Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.

Each month, we ask an influential Pittsburgher: What was it like for you in the beginning?

Eric Moorer  Sommelier,  Or, The Whale,
Live: North Side •  Work: Downtown •  How Long: A Year

Eric Moorer remembers the first great wine he ever tasted.

It was 2011, the Alderdice grad had just moved back to Pittsburgh from Wilmington, North Carolina, where he went to college, and he was working at Sonoma Grill as a means to “figure out the rest of [my] 20s”, as he describes it. “One of our senior servers at the time poured me a glass of Stags Leap Petit Syrah.” Moorer said. “I tasted it and it’s this big, juicy, beautiful, opulent, California red wine, and I was like… Oh my god. What was that?’ And he was like, ‘Well, they’re not all going to be like that.'”

Years later, he not only remembers the experience, but the exact wine, its specific taste, the feeling he got when he took that first sip. After four years at Sonoma Grill, he moved on to Pizzaiolo Primo to work as a bartender, then the Commoner for a short stint. After Pizzaiolo invited him back to work as their beverage director, he started to realize the shape that his career was taking and to become entirely dedicated to wine.

He told us about it while sitting in the cozy wine room tucked away on the bottom floor of or, The Whale, where he now works as the sommelier. The thousands of wines he’s tasted since that day in 2011 might not all have been as impactful or as impressive as that first perfect sip, but get Moorer started talking about wine and it’s instantly apparent that his appreciation for it has only grown into a full-fledged passion. It even became his career, and one that’s not only enabled him to make a name for himself at a young age in Pittsburgh, but that’s also taken him all over the world.

On Pittsburgh as a “foodie city”: 

“Pittsburgh is its own beautiful kind of beast. You look at different bartenders around the city — I like to highlight people like Cat Cannon at Smallman Galley, Cecil over with the Richard De Schantz Group — those are people who are so thoughtful, so deeply entrenched in what they do. They’re reading, they’re going to camps, they’re going to different seminars, they’re making sure they’re as educated as possible so they can translate that to people better on the other side of the bar. They don’t do it because they want to talk down to people, they don’t do it because they’re thinking “Oh, this is what’s going to make me the next big thing” — they care about what they do, and I think that’s something that’s prevalent around Pittsburgh, especially in the bar community. People are super passionate about what they do. It’s not about getting to be someone, it’s about getting to elevate this city. I think everyone buys into that collective idea that we’re all here for Pittsburgh.”

On the bar community in Pittsburgh: 

I love when people take projects that aren’t for the visibility — I didn’t take this for the visibility. I took it because it’s the logical next step for me and a way to grow my career. I think that’s how a lot of people view moves; you move yourself in different avenues so you can learn different things. When I came here, I thought “Cool, I’ll be the somm,” and then when I got here, I realized I’d be doing payroll, I’d be doing all these different things, and it’s great. I get to round myself out in things I didn’t necessarily think I’d be doing, but it makes me a better person, it makes me a better employee. I came here specifically to this restaurant because of the people I knew they were bringing in, who I could learn from while I was here.”

On building the wine list at or, The Whale:

I’ve been here pretty much since the start, so it’s been really cool to be here since construction, getting a staff hired, building a restaurant, having my hands in this when it was dirty and there was dust everywhere, getting to put together a wine list from scratch without being limited to certain countries or certain varieties.

When I was in France this summer I got to drink so many cool things that I had never heard of, the indigenous varietals, Romorantin —  this is something I found when I was in Paris, we were eating lunch with my wife and I was like “I don’t know what that is, I’ll try that,” It was a four-Euro glass of wine to have with my Pastrami sandwich, and then I get this wine, and it was juicy, ripe, peach, mango, fruit without being sweet, nice balance of acid and body, and I was like “I’m going to drink this every day for the rest of my life if I can find it.”

