country. I have memorized (and summarily forgotten) Longfellow’s Catawba Wine. I went to my first concert along the banks of the Ohio River. I know the intricacies of the relations between our various communities (east side vs. west side, etc.).
One of the things I like the most about Cincinnati is the food. Sure we don’t have any Michelin Star Restaurants, but we do have an abundance of wonderful places to eat (Pepp & Delores, Sotto, Nada, Green Papaya, Zip’s Cafe, Ramundo’s Pizzeria, Price Hill Chili, Incline Public House, The Precinct, Dewey’s Pizza, Abigail Street, The Eagle, Mecklenburg Gardens, Graeter’s Ice Cream etc.) for all different types of meals.
Of course, we have one cuisine that is particularly Cincinnati: Skyline Chili. I could literally talk for days about my passion for my city’s finest Greek-Style Chili restaurant - and in some instances I have, to anybody that would listen. It’s a great encapsulation of what makes Cincinnati so wonderful: it’s friendly, unassuming, delicious, unique, culturally diverse, and can make pretty much anyone feel like they are home. On top of all of that, for whatever reason, it’s insanely controversial. Folks who have never had Skyline Chili swear against it, convinced it’s one long con. To them, it’s not worthy to be put in a pig’s trough, let alone to be served for lunch to a human. People who love it, well… I am writing a blog about it, after all. They buy t-shirts, have it served at weddings, and I am sure someone out there has a Skyline Chili tattoo.
Controversy this intense can be wonderful. In life, it shows that you are doing something right if people feel so strongly about something, regardless of direction. It’s also great because it creates a flashpoint, a lightening rod, on which many great conversations can be started. I love asking folks from out of town their views on Skyline Chili because their responses give me a view into who they are as a person. But I also just like talking about it, simply because it is unique. Much like Venture Capital. *subtle segue* Venture Capital and Skyline Chili are similar in a lot of ways, actually.
How Venture Capital is like Skyline Chili:
No two Skyline’s are the same
One of the fun aspects of skyline is that even though the company has more than 100 franchises and surely has figured out the best way to roll out new locations, everyone who has been around the block in Cincinnati knows that not every restaurant is created equal. Some stores have great 3-Ways but lackluster cheese coneys. Some make cheese fries “wild style” and others seem to have better soda. Some are open ridiculously late (my personal favorite location is open until 3:00 AM) while others are only open for the lunch rush and nothing more. Some serve beer. Some serve cheesecake. It’s all a matter of preference.
Similarly, no two venture capital firms are the same. Some are interested in enterprise software, others only look at drug therapeutics and medical devices. Some are geographically bound, while others are stage-specific. Some care deeply about certain terms in a term sheet, while others only invest via SAFE. While almost all are seeking the same end - positive financial return via equity growth - most do it in one different way or another.
It’s just a vehicle for something else
You come for the chili, right? After all, it’s in the name! Wrong. First, the chili is really more of a thin meat sauce and not what most Americans think of chili (Chili Con Carne). Second, you come for the chili, and you stay for the cheese. Everything on the menu is truly a vehicle for cheese. For my lactose intolerant friends, I am deeply sorry. But this is Ohio, after all. And it’s hard to deny our Midwestern roots. We love dairy in this town, in all sorts of different shapes and sizes.
Most startups come to venture capital for the money. Selling equity to finance your startup is the name of the game. But folks stay for something more than just capital - support. Starting a business is hard. And it can at times be lonely, even if you have a stellar founding team and an amazing support system. VC’s, when doing their jobs effectively, can help take some of that burden off of the founder’s shoulders. Some do it in all sorts of different ways - product advice, marketing strategy, talent acquisition support, etc. At Refinery, we have a four-pillar playbook that we provide to our portfolio companies to help professionalize the business and set the table for hyperscale. Come for the money, stay for the support.
It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay
Of course, I love Skyline. But I am well aware that my opinion is not universal. Not everyone likes it. Maybe you are vegan. Or maybe you are lactose intolerant. Or maybe you have never had it but you’ve read the slander online and you’ve bought into the propaganda. Or maybe you just don’t like the taste. That’s fine. I won’t hold that against someone. Like all things in life, some things just aren’t a fit.
Not everyone should raise venture capital. It’s a specific tool that should be deployed for specific situations. It’s great for companies that have high margins and high growth potential. It’s been found particularly effective in the enterprise software environment, consumer social space, drug therapeutics development practice, and other industries. But there are definitely some industries and companies that should stray away from venture capital - there are better resources more suited for those ventures.
Go into it prepared
If you have never been to Skyline before, and this article makes you decide that now is the time, I highly recommend you do your research first. Understand what you are getting yourself into. Don’t go in expecting a bowl of chili - you will walk away disappointed. If you can, go with a seasoned Skyline connoisseur - someone you trust to guide you in the right direction. There are plenty of pitfalls you can make when ordering at skyline for the first time. I don’t recommend getting a Way, but rather starting slow with a Cheese Coney. Try a cracker bomb, but don’t cover the whole saucer with hot sauce.
Venture Capital terms can be just as tricky and opaque. Like most financial transactions on the private market, there are a lot of legal terms you have to learn for the first time whenever you raise capital. The people sitting on the other side of the table do this every day for a living and you do not. Find an advisor. Do a lot of research. Know the difference between preferred stock and a convertible note. Figure out what you want your board makeup to look like post-transaction. Ask an a bunch of entrepreneurs who have been through it before what they think. And then ask some more. And then ask a lawyer.
When it’s good, it’s really good.
I cannot stress this last point enough. Skyline Chili is dope.
I cannot stress this last point enough. Venture Capital is dope.
And if you are wondering, my Skyline order is as follows:
Two Cheese Coneys, mustard, no onion
Small Three-Way or Cheese Fries
A hellacious amount of hot sauce.