Plumbing the Depths: New 20Fathoms executive director talks vision, growth and pandemic challenges

It’s the start of another new chapter for local tech incubator 20Fathoms.

Just 18 months after Lauren Bigelow took the reins as its second executive director, 20Fathoms has another new leader. Eric Roberts, a Michigan native fresh off eight years working in Silicon Valley, officially took over the executive director role in mid-September. The TCBN sat down with Roberts on day two of his tenure to learn more about the state of the organization, his vision for the future, and how the pandemic has changed the game.

Bigelow came to 20Fathoms in February 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 shutdowns began in earnest. Roberts acknowledges that the early days of the pandemic were extremely detrimental to 20Fathoms, noting that “it’s a workspace” and everyone was in stay-at-home mode.

He credits Bigelow for getting the organization through the pandemic – a process that involved, among other changes, a relocation from the original 20Fathoms office in downtown Traverse City to the Bayview Professional Centre across the street from Tom’s West Bay.

Roberts

Roberts is from Michigan – he was born in Ironwood and went to school at Michigan Tech – but he wasn’t officially a Traverse City resident until June. As he tells the story, he and his wife had been eyeing northern Michigan as a place to put down roots for awhile now.

“My wife and I lived in California, and about two and a half years ago, we vacationed here as one of the potentials for where we wanted to live,” Roberts said. “We absolutely fell in love with it and we bought a house a couple months later. That was two years ago in October, so we knew we were coming here. We just didn’t know when.”

Roberts’ time in Silicon Valley had him working in executive roles for brands like BlackBerry, Good Technology, and Motorola Mobility. Most recently, he served as vice president of revenue operations for Saba Software, a company that sells cloud-based talent management solutions. When Saba was acquired, Roberts decided that, instead of looking for a new job in California, he’d look for one in Michigan.

That job just happened to be with an organization he was already familiar with. A small blessing of COVID, Roberts says, is that – because everything went remote – he was able to start getting involved in the Traverse City business scene long before he relocated to the area.

“Because of COVID, I could get involved in TCNewTech and pitch night; I joined Northern Michigan Angels,” he said. “All of that was possible on a remote basis, and it wouldn’t have been possible without COVID happening.”

Those connections also familiarized Roberts with the mission behind 20Fathoms – which, given the time he’d spent in the startup capital of the world, resonated with him.

“I reached out to Lauren blindly,” Roberts recalled. “And I said, ‘Hey, I’d just like to sit and talk to you, have a beer.’ And so we did. She gave me the tour upstairs (at the old 20Fathoms building). And I learned more about what 20Fathoms was. It was intriguing. It’s just a really cool thing. I couldn’t believe little Traverse City had this much going on in the tech space. So then I just stayed really engaged for the next year.”

Staying engaged, it turned out, was just what Roberts needed to stumble into his dream Traverse City job. When Bigelow shared her intention to step down as executive director with the 20Fathoms board a few months ago – a decision that Roberts says was motivated by a family matter and entails “no drama” or hard feelings at all between Bigelow and the 20Fathoms team – Roberts got a phone call. Would he like to be considered for the executive director job?

The 20Fathoms office in Traverse City.

The good news for Roberts is that he’s coming into an organization that has stabilized significantly since the turbulence of the early pandemic. According to Keri Amlotte, director of marketing for 20Fathoms, the organization “currently has an all-time high in membership,” with nearly 100 entrepreneurs, tech professionals, and businesses now calling the fourth-floor Bayview Professional Centre office at least a part-time home.

That number is buoyed by the recent arrival of AECOM – a Fortune 500, multinational engineering company that recently opened a Traverse City office inside of 20Fathoms.

The challenge for Roberts, meanwhile, is trying to balance what 20Fathoms needs to survive with the mission on which the organization was built. The idea of 20Fathoms, in the first place, was to provide an affordable workspace environment and networking community in which startups could be launched, incubated and grown.

Tech entrepreneurs were the target, and growing Traverse City’s startup scene was the goal. From one vantage point, the presence of a major global company like AECOM could be seen as being antithetical to that original mission. Roberts acknowledges this possible interpretation, but says that – for now at least – 20Fathoms needs to be for everyone.

“As we go through COVID, the priority is survival,” Roberts said. “Lauren did that. She got us through (the worst of it); we’ve survived. So right now, anybody on the planet who wants a place to work and is paying rent, come on in. Even five years from now, I can imagine a point where we say: ‘Here’s the ideal customer, that fulfills the mission, that helps us pay the bills, and that gets us in a position where we can support other businesses.’ There will be a day – and I aspire to the day – when I can focus every dollar I have on those folks. But until we are sustainable, and strong in and of ourselves, I want everybody here.”

One particular target that’s on Roberts’ mind at the moment is Traverse City’s growing population of telecommuters.

The pandemic ignited the local housing market, in part because the health crisis – combined with the new embrace of remote work – drove people out of big cities and toward different lifestyles. Because of those shifts, Roberts thinks there are probably a lot of people living in the area, working virtually for companies based in other cities or states, and looking for a sense of professional community.

20Fathoms, Roberts suggests, is uniquely positioned to provide that community for telecommuters. He even wants to bring more telecommuters to the area over time.

“Everybody here hates Cherry Fest, right?” Roberts asked. “A jillion people come in, it’s such a pain, they break our infrastructure, that sort of thing. I look at (Cherry Festival and tourism) as this amazing exposure to folks who might say, ‘Why am I living in Chicago? When all these people go home, why wouldn’t I want to start an office here?’ I think of them as prospects, folks who might want to come here. I’d love to figure out a way, working with the airport or something, to have marketing or messaging that goes out to those people when they come to see us, to get them asking, ‘Why would I not live here?’”

While Roberts says he expects to solidify his other goals for 20Fathoms over time, as he learns the organization and the local business community more fully, he does outline three broad points of focus that he has in mind already as he takes the leadership role.

One goal, Roberts says, is to make 20Fathoms “extremely” open, and welcoming, and inclusive, and to create a brand identity  grounded in the entrepreneur/innovation/tech space so that 20Fathoms becomes the place people want it to be.

Another goal is to shore up local partnerships, so that 20Fathoms is working more with other like-minded players – such as Creative Coast and the rest of the Traverse Connect organization, Northern Michigan Angels, and TCNewTech – to achieve common goals.

Finally, Roberts wants to maintain, enhance, and grow 20Fathoms’ programming, so that the organization is benefiting a broader swath of the local community – and even beyond it – than just the members that use its office space.

Bigelow launched multiple programs during her tenure, including the HealthSpark Accelerator (a 12-week intensive acceleration program that involved  10 early-stage digital and telehealth startups from across the country), as well as tccyber and tccodes (educational programs focused on cybersecurity and software development, respectively, have so far attracted more than 250 northern Michigan participants).

From May 9-15, 20Fathoms will partner with Northern Michigan Angels and Newton’s Road to launch Northern Michigan Startup Week, an educational program geared toward high school and college students that will incorporate invention and startup competitions.

“I think it would be arrogant for me, on day two, to proclaim the new directions we’re going to go,” Roberts concluded. “It would infer that I know more than the people who’ve been doing this every day, including the board, including the team that’s here already, and including the work that Lauren was doing.”

But there are a couple of areas Roberts says are near and dear to him.

“I’d say our identity, the community and partnerships, the outreach to other folks in town, and programming – those are the big ones for me,” he said.

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