Putting together the wine list for here, finding that, I was like “That’s the wine I had this summer,” that definitely went on the list. […] From traveling I’ve got to broaden my horizons, I’m open to so many more things, I’m not afraid to try things anymore. Especially when it comes to wine – people have been drinking this for a reason, they’ve been pairing it with the food they eat for a reason, the least I can do is try to give it a voice here.

On his wine philosophy: 

Moving into Italian wine [at Pizzaiolo Primo] was a whole different world for me because it introduced me to where I stand now with my perspective on wine. Wine is meant to be drank with food, it’s meant to be shared with friends, it’s an experience within the experience, it’s… extra. It’s not the focus — I like for wine to paired with something, whether it’s good friends or food.

On how he serves wine:

For me, it’s always about getting people’s trust. I’ll let you taste whatever you want — hell, I’ll even open a bottle for you if I think it’s absolutely what you want to have in this moment. I’ll say, “Hey, what do you normally drink?” and if they say California Cabernet, I’ll say “Okay, by the glass we have this Aglianico, it comes from Campania, you’re going to have big tannins, a full body, all the things you’re really looking for. I want you to taste it by itself, and then I want you to taste it with what you’re going to be eating tonight. Tell me what you think after that, and if not, I’ll buy you that glass of wine.” I always tell people that the worst thing that can happen is that they won’t like it, and we’re going to get them into something that they will like. I like to talk to people about things they’re unsure about and get people outside their comfort zone.

On his favorite type of wine: 

I’m into a lot of French wines, the Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc is my life. If I could drink Chenin Blanc every day for the rest of my life, I’d be happy.

On that first Petit Syrah:

I will never forget that wine. I will never touch that wine every again, for as long as I live. It could never be as good as that. Nothing will ever compare to that moment when I discovered that I loved wine.



Stephanie Dooley & Ashley Hedland  Founders,  Tipped Off,
Live: Allegheny West & Wilkinsburg •  Work: Alloy 26 - North Side •  How Long: 1 year

How did you two connect & how did the initial idea for Tipped Off come to you two?

Stephanie: I came up with the idea when looking for a serving job in New York. Obviously the amount of positions to consider there are overwhelming, and the culture is pretty cutthroat. I was finding that people weren’t being completely honest about potential earnings and I wasn’t getting a very reliable idea of what the culture of these places were like before I worked there. As a result, I switched jobs maybe every 3-6 months on average. I found myself googling things like “what’s it like to work at X?” and of course finding nothing, which was really the birth of the idea — what if I could know what it was like to work somewhere before I apply, and not waste two weeks training there? It really started to take shape when I found a place I liked to work and started to correlate that a happy and well-treated staff resulted in better service for the customers. I started to see how everyone could benefit from this idea in one way or another, and it started to grow from there.

As for how we connected, I met Ashley at while working Downtown at Bakersfield and could definitely tell that she knew her stuff; she was easily the most knowledgeable server there. I could tell she had a respect for the work. At this point, I had kind of left Tipped Off on the backburner while I was working two jobs; which was common for the Masters-level employees I worked with at UPMC because of the low pay. Ashley was expressing frustration about something industry-related one day and I said, well hey, you should be my new partner for my company! She asked about it and I gave my little elevator pitch and half way through she was finishing my sentences. And so we started pursuing the idea further.

Give us a rundown on how Tipped Off works and who you see at the beneficiaries?

Ashley: Tipped Off is a web-based community and hiring platform for the restaurant industry. That’s the simple answer, although it’s one we don’t love. While we want to build an online space for people to connect and network, we want to make sure the community is shared and expanded outside of our computer screens. Tipped Off currently gives employees the space to share information about the restaurants they work in, and the vibe of their individual cultures. Soon, it will be a fully interactive hiring platform where employees can build profiles including a copy of their resume, and reply to restaurant job postings immediately. Hiring management can contact their applicants on the site immediately, and can also browse any individual profiles who have their resumes attached.

