University Economic Development Association


Award Category: Leadership and Collaboration
Project Site: EntreFEST
Submitted By: University of Northern Iowa
Contact: Paul Kinghorn , 319.273.4327

Case Study


Understanding that small business owners benefit and learn best from interacting with their like-minded peers; a collaborative group of Iowa service providers joined forces in 2007 to plan what would become EntreFest – a venue for Iowa small businesses to come together to learn, share, and celebrate being an entrepreneur in America’s heartland.

EntreFest has been held annually since February 2008, and moves to different locations throughout the state, so that all small businesses will have the opportunity to attend a conference close to ‘their back yard”. What began as a small gathering of main street business owners has expanded to become something so much more.

In 2013 UNI entered into a public-private partnership with a small socially minded startup called Seed Here Studio to help our team re-envision what EntreFest could be. The goal from the start was exceedingly lofty; to attract entrepreneurs from every segment of the entrepreneurial stack- from micro-enterprises, small business owners, innovators, and even a venture company wanna-be (or two) and to maintain our pull with our public sector partners that we had attracted to the event in previous years.

Billed as Iowa’s most comprehensive entrepreneur event, EntreFEST would redefine the way that conferences for entrepreneurs could be held. This reimagined model can be implemented in other communities, regardless of size, entrepreneur composition, or willingness of public sector partners to participate, primarily because when an event is entrepreneurially driven, business owners and the public sector will respond.


Universities, economic development organizations and communities are being challenged as never before to identify, serve and support large numbers of smaller, young companies. Throughout the twentieth century, a stock-in-trade means of doing this was to host a conference.

Conferences throughout the twentieth century operated from pretty much the same play book. They were two, three, or four day events, hosted in some far off and typically urban, city. There would be a keynote and capstone speaker, a number of breakout sessions on important topics, a tight schedule of breaks, a few exhibitors in a hallway and sometimes (if the attendees were really lucky) a formal banquet. This model worked very well for most sectors of business for decades.

Then came the entrepreneurs. Led by a segment of the entrepreneurial community we like to call ‘innovators’, they eschewed this conference model and began to create their own events. They called them BarCamps and Startup Weekends and even labeled these innovative models as, yes you guessed it, “unconferences”. They invited only their like-minded peers (usually technology startup innovators), while economic development organizations, universities, and others not in the innovator in-group were by and large ignored in the process.

At the same time in some places like Iowa, there were efforts to engage innovators and other small businesses (including microenterprises) by hosting conference events. Most states do not host statewide small business conferences at all, so the idea to create one was a hot one in Iowa back in 2008.

Led by the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) team, a large group of collaborative service providers decided to host an innovative traveling conference to support small business owners (mainly mom and pop establishments). Called EntreFest, it had all the trappings of the old school conferences with a few twists as an attractor to those innovators. It was a two-day event, always hosted in one of those lavish hotel/conference centers, but in a different city every year. The speakers were almost always experts from the university, economic development, or primarily from the public sector and the event was fun, energized. EntreFest averaged about 225 attendees every year, and those attendees were almost always representative of the small, lifestyle businesses of the near locale coupled with a lot of passionate micro-enterprises.

Once institutionalized, EntreFest, like many public sector programs, was hard to change and certainly not easy to eliminate. There was, however, a growing concern that the conference was engaging mostly lifestyle businesses and there were some stakeholders and sponsors who were talking about hosting another conference along the same lines as EntreFest to attract those innovators. The wide-held thinking at the time was that innovators and high growth firms wouldn’t come to an event that had been billed for a long time as a place for lifestyle and micro-enterprises to network, learn, and grow together. This is without even mentioning the difficulty of having a public sector led event attract lots of private sector participation. What began as a small gathering of main street business owners has expanded to become something so much more.


The UNI team philosophy is to serve entrepreneurs with a five point approach. We listen to entrepreneurs, imagine what we can do to make life better; then create sharable solutions leveraging our university and technology assets. Annually, we evaluate how we’ve done in terms of economic impact and strive to replicatethose programs that are effective. The team knew that EntreFest needed to evolve and become something that a broader swath of entrepreneurs could participate in, the big question was- how?

In 2013, the team turned to the innovators themselves for an answer. UNI entered into a public-private partnership with a small socially minded startup called Seed Here Studio to help our team re-envision what EntreFest could be. The goal from the start was exceedingly lofty; to attract entrepreneurs from every segment of the entrepreneurial stack- from micro-enterprises, small business owners, innovators, and even a venture company wanna-be (or two) and to maintain our pull with our public sector partners that we had attracted to the event in previous years.

