'Grit is Critical'
Two alumni are eager to share their entrepreneurial know-how with the UC community.
Tim Metzner and Ry Walker, two veterans of the Cincinnati startup scene, each serve as Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at the 1819 Innovation Hub’s Venture Lab to help link their community to Lindner, the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Cincinnati Innovation District.
Metzner, BBA ’05, is the CEO of their new venture, building a platform for mission-driven founders (more on that below). Metzner has founded or co-founded five companies and has invested in more than 50 companies. Walker, who studied computer science at UC, is the CEO of Tembo, a commercial open-source database company that has an office in 1819. Walker recently exited software development company Astronomer, which reached unicorn status — a designation for privately held startup companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more — in 2022.
In 2013, Metzner and Walker co-founded Differential, a digital products company. Now, Metzner and Walker are working together again to launch a new breed of holding company that will include a small business acquisition company, a venture studio centered on launching software as a service (SaaS) startups and an early-stage venture capital fund.
Metzner and Walker met at a startup community event. Six months later, they co-founded Differential.
Metzner: I reached out to him [after the event]. After a number of conversations, finally one night we were talking about the ‘someday company’ we wanted to start. We had very similar visions. I wanted to serially launch companies. I wanted to build an awesome team and use that team to serially launch ideas. And we’re kind of just like, why not now?
Walker: Let’s do it now.
How does what you’re collaborating on now compare to Differential?
Walker: We’re turning up the volume a hundred times with the new stuff. Back then, we were just trying to get anything built. (But) we were very complementary. I’m technical. Tim is operational strategy. Just right place, right time, and didn’t have any conflict.
Metzner: We were running down so many different paths because there was so little activity in Cincinnati, and so few experienced founders and investors. We were kind of making it up as we went.
What attributes must a successful entrepreneur possess?
Walker: Grit is critical. When you start, it’s like pushing up against a concrete wall. It’s not budging, but you have to keep pushing until you find a crack.
Metzner: You almost never get comfortable. If you’re successful, six months into your job it’s very different than it was in the early stages of your company. You have to constantly reinvent yourself and your team.
Walker: I think it’s just as creative as being an artist.
Metzner: The other part of the job is you’re always selling. You’re always pitching. Whether it’s investors, early employees, partners or your first customers. If you’re not really good at selling a vision and communicating, you just won’t win.
Why do you want to see entrepreneurship thrive at UC, and how are you making that happen?
Metzner: I want UC to be known as the place in the Midwest to go if you have an entrepreneurial bent. That you should come here because you’re going to get the kind of exposure to technologists and to entrepreneurs that usually only happens at Stanford and on the West Coast. If you look at the greatest places to build businesses, there’s almost always a university at the center of it. Why not UC? And then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that will create better people to hire, more entrepreneurs to invest in and to co-found companies with. These students that I’m spending time with, maybe they create the company that hires my kids one day.
Walker: When I exited Astronomer, I could have done whatever I wanted. I decided to get involved at UC because I wanted to get back to the startup ecosystem. I decided I’m going to create a new company — a company that creates companies — and try to attach that as best I could to UC. I believe the engine of having real companies interact is better than just a guy who made some money coming in and just giving his time.
When you start, it’s like pushing up against a concrete wall. It’s not budging, but you have to keep pushing until you find a crack.
Ry Walker, CEO of Tembo
What’s your advice for students?
Walker: Start a real company. Ship a real open-source project while you’re at school. Have a [venture capitalist] pull you out of school. That’s what success should look like.
Metzner: There should be more people who have a chance to work at a startup as part of their journey at UC. I don’t care what discipline they come from. Get more people engaged in building companies in the early stages. Your mind is so moldable. It’s just a really good time to start to get exposed to an entrepreneurial mindset. Even if you don’t end up starting a company, the skillset that you learn through that startup environment is going to be massively valuable in whatever discipline, role, company or career you end up selecting.
How do you reflect on your career path?
Metzner: When I was about to graduate, I had a full-time offer from this startup that I’d been a part of (as a co-op). There was a consulting path that looked like it would have more money in it. Everyone else would say, ‘That’s probably the right path for you.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m going to optimize for return on learning and surround myself with crazy people who are going to push me.’ I think more people would choose that if they saw the potential in that journey earlier on.
Walker: We’re super deep in this lake of entrepreneurship. We’re down at 800 feet. But it’s a very fulfilling career to be in tech startups. Your brain is forever challenged. We get to see future products before they’re even born; it’s what we do all day long. It’s an exciting place to spend time.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Photos by Gregory Glevicky.