Honestly, everyone benefits from Tipped Off. Cocky? Maybe. True? Absolutely. Tipped Off aims to streamline the hiring process for restaurant owners and management, while simultaneously empowering staff members to find the best fit for them. Overall, if you have staff members in a space where they’re happy and feel respected, more care will go into each dish made and table served, resulting in better service and therefore more consistent and higher sales.

And the model definitely is not Yelp for jaded employees.  We want the dialogue and information we post to empower everyone in the service ecosystem.

What do you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to FOH service?

Ashley: That anyone can do it. We are a generally high-volume, fast paced industry, where we work very closely with other individuals at odd hours of the day, for long periods of time without a break. We do this to provide an experience to our guests, not just write down an order, or pour a beer. A lot of education goes into being a good FOH employee too – whether it’s certifications, intensive menu knowledge on food/wine or learning how to read and respond to your customers.

Stephanie: I totally agree, and along the same vein, for me it’s the misconception that restaurant workers are there because they are unable to get a job anywhere else, are desperate, or uneducated. It’s an antiquated way of looking at the industry. A lot of people, like me, do this because they love it; they love food, wine, and creating a special experience for people. They love that the flexible schedule allows them to pursue endless interests outside of work, without being limited by the 9-5 thing. Honestly, restaurant workers are some of the most diverse and passionate people I’ve met, and it’s a mistake for people to underestimate them.

Where can PGH get better on service?

Ashley: Education is super important. As dietary restrictions are “trending” and PGH’s restaurant scene is booming, there are more and more new items hitting the market daily. I didn’t know what the fuck a shishito pepper was a year ago, but now they’re EVERYWHERE. I frequently run into situations where staff can’t properly describe a cocktail or dish. If they don’t know what they’re selling, that item isn’t going to move.

How can restaurants foster this change?

Ashley: PRESHIFT. PRESHIFT. PRESHIFT. MGMT should be more than happy to put up that new plate or drink for everyone to try, and give proper tasting notes and guidance on pairings and inevitable substitutions. Nothing is worse than having two days off of work and coming back to find that there’s something new on the menu that you’ve never heard of.

Stephanie: This might be an unpopular response, but Pittsburgh restaurants need to get more comfortable letting their servers tell customers “no” if they truly want to elevate the culinary landscape of the city. I understand that people get nervous about not knowing ingredients or terms on a menu, and as such I always acknowledge that having questions is normal. I think it’s the server’s job to make the guest feel as comfortable as possible around what might be unfamiliar foods or cooking techniques to coax them into experiencing new or unusual things. Something is on a menu because the chef thinks it’s a delicious creation that they are proud to share. If someone changes the dish too much to resemble something they can cook at home, you haven’t showed that customer anything new, and you’ve done a disservice to the work of the chef. Instead, I think we need to find ways to get the customer comfortable and excited about trying something new, and part of that is making sure your staff is excited about your food and knows it well enough to know how to sell it to anyone.

Now more about you two…

What’s your favorite spot to have a cocktail or bite to eat after a shift?

Ashley: I usually sway more to the dive side of things, especially after a shift, so my go-to is definitely The Cage. Pro tip, they just got their fryer up and running again after a few months, so hot cheese balls for everyone!

Stephanie: I’ve worked downtown mostly, so for a while I would go to Meat and Potatoes regularly for some prosecco and pâté (they have the BEST). Not to mention that the lighting in there is always on point, whereas many other downtown places are way too bright! Lately though I’ve been hitting up Condado; they usually have a great beer list and a kitchen that’s decent and open late. It’s definitely becoming the go-to haunt for the Penn Avenue servers and bartenders.

Favorite place for a quick bite before work?

Ashley: Working in the Strip District has given me the gift of Salem’s. If you haven’t made it, it’s a great Middle Eastern deli on Penn & 30th. Everyone who works there is super friendly, and their curried goat is delicious!

Stephanie: I love Earth – that’s something I miss about New York; build your own salad places like that are on every corner and much cheaper. I also checked out Pittsburgh Poke recently which I thought was a great value, but if I ate a sushi burrito that’s bigger than my head right before my shift I might need a nap midway through.