The new planning committee formed with input from Seed Here Studio comprised of our traditional public and new private-sector stakeholders. At the first planning session it was agreed that all the rules could, and would, be broken to collaboratively drive 500 entrepreneurially diverse attendees to the event to fulfill a new mission of networking and facilitating meaningful growth of Iowa’s entire entrepreneurial ecosystem. This new event, billed as Iowa’s comprehensive entrepreneur conference, would redefine the way that conferences for entrepreneurs could be held. This transformative shift was not without its difficulties.

“EntreFEST changed our perception of Iowa. We felt like we were on an island before the conference. Our connections from the event have been invaluable to the growth we experienced this past year.”
– Rachel Roewe, Co-founder of {Made} Community.

The UNI team contributed $20,000, the same amount of funding that had been pledged each year since 2008, and served as the interface between Seed Here and the planning committee. UNI secured almost $40,000 in sponsor dollars from statewide service providers and public sector organizations and Seed Here raised almost $30,000 from their network.

The planning team from UNI and Seed Here met on a weekly basis over a five month period to re-imagine EntreFest. The objective was to re-brand the conference, expand the audience to welcome and celebrate the entire entrepreneurial stack, and to ultimately attract more than double the number of attendees EntreFest had previously attracted.

Some partners were lost, many other champions were gained. In the end, a true collaborative public/private partnership organization team was formed. Buy-in was recruited from several large firms, government, other educational institutions (including our sister Regent University- the University of Iowa), and of course, many startups came on board.

“Stand up, put your chin up, be proud. We are Iowa entrepreneurs. We can be unique, we can differentiate ourselves, we have an unfair advantage.”
– Christian Renaud, StartupCity Des Moines, EntreFEST Speaker


From the UNI team standpoint, the first outcome realized was the transformation of a ho-hum 20th century conference into a dynamite entrepreneurial festival with double the attendance. In light of the fact that some of the dollars invested into the annual event were taxpayer dollars, the transformation provided clear and direct public value to both the entrepreneurs who attended and to the community of Iowa City who found themselves frolicking with business owners learning more about their entrepreneurial ecosystem for just a few days.

EntreFEST (as it was rebranded), was to become a three-day rolling tide of innovation. EntreFEST would become no ordinary entrepreneur conference. From the content, to the diversity of the attendees who meet, network, and grow together, EntreFEST is a one-of-its-kind experience for all involved.

During the first five years of EntreFest, speakers were garnered from the planning committee and breakout sessions were aligned in a grid of 18 sessions over two days with many of them repeated. EntreFEST took the notion of breakout sessions back to the drawing board. Conference sessions were entirely crowd-sourced, using social media, and an innovative online platform where folks could vote for their favorite ideas for topics/speakers. Both innovators and small business owners were invited to offer up their own expertise or to recommend that of others. Sessions were then put into sponsored tracks (women owners, small business owners, economic developers, innovators, etc.). By opening day, four times as many sessions- nearly 70- across dozens of business topics were confirmed and only a handful of them were your traditional ‘expert’-based presentations. This was a critical shift. The most recent UNI Iowa Business Survey showed that entrepreneurs preferred peer learning over any other form of technical assistance. This responsive effort at EntreFEST was a direct response to those stated needs by the Iowa entrepreneurial community itself. The results of listening and working with our entrepreneur community would become a critical reason for the success that followed.

Rather than the hotel conference center conference model, EntreFEST was re-imagined around the idea of ‘community as a venue’. Events were hosted loosely within the downtown Iowa City district: a pitch off contest in the historic theatre, several sessions in the city public library, a 1 Million Cups event under the trees in the pedestrian mall, and various ‘statements’ of creativity were installed for the week. One of the favorites was a giant Muscatine River Monster squid that was installed atop a downtown parking ramp. The community of Iowa City was wholly transformed, not just by the attendees flooding downtown, but by the vibe and innovative energy that was created throughout the district. Iowa City residents too, became a crucial part of the festivities. Residents strolled through the networking events, stopped to visit with entrepreneurs, and even helped sample food!

We threw away plenary sessions with keynote speakers, most of the sessions were replaced by interactive audience participatory events, the most popular of which was called Idea Storm. Entrepreneurs were invited to line up and take the podium to pitch an idea, any business idea (crazy, real, imaginary, or quite serious) in less than one minute. The audience voted for their favorite idea, and a celebrity judge picked the ultimate winner who then received an IPad for their bravery of sharing their idea with a couple hundred folks.

Two Iowa grade school teachers were assigned to come up with surprise and delight for the week, arguably the most memorable of which was a 500 person thumb war held during a plenary session. It may sound crazy, but the creative atmosphere that was manufactured through play, fed more innovation throughout the conference.

