Kzoo Uncaged talking with Ryan Goins at Black Owl Cafe in Kalamazoo.

Ryan Goins

What is your official title?

Co-Founder of the Startup Zoo with Carl Brown and Joe Armstrong.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

I don’t have an average day. Some days I’m up at 6:00 am some days I’m up at 9:00. I’m usually up pretty late, though. I get up, make some eggs for breakfast, and then I get started on whatever tasks I have lined up for that day. Sometimes, well, a lot of the time, I’m meeting with people, mostly for Startup Zoo, and really trying to do everything I can to support the growth of this community. What that means is that I’m connecting the right people into the community; I’m trying to plug them in to the appropriate places. Most mornings I’m meeting with someone to help them get involved in what they’re interested in, so that usually means doing some mentoring. We talk through things like “Hey, I have this idea, and I want to really hone in on it”, and we figure out the next steps and the people they need to get connected with to take those next steps; it’s about getting together with them and working through their needs.


What is Startup Zoo?

Startup Zoo – it’s the community! The people who work on it are a group of entrepreneurs who are trying to empower others to connect and move their ideas and their companies forward. We do things like meetups, mentoring sessions, and then there’s Startup Weekend, which starts November 22nd. We just try to put together and host different events and meetings to inspire other local entrepreneurs in the community. We also work to find the feeders in the community who have the resources to help support new ideas and companies. Most of the time, these people don’t know about an up and coming solo entrepreneur who is just getting started, so we work as the middle man to help these people connect.


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

Startup Weekend is the next big one on November 22nd; that’s going to be really fun. The cool thing is it’s this global battle right at the end of Global Entrepreneurship Week. The winners put their pitch up online, and then people from all over vote for their favorites, which is just awesome! We’re planning that right now and all that goes into it – venue, sponsors, food, beverage, etc.

Global Entrepreneurship Week is another event that we are working on now. Last year with Startup Zoo, we did an event each day – startup tour, mentoring mixer, just to name a few – and we hosted an awards event at the end. What we’re trying to do now is a little different. Our mission is to not be the center focal point of the community; we want the community to drive the events that are interesting and important to them. We can be the ones to jump-start the ideas and the events to gain more interest, but we want the people to come in and say, ‘hey, we’re really good at this, let me take ownership of this idea’. We want to engage the community more and ask questions/start conversations to increase the interest in getting ideas out there.

We’ll go to organizations and people who we know are really passionate and knowledgeable about a certain something, and see if they will take it and run with it. That way, you’re hearing about what you’re interested in from the source, from the pros, so you’ll really get that buy-in. We are avoiding being the epicenter, and more of the inspiration and the support system.

I think a good example is the dribbble meetup for designers, and Cocoaheads, the iOS developers meetup. Those two things aren’t necessarily my forte, but there are people who excel in those areas, so why not have the people who are passionate about it host an event? I’ll help promote and support those meetups to get others there who want to learn from the experts.

The more diversified these events can be, the better it is for the community. We want to be that spark initially, and we don’t want people to be afraid to step up and share their ideas and work with us to collaborate. We don’t want people to think we are the “gatekeepers” of entrepreneurism in this community. We want to encourage people to share!


Any upcoming events that you’re particularly excited about?

Really excited for Startup Weekend. We haven’t done one now for a year and a half. We were doing them every six months, but we just realized that timing is key, so we backed off and really looked at when it made the most sense to bring it back. We are opening it all up again, meaning we are not putting any limiting factors on it in terms of topics. Since it’s been a year and a half, people are asking about it; there are a lot more people involved now and everyone’s really excited about it.


What does the growth look like for Startup Zoo?

Startup Zoo meetings have increased in number, but I will say a lot of this stuff is hard to measure. When we look at building a community, we’re looking at 10-20 years down the road, so it’s difficult to measure in the short term. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine year to year, and we don’t want to get frustrated if there isn’t the consistent growth; things change and there are factors we can’t account for. What’s great, though, is when we started Startup Zoo meetings, we only had three or four people consistently attending, and now we have 30 or 40. We look at how we can continually make the meetings better to keep the number of attendees growing along with the quality of what is discussed. It’s been exciting to see, though, and we also get a nice pulse on what’s going on in the community.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

I love the people; absolutely love the people. It’s funny, because when I first moved here, like most who come here as a student, I really didn’t like it at all. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and Kalamazoo had a more “country” feel to it. Now I look back and I realize it’s because I didn’t get downtown really at all, and that’s a problem for most students – they just don’t have much reason to come downtown. But after I turned 21 and started coming down here more, I realized that everyone here is doing something they love, something they’re passionate about. I think that’s what makes a community great, and that’s what’s driving our change. That’s why great coffee shops pop up. That’s why Kevin Romeo of Rhino Media made an awesome film for people all over to come see, and because great people are doing great things, they get support from the community. And then there’s the Mayor, who just blows my mind at how many events he attends. He always shows up, and that’s so true for many other people in our community as well.


When did you really change your mind about Kalamazoo?