Most memorable swanky dining experience? Here or elsewhere.

Ashley: Zahav in Philly was hands down, the best meal I’ve ever had. From the food to the impeccable service, and their wine list is remarkable too! I can be hypercritical when I’m out to eat, and there was nothing I would change about the experience I had there.

Stephanie: Sushi Shiro in Seattle. It’s not necessarily a “swanky” place but my brother and I sat at the sushi bar and did omakase,with the sushi chef preparing multiple courses of his choosing for us. It was so delicious and fresh (he literally showed us the live prawn moments before we ate it) and having the chef right in front of us explaining his training, the preparations, the reasoning behind the order of the dishes…it just truly enhanced an already fantastic meal.

Last meal in PGH?

Stephanie: I’ve been to brunch at Or, the Whale like three times already. First just to see my friends at their new job but then just because everything was excellent! It’s so light and airy in there, the service was lovely, and the food has been consistently wonderful! Also, they have brunch every day from 8-2, which I (and every other bartender and server in the city) have been wishing for for too long! Servers need a brunch spot on a Tuesday; we’re serving you on the weekends, so we don’t usually get to go!

Ashley: I left town last week for New England, and I think the last thing I ate before leaving work was a turkey sandwich from Dianoia’s. I am so consistently impressed by everything that comes out of Chef Dave’s kitchen, and I have an extra 10lbs to prove it!

Least favorite question from a guest?

Ashley: “I don’t like ______ , can I get this dish without it?” I’m super sensitive to allergies and other dietary restrictions, but when it comes to changing a dish out of want instead of need, it breaks my heart a bit. Chefs design dishes as works of art. Their hearts and souls go into the preparation of these meals, ingredients balance each other, and removing a piece of it means you don’t get to see (taste) their full vision. I’d much rather guide a guest to something on the menu they’d like without any substitutions.

Stephanie: I’m going to have to go with Ashley on this one. Live a little, Pittsburgh! Just try it! We’ll get you something else if you hate it, I promise.

Want to support Tipped Off? Join Stephanie & Ashley for a private dinner (in which they flex their FOH servicing skills) Sunday, October 8th. Ticket includes valet services, cocktail reception, a 5-course dinner with wine pairings, and a silent auction of which all proceeds benefit the new startup.  See full details here.

Zach Cole  Founder,  Southern Ladies,
Live: Manchester •  Work: Downtown  •  How Long: Five Years

Tell us a little about Southern Ladies? How did it start and how did it evolve?

The Southern Ladies Party is just a little event I put together every year, where the basic premise is throw on a dress, some heels, and have a few day drinks. A fun little side effect of that, and it’s become the foundation of the party, is that once people put on these outfits, so much of the social anxiety that tends to permeate the gay world seems to melt away, and all the sudden people are talking to new people, making new friends, and enjoying a new experience out of their comfort zone.

My friend Dan Byrd and I actually jokingly conceived it senior year of college, and decided to make it a reality by inviting about 20-30 of our closest friends – and wouldn’t you know, it was a huge success. From there, it’s just been growing – with new faces and new outfits every year! Luckily, at year 3, the fine people at 5801 graciously opened their doors to us, which has allowed the party to grow in some exciting ways. Now at year 6, expecting the largest attendance ever.

What challenges have you faced in creating and growing Southern Ladies?

Honestly, it’s all been relatively easy. I think it’s due to the format of the party itself. So many people just want an excuse to let loose and have fun.  Every year it gets a little bigger, which has meant more work – but thanks to 5801 and our generous sponsors at Central Outreach Wellness Center and Northwestern Mutual – we’ve been able to keep the event free, and I haven’t gone crazy trying to over plan the afternoon!

What are you most excited for this year?

The turnout! I think we’re not only going to have a really interesting mix of people, but I think everyone is really going to step up their game this year, so I’m really quite excited to see what kind of looks these “ladies” turn out!

