In 1978, Cliff Ensley ’69, ’70, G’71 had an idea to start his own business and just $2,500 to do it. He was used to taking on challenges—there was no stopping him. Growing up, he struggled with a learning disability—at…
Syracuse Technology Garden entrepreneur in residence provides support for student ventures
At 11 years old, John Liddy organized a group of friends whose mission was to bring goblins and ghosts to life. Together, Liddy’s team transformed a neighbor’s basement into every child’s worst nightmare, a haunted house. The young group of entrepreneurs marketed their business strategically, placing posters and announcements around their school. Although Liddy’s haunted house only operated for two nights a year around Halloween, it generated a profit that was donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“I always wanted to be in business for myself,” Liddy says. “It is a great feeling to be working for yourself.” Liddy’s leadership skills continue to inspire and motivate him to tackle new challenges, including his latest as entrepreneur in residence at the Syracuse Technology Garden.
“This is the first entrepreneur in residence (EIR) at Syracuse University,” says Bruce Kingma, SU associate provost for entrepreneurship and innovation. “EIRs at other institutions typically provide mentorship to students and/or faculty starting companies. At SU, the EIR is working with student ventures by teaching courses in entrepreneurship, mentoring student ventures and overseeing the Sandbox incubator in the Technology Garden. The EIR works with students across six campuses, regardless of major, to increase the entrepreneurial spirit in Central New York.”
As an entrepreneur in residence, Liddy uses his experience and business knowledge to recruit and inspire young entrepreneurs from six higher education institutions: Syracuse University, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Onondaga Community College, Le Moyne College, Morrisville State College and Cayuga Community College. These institutions are partnered with the Kauffman Foundation-funded Enitiative, a collaborative effort to provide entrepreneurial projects at the academic institutions with contacts and resources and broaden the reach of entrepreneurial education and innovation in the Central New York region.
Liddy also recruits talent for the Student Sandbox, a space within the Tech Garden for student entrepreneurs to develop and launch their business ideas with expert guidance. It is part of the larger Syracuse Student Start-Up Accelerator, a collaboration of SU and the Tech Garden that leverages university and regional business resources for training a new generation of entrepreneurial students and developing a high-tech economy for Central New York.
In addition to searching for potential sandbox members, Liddy works with student teams currently in the Syracuse Student Sandbox, such as Grafighters, an online gaming experience that turns hand-drawn characters into battle warriors, and Brand-Yourself.com, an online reputation management platform for job applicants looking to improve their Web presence. Liddy works to connect these teams with valuable resources, including professional services such as accountants and attorneys or team builders such as programmers.
“As a CNY serial entrepreneur, John is like the guy in the Verizon ad with a network of thousands of business connections behind him,” Kingma says. “He provides a point person for our students in the local start-up community.”
When meeting potential recruits, Liddy looks for students who have faith in themselves, possess the ability to assess risk, persevere and continue to see and do what others cannot. The work of an entrepreneur is innovative and evolves to pave the way for change, Liddy says. “I love my job, it’s invigorating,” he says. “It’s a bit of business, mentoring and den mother all rolled into one.”
Students who work with Liddy appreciate his real-world business perspective and constructive feedback. “I can almost always count on Coach [John Liddy] to think the exact opposite of the way that I am,” says SU College of Visual and Performing Arts senior Eric Cleckner, a co-founder of the student start-up Grafighters. “To me that’s refreshing. I like that I always have to prepare for a challenge whenever I am presenting something to him. If I can get the slightest bit of approval for whatever kinds of ideas Grafighters is brewing at the moment then I can be confident that it will translate well to other business professionals.”
Dave Chenell, an SU School of Information Studies (iSchool) senior and Cleckner’s partner in Grafighters, adds that he appreciates having a dedicated resource to support student entrepreneurs. “He has a ton of background in business and can really break it down well for people with no business background,” Chenell says. “We call him ‘Coach’ because to us that is the role he plays. He is involved in, or at least notified of, every move we make. It’s really helpful having someone who really knows about your company and has seen it go through stages.”
Syracuse iSchool graduate student and alumnus Justin Breese, a co-founder of the student start-up Cape2, says Liddy’s business approach is a good counterweight to his academic mentors. “In academics, we’re often praised too much and not faced with the harshness of reality,” Breese says. “John brings this reality, but in a learning way. He is well connected and has never said no to a single request that I’ve thrown at him.”
Liddy’s career has consisted of both entrepreneurial and managerial work. After earning a B.A. in political science at the University of Vermont, Liddy began his mission to become a successful entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has helped develop and launch multiple start-up companies. He joined numerous projects, including ideas for service companies, natural language processing start-ups and an amusement park ride called Wild Thang. Liddy’s entrepreneurial methods helped him to transform these projects into revenue-producing businesses.
“I think entrepreneurs need to embrace aspects of decision making that may not have been taught to them in a formal environment,” Liddy says. “Being entrepreneurial involves engagement, assessment and a willingness to do things differently.”
After working on a research and development technology start-up called TextWise, Liddy earned an executive M.B.A. at SU’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management and advanced his craft by learning the basic principles of management he used as an entrepreneur. At SU, Liddy was able to reconnect with his hometown, Syracuse, and his love for SU sports. Whether at sporting events or in a class, Liddy was surrounded by motivated students who inspired him to take a chance on a career that was less entrepreneurial and more managerial.
Liddy worked in corporate management for more than seven years, as a distribution manager at Suburban Propane and then as general manager of the company. The experience he gained there made him recognize how much he missed the work of an entrepreneur. In summer 2009, Liddy came to the Tech Garden to coach the students in the Syracuse Student Sandbox.
The students Liddy works with at the Tech Garden are people like him, intelligent and motivated individuals looking for a way to make their idea become a reality. Through execution, persistence and a well-built team, their ideas will continue to expand and thrive. Liddy started out as an 11-year-old boy who ran a haunted house for charity. Today he is a successful businessman and mentor to young entrepreneurs looking to break into the industry as he did.
“The key to a successful idea is execution, and in order to execute you must have an eco-system that is supportive,” Liddy says. “This is what I am trying to help grow.”