There wasn’t a moment. I was always the guy who wanted to move to San Francisco, or Chicago or New York, but as I started to get downtown more and more, I began to notice all of the unique parts of our community. When we are focused on growing our community, we need things like great coffee, music, food, and art, for example, to create a culture that people want to be a part of. And Kalamazoo has all of that; I just didn’t know it until I really gave myself a chance to see it. You can drink really good beer, you can eat really good food; I didn’t experience it because at the time it wasn’t right in front of me. I love now, though, that I can walk from one end of downtown to the other and bump into two or three people I know – it’s a nice atmosphere to be in.


What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?

You know, one the biggest things that frustrates me is the options of living downtown. I think that’s something that will work itself out as there is more demand for it, but if you get out of college and get a job making somewhere around $40K, it’s tough to live anywhere downtown. I’d like to see an opportunity for graduates and the younger population to be able to do that. I think right now, people are graduating and leaving. It’s cool that you hear more and more people saying they want to stick around Kalamazoo and live downtown, but right now there aren’t a ton of options. I think it will change, there’s really nothing preventing it from happening, but with more demand I think we’ll see a change.


What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

I would say, well, it’s probably cliché, but I’m constantly learning, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment. I will say, though, that when I first did Startup Weekend, which is really what got Startup Zoo going, I was still a Junior in college going into my Senior year, and during that time I learned a lot about leadership. As it turns out, it’s really tough! I thought leading would be difficult, but not as difficult as it actually was when I was put in a situation to be standing at the front.

Putting together that first event, finding donations, finding a venue, food, etc., it was a lot. We had 25 people who came to our first event. The event ended up going well, but leading up to it was a bit of a disaster. I ended up essentially doing most of it on my own; the week before the event we had five people registered, so there was a ton of recruiting that needed to happen. We ended up getting twenty more people, but the stress of everything had me putting all of the pressure on my own shoulders.

It taught me the importance of leading a team and getting organized on the front end. I can get a team together and say “you do this, you do that”, but that’s not really leading. It’s getting your people excited and inspired to do those things, which can be challenging at times, but when you get to know the people you are working with and learn what they’re passionate about, you find ways to get everyone motivated.

A lot of the time, I’m in a room with a group of people who are a lot more successful or have more experience than I do, but I’m still responsible to give direction. Sometimes it feels like it should be reversed, you know, that these really successful people are the ones who should be telling me what to do, but I’ve given myself the responsibility to lead and inspire people with the community in mind. It’s still something I’m trying to figure out, but hey, I’m learning!


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

My new favorite, thanks to [my fiancé] Ania, is electronic music – she’s really gotten me into that a ton recently, so I’ve been listening to a lot of transelectronic music. My music tastes are all over, though. I like Indie Rock, like Jack’s Mannequin. I used to listen to a lot of country, but electronic has been my new thing lately. I get that going on Spotify and rock out all day long.


What is next up on your reading list?

It’s kind of funny; I listen to audio books now, so I’m absorbing all the information that was in the original manuscript. I just finished “reading” The Power of Habit with the Kalamazoo Business Book Club. It was wonderful and so eye opening. I’m trying to read more fiction, but it’s never been my thing; however, I’m always open to suggestions! I’m more of a non-fiction guy, and I try to get in a book or two a month.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

Well, I’m not a coffee connoisseur by any means – I really can’t tell the difference between “good” and “not so good” coffee. But I drink my coffee black. I’ve been drinking tea more recently, so I’m learning the ins and outs of tea drinking. I’d say I’m pretty new to the caffeine world in general.


What is your favorite app to use?

I’ve got a couple that I love. My favorite is probably Path. All of my family uses it, and so do my really close friends. I used to be really big on Twitter, but sometimes I can get overwhelmed with the amount of content there; it’s information overload. Path is great because it’s telling me what my closest friends and family are doing. My sister just had twins, and I only get to see them every now and then, so it’s great that she can post pictures and I can see them a little more that way. Oh, and Spotify, so I can get my trans on!


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Black Owl Cafe is probably my go-to spot. I work from home most days, so when I venture out, that’s where I am. Tap House is my late night go-to. Great place to meet up with friends and grab a beer.


Are there any places in the ‘Zoo that you haven’t been to and are dying to go?

This is kind of embarrassing, but the State Theater. And yes, I missed my perfect opportunity with the Beer Film happening recently. There have been a few shows that I’ve wanted to see and just haven’t gotten to them. It’s definitely on my list of things to do.


If you could bring any national or global event to Kzoo (infrastructure aside), what would it be?

South by Southwest! I’d like to organize a trip down there, actually, get a huge group from Kalamazoo going, get some sweet shirts and represent! But seriously, the reason being that it’s a film, music and tech event, and Kalamazoo has a similar vibe to Austin, where they currently host it. We have all the same pieces; how cool would it be to have something like that here? Instead of “Keep Austin Weird”, we’d say “Keep the ‘Zoo Wild”!


Ryan, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Ryan on twitter and be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.