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where Southern Ladies is today, what is one thing you would change from day one and one thing you are glad you kept through year six.

I mean, is it wrong to say I wouldn’t change a thing? Each year it’s been amazing to watch the party grow, and I think I’m glad the party started as humbly as it did, as everything has sort of been a natural progression to the fabulousness we’re at today.

As far as what I’m glad I kept, at least for now, I’m happy I’ve been able to keep the party free. Whether this will evolve into a ticketed fundraiser type event or not in the future, I love being able to bring so many people together for free, so anyone who wants can participate!

Kenny Gould  Founder,  Hop Culture,
Live: Shady Side •  Work: Pittsburgh •  How Long: Almost 2 years

What projects have you worked on in the past?

When I lived in Manhattan both my co-founder, J. Travis Smith, and I worked for an online men’s lifestyle magazine called Gear Patrol. I’ve also free-lanced for Thrillist, Time Out New York, Paleo, Organic Life, and a variety of Pittsburgh-based magazines, including Table and Local Pittsburgh. In my free time, I teach yoga at Yoga Flow in Shadyside, and I’ve spent time volunteering as a creative writing instructor in the Allegheny County Jail.

Tell us a little about Hop Culture and what sets you guys apart from other beer publications?

My co-founder and I started Hop Culture because we were frustrated by the state of beer writing. We were tired of clip art, low quality articles, and biased, subjective reviews. Worst of all, we didn’t feel like we wanted to drink with any of the writers. Beer is supposed to be fun, informative, down-to-earth, inclusive, and educational. If you don’t finish one of our articles and say, “Wow, I want to drink with her,” or “Gee, I’d love to shotgun that,” we haven’t done our job.

We also have an incredible team with over 30 years of combined experience in digital media. This includes my co-founder, a Boston-based senior editor, a Pittsburgh-based art director, a Pittsburgh-based videographer, and five fantastic interns. I can’t speak more highly of their hard work and dedication. Our interns especially—I know that all of them have bright careers ahead.

Hop Culture is a new platform. What struggles have you faced in creating and establishing Hop Culture?

As the new kid on the block, it’s difficult to make people take you seriously. However, at the end of the day, the site speaks for itself. Whenever we can, we use original, high-resolution photography, and our beer journalism far exceeds anything else on the web.

The other problem we’ve faced is from people who have closed minds about the industry. We champion democracy and writers from all walks of life, be they gay, straight, white, black, or brown. Currently, we have a pregnant writer working on a ten-part series about drinking and pregnancy, and we think that’s awesome. Thankfully, the majority of our audience celebrates diversity in craft.

What personality traits must someone possess in order to launch a company like Hop Culture and be successful?

Beer is a social substance—if I didn’t have a personality, I wouldn’t be good at my job. Not only because interviewing people requires making connections and teasing out stories, but I’m frequently traveling, which often puts me outside my comfort zone. I also work a lot. That’s fine for me, because I love work, but someone who prefers a better work-life balance might not like the position.

Because we’re having so much fun, it’s easy to forget that Hop Culture is a startup. Most days, I wake up at 7:00 AM and don’t get to bed before 11:00 or 12:00 PM. Between those hours, it’s meetings, emails, phone calls, and beer.

If you were stuck on a desert island and had one beer you had to drink for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Oh man. What a question. I think my favorite go-to beer is Allagash White. It’s the first craft beer I ever tried. We don’t get it in Pittsburgh (listen up, Allagash!), but every time I travel, I try to grab a four pack. To me, a cold bottle of Allagash White tastes like drinking autumn, which I imagine would be especially pleasing on a desert island.

Urbanist is so excited to announce a year-long partnership with Hop Culture. Stay tuned for their quarterly insight to beer centric events and news in Pittsburgh! 

