I had the pleasure of meeting this next entrepreneur during a small business event with the Hudson Business Coalition (how fitting!). Eric is not only on the board for HBCi but he also owns two unique businesses of his own in Hudson and Catskill, NY. The drive behind his entrepreneurial spirit and opening his own businesses stems from wanting to help others succeed and to help others in need. So, let’s learn more about Eric, his businesses, and how he became an entrepreneur.
Name: Eric De Feo
Location: Hudson, NY
Personal IG: @ericdefeo
Business #1: Hudson Community Incubator (2020) @hudsonincubator Business #2: Made X Hudson (2020) @madxhudson
Tell us about yourself, your background and how it got you to where you are today.
I have been working with startups and small businesses since 2011. My work in South Africa and Kenya was the early entry point for me. Without sounding too cliche as a young white man of privilege going to Africa, that time did have a tremendous impact on me and my outlook on life. I received a grant to travel to Nairobi to work as a designer for the Kounkuey Design Initiative, a non-profit organization working on public spaces in global slums. Once you see people living on trash, it’s hard to erase that from your mind, and so finding ways to design community spaces that help people thrive is a central theme in my work. During my time in Kenya, I saw what a huge impact such a small organization could have by simply listening to the needs of the community.
It was when I took a summer intensive course in architecture when I began to understand how my brain works. What I loved about architecture was the ability to synthesize a variety of information into one cohesive vision. I ended up pursuing a dual Masters in architecture and product design where I came to understand that there were other people whose thinking patterns were similar to my own. I’m very much a systems thinker and therefore a systems designer, so I apply that in how I build businesses.
In design school, you learn the process of design thinking, which is essentially the process of understanding people’s needs and designing products and services for their needs. Over the last two decades, business schools began adopting this way of thinking when it came to creating new businesses. I personally became more interested in product and service design because I wanted to create a world that matches people’s needs. I discovered that the study of architecture was fascinating, but I was more interested in the creative process in academia than in necessarily constructing buildings.
What are your businesses and how did the idea for each of them come about?
After a few successes and failures as an entrepreneur I was frankly burned out. A few years ago I took all of this random assortment of knowledge I had and started doing some contract consulting work. I interviewed for full time jobs, but I felt both over and under qualified for most roles as my knowledge became very general as an entrepreneur. A friend of mine and I joined forces on doing some workplace culture and innovation consulting work, and I’ve been doing this work for the last few years.
When the pandemic hit I began to think more deeply about what I really wanted to do. Because of my own struggles of starting businesses and the realization that while America glamorizes entrepreneurship, there isn’t really much support from the stage from when you’re at an idea and just launching your business. There’s plenty of money and support for when you already have revenue but before that it can be a very isolating journey.
Living in the Hudson Valley, I wanted to give back to this community and what I felt like I could give was a lot of information that is usually gate kept in corporations and accelerators. I wanted to make that information accessible to people who didn’t have the same privileges I had when I was growing up. I started to build the incubator and see if this was something that people wanted because the last thing I wanted to do was to come into a community I was relatively new to and tell people what they needed.
Everything that I’ve done in the last two years of launching HCI and Made X Hudson has simply been responses to what people needed. So we have built a fairly robust ecosystem where both existing and new communities in the Hudson Valley can connect and support each other in building their businesses. HCI focuses broadly on support for new business owners launching an idea, and Made X Hudson is more narrowly focused on incubating new design businesses and producing garments in small batch quantities.
Who or what was your biggest influence in becoming an entrepreneur?
My father was an entrepreneur and my mother was his support manager, so I didn’t have an understanding of what it would be like to *not* be an entrepreneur. From when I was a kid, I had a lemonade stand which snowballed into selling baseball cards, magazines, and holiday cookies. I think I found more joy in interacting with different people than actually making money.
It was only recently that I stopped feeling so “left out” of not having corporate experience. I now work with corporates, and I’m grateful for my outside perspectives and experiences.
What motivates you and helps you generate new ideas?
The systemic inequity in our socio economic system which is rooted in white supremacy is what motivates me the most. I don’t think I would have the luxury of doing my current work if I didn’t grow up in a privileged environment with access to certain networks as a result. I’m motivated to support and generate wealth for others. I’m not interested in exorbitant wealth because I have seen that side of the world and I think there are diminishing returns to that lifestyle. There’s more joy in helping others than the endless acquisition of material wealth.
What has been one of the most memorable experiences or opportunities that you’ve experienced as an entrepreneur?
This work we are doing with Made X Hudson and Hudson Community Incubator has been the most rewarding work I have done by a long shot. We are building the support ecosystem that I wish I had when I launched my first startup, ROOT. It was a hydroponics company and we got to meet Fortune 500 CEOs and get published in CNBC and BBC, but it was the most frustrating thing ever because getting funding for a hardware startup was and is such a long shot. Whereas, working in a community to help people from idea to launch is endlessly rewarding. Building community fills the gaps in our free market capitalism, and I hope that Americans can learn that mutual aid is critical for us to continue on as a human race.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
Everything takes 3-10x longer than planned, so don’t quit your day job until you have validated your business concept (as in getting at least one paying customer). Success doesn’t happen overnight, and expect to fail more than to succeed. Give yourself space to experiment.
Don’t spend all of your savings; ask for customer money instead – after all, others also have to believe in what you’re doing and getting early customers is the best validation for your business. And join the Hudson Community Incubator so you don’t try to go it alone; it takes a village to grow a company.
What is next? Where do you see yourself and your business in 10 years?
We want HCI and Made X Hudson to be a model for Main Street innovation hubs that can be replicated across the country. It’s going to take 10 years to polish and we’re just getting started.