Every speaker, from breakout sessions to keynoters received a standing ovation before they spoke (and of course, often after as well).

Every attendee received a ‘BlendCard’, a pre-loaded credit card that gave attendees free stuff and discounts from local businesses throughout the district. Lest you think this was a small thing, there were cupcakes, popcorn, sodas, yogurt and much more provided by area small business owners. The card itself encouraged attendees to get out into the Iowa City area and invest their newfound wealth into local Iowa City businesses within walking distance of the main conference. It’s worth noting too that the Iowa-based technology firm BlendCard, was honored to be involved and served as just one of many of the private-sector innovator champions for the conference. These types of relationships with Iowa startups was the new norm for this reimaged EntreFEST, not the exception.

 “Just got back from EntreFEST – a two day conference in Iowa City for entrepreneurs and small business owners in Iowa. It was great to see all the creative ideas people have come up with for businesses and learn new things that will help sustain and grow my own business. Thanks to all who support small businesses!” 
– Alan Morrison, owner AM Guitar Repair, EntreFEST Attendee

During one of the sessions on co-working, a rural Webster Iowa entrepreneur met the founder of one of Iowa’s first rural co-working facilities based in Pella. A conversation ensued. A visit followed. The inTandem co-work was launched shortly thereafter in downtown Webster City, Iowa. Here again, this was the new norm for EntreFEST, not the exception.

There was clear value in the public/private partnerships formed- across the board. The University and partners brought significant funding coupled with an established public sector network to the event, and the subsequent connections between those public sector individuals and the attendees was no longer formal, but truly intimate. Bureaucratic “ties” were removed, and more shared coffee cups (or glasses of beer, depending on the time of day) were shared.

“Not only were the breakout sessions informative – They sparked conversations that have grown into partnerships and friendships. EntreFEST was a springboard for us into many other connections and business growth.”
– Peter Awad, Co-Founder of GoodBlogs, EntreFEST Attendee

More than 500 entrepreneurs attended EntreFEST, representing every segment of the entrepreneurial community. Micro-enterprises had lunch with innovators, small business owners met angel investors. At least one new business was even launched as part of EntreFEST. The respect, shared experiences, and serendipitous interaction between the entrepreneurial segments brought new problem solving solutions across industry and made lasting impressions upon everyone who attended.

Future Considerations

EntreFEST is a conference model that can readily be scaled up or down. The approach is predicated upon the sharing of public and private sector networks, peer-driven speakers, the community as a venue, and surprise and delight. Conversations are underway to potentially open source what the UNI team has learned so that other communities can replicate and enhance upon this new way of running truly comprehensive entrepreneurial conference events.

In social media, we are seeing comments that equate EntreFEST to a much larger entrepreneur and innovation event called Big Omaha. Our goal is to continue to expand EntreFEST to become a more regional celebration of entrepreneurship and attract entrepreneurs from adjoining states to Iowa to come network with some of our local business owners.

Any other state, or even a rural region, can take what we’ve learned and create an event that celebrates and rejuvenates their entire entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“The thing that really matters is the network of people. Three years ago we didn’t have that great of a network, but now I think we are starting to build a really solid network here in Iowa; it’s what an entrepreneur needs to be really successful.”
– Josh Cramer, Founder Cramer Dev, EntreFEST Attendee

In terms of our sustainability, the greatest vote of confidence comes from the attendees themselves. Every year at the conclusion of EntreFEST, we ask attendees to complete a feedback survey. Amazingly, 99% of survey respondents consistently state that they will return to EntreFEST the following year. Another measure of the commitment to this new model is just the raw attendance itself. Since its inception 7 years ago, EntreFEST has seen strong attendance numbers with over 200 attendees at the first event. Since then, there has been consistently attendance in spite of hosting the event in a new city and venue each year. The 2014 event set new attendance records with almost 500 people who valued the conference enough to buy a ticket. But more important than a willingness to pay to attend a conference just for them, they invested 2 1/2 days of their life to make the event the best that it has ever been.

It is clear that there is a need in Iowa (and other states) for a conference event that meets the needs of a broad range of entrepreneurial types and serves to deliver an environment of learning, connecting, and cheering on one’s peers.  The 2014 EntreFEST has garnered more attendees, sponsors, presenters, and volunteers than ever before and by all accounts will continue to deliver the kind of value demanded by a discerning population.

Finalist Presentation

UEDA Awards of Excellence Finalists presented at the Annual Summit in Santa Fe on September 29-30, 2014. Summit attendees then voted for the best initiative in each category.