Wendy Downs  Owner,  Moop,
Live: Mt. Lebanon •  Work: Downtown •  How Long: 10 Years

What projects have you worked on in the past?  I am a formally trained artist and photographer. When I finished graduate school, I had moved to western Massachusetts where the landscape is incredible, the space I was living/working from was inspiring, the area is fiercely independent & very academic…but there were no jobs. I had moved there at a time when I was unsure of what my life direction would be and had to find a way to define and create that for myself. I worked odd jobs while trying to get my footing, all the while continuing my practice as an artist. I made it a point to work in my studio (which was in my house) every day.

This was over ten years ago, when the climate of e-commerce was gaining a lot of traction, especially for independent makers of things. There were several tools in place that would allow you to make and sell things with very little overhead…and they were new and exciting. I had made bags for myself in the past but, they were strictly utilitarian. I had never really considered that I could also sell them…let alone build a brand out of them…until I did. In early 2007 I tried out Etsy, a new fledgling website for people who make things, to sell things. And, it was amazing! So amazing that I began to see the potential of what I was building and wanted to hone it to be something specific. So, I set up my own site within my first year and have been building it ever since.

What struggles have you faced in creating and growing Moop Bags?  Building a business is full of challenges, exciting ones and ones that remind you there is always more to learn. I did not have a background in business when I was starting Moop. I learned everything as I went, very transparently online as I was growing and selling and making and learning. But, my biggest challenge to date has been a failed manufacturing experiment. I had wanted to grow our production by shifting from an in-house team to a team of like-minded manufacturers in another part of the country. It turned into a very expensive endeavor…one that led to many cross country trips, visiting, troubleshooting, moving equipment back and forth.  Ultimately I found the bags could not come close to the quality of what we make in-house. It was an expensive lesson to learn but one that has helped me to re-focus on the value of making our product in house.

We recently moved to a new location right in downtown Pittsburgh. My goal with setting up a storefront space, which lives right in our manufacturing space, is to make manufacture visible. Everything around us is handmade…but, more often than not those things are made by hands that are underserved, overworked and underpaid. We are trying to create a new model of visible production within our studio.

What personality traits must someone possess in order to launch a company like Moop and be successful?  Building a business takes a lot of perseverance and patience. A willingness to look at failures as learning opportunities. And, a willingness to put a lot of sweat equity into your business…long hours are a given! But, I find a lot of satisfaction in succeeding when I’ve put the right amount of work into something. I love what I do and feel proud of where I began and where I am now. Lots of good things happening here!

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what 3 words describe how you might have felt?  How about four...hard work pays off!

And the hard work has paid off for Wendy.  Her bags have landed her in publications such as The Atlantic, Cool Hunting, Refinery 29 and more.  Make sure to check out her shop and bags Downtown in 2017.

429 First Ave
Suite 100
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Tyler Haak  Creator/Owner,  Yinzstore,
Live: Downtown •  Work: All Across the Area •  How Long: Five Years.

What projects have you worked on in the past?

My first project was the blog, Yinzster, which moved from the original aim of describing a 20-something’s life in the city with words to celebrating everyone else’s with their pictures.  Photo projects with Yinzster like “Pixburgh” and “May Days” led me to work with @steelcitygrammers on Instagram and where I am today.

What  propelled you to start Yinzstore?

From the consumer side, I thought it would be really valuable to have a marketplace that gathered together Pittsburgh-themed products (starting with unique street photographs) that are typically disparate.  From the contributor side, I am just aware of the talent that’s out there and I think the city should be excited about all the unique things the people I’m partnering with are doing.

What struggles have you faced in starting Yinzstore?

This is a passion project, so the trend from the original blog through the Instagram page and now into the e-commerce end of things is that I have had no clue how to do any of it until I threw myself right into the thick of it.  That’s what’s made it so fun and fulfilling, but also super difficult and more than a little scary at times.

Why launch this project now?

