Mike Upah feels as if he’s simply moving from one side of the table to the other in his new role as director of Ames Seed Capital, which provides seed capital to startup companies. Upah previously worked with the Iowa State University Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, helping startup companies obtain funding from Ames Seed Capital. Now he will be working with the Ames Seed Capital board, helping navigate the process by bringing promising startups to the table and making sure the board has all the information it needs to make a decision. Upah took over the role of director in August. He replaced John Hall, who moved to Ames Main Street, another Chamber-affiliated organization, as a part of various internal moves and reductions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Upah’s career has been spent working with small businesses and investors, and he said his passion for the energy of the startup environment has helped define his career.

How have your past positions prepared you to take over the role as director of Ames Seed Capital?
I became familiar with Ames Seed Capital by helping my clients at the university access capital. So I’ve been in this room quite a bit pitching to Ames Seed Capital, helping them tell their stories, develop their deal terms, and so on. I think the key thing is just getting people together. I still have a strong affinity for entrepreneurs since I’ve been on the other side of the table. I have deep relationships at the university with the Iowa State University Research Foundation and the Pappajohn Center and other important elements on campus, so without that experience, I think a challenging part of the job would be building those relationships and figuring out how the university works and how they support entrepreneurship. I have a substantial advantage in that regard, and I think strengthening the relationship with the university will be a key goal of mine.

Does that familiarity give you special insights into Ames Seed Capital’s operation and where you’d like to take it in the future?
What I bring to the table is focus. I think that it has been a really well-run organization, and it is intimidating to come in and fill those shoes [of past longtime director Ron Hallenbeck and his successor John Hall]. I don’t underestimate that. My goal is to polish edges. This is not an organization that needs to be overhauled. There’s not a lot of reworking and remodeling that needs to be done. The fund has gone from being very Ames-centric to being very Story County-centric to now being Central Iowa-visioned. So I think that’s been a very important evolution. There has been an interim period here where the very busy people at the chamber who do economic development work have also been trying to run the seed capital organization. From Ames Seed Capital’s perspective, I’m not distracted by economic development. I can focus specifically on investing work.

How do you see yourself balancing your new role at the Ames Seed Capital with your position with iSeek, where you continue to serve as chief financial officer?
I’ve always had multiple irons in the fire. When I was at the Pappajohn Center we’d be managing more than a dozen projects at a time. Even after I left the university there are still relationships with companies I mentored there, that I’m on their boards, so I’ve been in the environment of having many focuses for quite some time. So I think that gives me an advantage in trying to help both organizations. I have a flexible schedule at iSeek. It’s the same thing with Ames Seed Capital.

Describe your leadership style or philosophy.
Transparency. Making people aware of where they stand. Where’s the milestone? Where is the bar set? I try to be that open communicator, and I hope to have that same relationship with people who are applying for funding with Ames Seed Capital. Too often you really don’t have a clue where you stand with a partner or an investor. So rather than walking out of this room and them saying, “I wonder how that went,” the goal is to say, “Here’s where I think this story needs to become more advanced if you hope to get funding.” My goal is the gatekeeper, to get people in this room who deserve to be here, and for those who are trying to get here, to help them understand where the bar is set.

What book would you recommend to someone?
“The Lean Startup” by Eric Reis. It is some very practical advice. There are a lot of myths about how you go about starting a business, and many people focus on the wrong things. “The Lean Startup” is about building traction and validating what you want to do, whether it’s strategic partners or whether it’s investors. It’s not just their opinions that it’s a good idea. There’s somebody in the market that says this is a good idea. It prioritizes building those relationships with prospective customers, which needs to be accomplished early in the process, rather than let me build my product, make it perfect and then I’ll finally go out and touch the customers.

Tell us something about yourself people may not know.
I’m a Harley-Davidson enthusiast. I have one now. I’m not a collector, but I enjoy being out on it every chance I get.