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SD's entrepreneurs tell how they started a fire and kept it burning

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Sometimes when an idea sparks, it starts a fire; other times an idea just blows away with the wind.

Panelists at 6 Degrees San Diego’s breakfast speaker series, The Digital Frontier, shared on Wednesday how their ideas sparked, companies formed and businesses started to thrive.

Lars Helgeson, CEO and founder of small-business marketing and organization solutions firm GreenRope, said his "aha moment" was “kind of embarrassing.”

“For me, it happens in the shower,” Helgeson said. “There are no phones, no emails showing up on the screen; my mind kind of opens up.”

He said his vision of the need to create email marketing “kind of clicked.”

“I don’t know what it is about showers — it all clicked. It was a magical time,” Helgeson said.

Steven Cox, CEO of TakeLessons, saw his idea spark while peering through the windows of his music teacher’s house. He had been singing in a band when his bandmates told him he needed lessons. The second week he went to his class, his teacher had moved to Japan and neglected to tell him or refund his money.

“How do we vet and send out instructors to give music to everyone?” said Cox, who then started his music lessons company.

Cox said he experienced many aha moments like other panelists, but “many will turn out not to be an aha,” he said.

“Follow the moments, but don’t be adverse to change,” Cox said.

Scot Chisholm, co-founder and CEO of StayClassy, said he has about five aha moments per month.

“It’s important to stay focused rather than chasing aha moments,” Chisholm said.

Once the idea ignites, the funding to keep the fire alive can be the next hurdle for entrepreneurs.

Chisholm joked that he had to “beg, borrow and steal” to get StayClassy rolling. He raised money in chunks during a small angel round, and the company has now raised about $3 million.

Mitch Thrower, CEO and founder of Bump Network Inc., suggests companies stay private for as long as they can in order to dictate decisions. After his experience with Active Network, he has raised only private funds with his own company.

Cox said he funded part of the company himself with small rounds of angel financing.

“Get proof of the concept out the door first,” Cox said. “If you’re building something real — it doesn’t matter where the money comes from — it will get noticed by Bay Area firms.”

Helgeson said he has grown his company organically. In 2000, he co-founded CoolerEmail, a Web-based email marketing application. He worked as a consultant and used that money to build his business.

Most of the panelists said mentors helped them get where they are today. Bump Network's Thrower said there are two types of mentors.

“In Chutes and Ladders, you hit No. 28 and get catapulted to the end of the game,” Thrower said. “There are mentors, and there are mentor catapults.”

Mentor catapults are the people who can pick up a phone and call a client with 17 million customers, he said.

“San Diego has a rich and deep well of catapults,” Thrower said.

Helgeson said that starting a company is mostly about inspiration.

“None of us are so extraordinary that no one in this room can’t do the exact same thing,” he said.

Starting and running a business takes a lot of time, but the panelists each find their own ways to balance work and life. Jimmy Hendricks, CEO and co-founder of Deal Current Network, said he’s just starting to get a chance to commit to personal time.

“The brain will switch and start being smarter,” said Hendricks, who said blinders are on while in the office and when they come off “you’re open to new things.”

Cox has a jam room after 6 p.m. in the office building, and one of Thrower’s employees occasionally teaches yoga on the company’s roof.

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