Lifers, newcomers, visitors, and ex-pats are enthusiastic about the direction the city is taking right now, as they should be, so interest in quality content is high.  And there’s just so much talent running around – with a unique interest in their city’s betterment – that I believe different photographers, bloggers, vendors, artists, etc can all benefit from collaborative marketing.

What personality traits must someone possess in order to launch a project like Yinzstore and be successful?

I guess if you look around town, Urbanist is a great example but so are things like Handmade Arcade or Keep Pittsburgh Dope or what have you, the most important thing is probably that you have a belief in what you’re doing and you are ready to stand behind what you’re creating.  I find the best things for that have been confidence, flexibility, and patience.  And for Yinzstore in particular, it’s important to be able to work with really inspiring people you can trust.

What are you looking most forward to with this project?

I’m playing matchmaker.  I get to share a place where Pittsburghers can purchase things they otherwise may not have found and that they’ll own and cherish for a long time, and I get to help super-talented artists and creative people move their work into the lives of their target audience.  Thinking of making those connections a reality is pretty damn cool.

Lauren Goshinski & Quinn Leonowicz  Co-Directors,  VIA,
Live: Undisclosed locations •  Work: Venues across Pittsburgh •  How Long: Five years

Projects: VIA Festival, events & special projects including music booking, curating, developing & commissioning special art/tech projects, event production

What was the defining moment that propelled you to start VIA?

It was made up of a bunch of moments between 2008 – 2010. It may be more important to note the defining moment when we decided to continue VIA which was after our first festival in 2010 where we were blown away by the reception.

What struggles did you face when starting VIA?

The unknown of creating a model that works for what you want to do and then explaining that model to the general public to gain support for funding, organizing things like venues, etc.

What was the riskiest move you ever made?

Trying to roll out the first festival in 2010 in 4 months.  The same work now is about a year long endeavor to give you a sense of reference.

If you could change the past, is there anything regarding the festival that you would do differently?

Not really. Maybe not eat all the leftover tortilla chips the second the festival ended in 2012.

What personality traits must someone possess in order to do what you do and be successful?

Patience, both long term and short term.

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what 3 words describe how you might have felt?

Hungry, Proud, Humbled.

Eric Christopher Sloss  Principal/Co-Founder,  Shift Collaborative, UpTo, WordFabric,
Live: Pittsburgh •  Work: East Liberty •  How Long: 2 years

Projects: Shift Collaborative, a creative firm helping nonprofit organizations and tech-start ups with brand strategies in earned, owned and paid media channels; UpTo, a social enterprise that uses popup strategies to provide small businesses access to creative services, deployed in select, niche main streets across the U.S.; and WordFabric, a web-based language algorithm that assists marketers in identifying key terms and concepts to strengthen their marketing efforts.  

What was the defining moment that propelled you to start your own business?  

For many years, I was the director of communications for the college of fine art of a local university. I had to be truly entrepreneurial and experimental in the creative tactics I deployed to raise awareness of college.  We were in competition with Ivy League schools; I needed to create my own systems and media channels to gain the most visibility. While I was there, I completed my master’s degree, which has given me a practical and theoretical view of my profession.  I also teach earned, owned and paid media strategies at two local universities.  Teaching forces me to continually refine the way I articulate professional strategy and tactics, and therefore continues to inform my understanding of the profession.  The confluence of these factors gave me the courage to start my own business. The opportunity was really about pursuing my own creative endeavors and defining a pattern of work where I can be creative and design social change.  I was lucky to have some of the most progressive thinkers around me to partner and launch new ideas. Foremost among those is my business partner, Sarah Mayer.

What struggles did you face when starting your own business?  

I have countless crazy ideas. On top of that, I have many artist, writer, engineer and designer friends who are always game to cultivate new projects.  It was truly a challenge to define which ideas to pursue first. For instance, we have expanded our service business of Shift to include two new companies in UpTo and WordFabric.  It was tough to decide to develop these particular ideas over others, and tough to figure out the right time to pursue them.

What was the riskiest move you ever made?  

Of course, there are many risks involved in starting your own business. We applied two different ideas to the same business incubator. They are both fantastic ideas but we took a risk by submitting two ideas, knowing the incubator may think we do not have the capacity to manage the ideas. We knew deep down that the products were stellar and were going to make a difference in the market place, but we took a risk.

If you could change the past, is there anything involving your career that you would do differently?  

Probably, but I don’t like to dwell on lost opportunities. I will say that I would have liked to have started my education as a studio artist.  I think having a Masters of Fine Arts degree is more important than receiving a Masters of Business Administration certificate.  Creative problem solving is radically changing the way we think about the world.

Could you ever go back to a “normal job,” working for someone else?  

I don’t like the term “working for someone” else. We put the term “Collaborative” in the name of our service business for a reason. I find that people work best when they work together.  Everyone has an agenda, areas of expertise and specialties. It’s the vision of a true collective to solve problems together.  At Shift, Sarah and I are inspired by the research of Claus Østergaard from Aalborg University in Denmark, who theorizes that innovation is a social process. We believe that innovation comes when people and businesses interact across multiple disciplines and networks.

What personality traits must someone possess in order to do what you do and be successful?  

Once, when pitching a product, an investor told me, “I’m not interested in learning your five year plan. I want to know how fast you can get it to the market, what my equity is, and how much money I will make – tomorrow.”

It is important to be to be patient.  Your product or service will come to fruition when the timing is right.  Also, be forward thinking and inspirational when articulating what your product or service will be in the future. If you don’t have those skills take an improvisation class or an acting course. Be passionate about your product or service, and be sensitive to mission creep. Stay focused to what is important to you.

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what 3 words describe how you might have felt?

Enlightened, inspired, and invigorated.

Matthew Ciccone  Partner,  The Beauty Shoppe,
Live: Mt. Washington •  Work: East Liberty •  How Long: 5 years

Projects: The Beauty Shoppe’s coworking model was inspired by our experience starting GTECH, a social enterprise here in Pittsburgh. As young entrepreneurs reasonably uncertain about the future, there was no 3rd option between signing a 12-month minimum office lease (and buying things to fill it) and squeezing into an less-than-desirable free option. As real estate developers, coworking is something of an industry innovation that made sense given our own entrepreneurial and business experiences.

What was the defining moment that propelled you to start your own business? I had left a job working for a larger commercial real estate developer to start my own boutique firm, Edile, in 2010. This left me in a similar situation as when we founded GTECH, in terms of bouncing between office options. Coworking was an idea that had bounced around Pittsburgh for several years without a real space emerging, and as I was collaborating with on other projects in East Liberty – and found a great partner in ELDI Real Estate – it wasn’t too far a stretch to launch The Beauty Shoppe. It’s concept was much more of an experiment than plan… activate a space, see who showed up, and hopefully learn something in the process. Its been fun, plus we’ve helped serve a broad range of freelancers, small firms, start-ups, projects. Now we’re super excited to expand the business and serve a much greater community.

What struggles did you face when starting your own business? Focusing on less. Getting an idea off the ground, it made sense to chase every opportunity, particularly in a place like Pittsburgh. With so much potential, its difficult to really focus on the ideas the hold the fastest potential to make it. A partner told me recently that pumpkin farmers tend only the strongest stems and kill off the rest. Its a good analogy to business.

What was the riskiest move you ever made? The easy answer is leaving a stable job to do something uncertain and entrepreneurial, but I’ve never viewed it that way. In my mind the downside of everything I’ve chosen to do over the past few years was broader relationships, valuable experience, and the satisfaction of pursuing projects important to me. While its naive to think this path doesn’t demand sacrifices and support, I didn’t necessarily see it as risky. Maybe this lacks perspective or is short-sighted but I haven’t had too much time to reflect.

If you could change the past, is there anything involving your career that you would do differently? I try not to dwell too much on past decisions. Everything I’ve done has led me to today, and I’m very happy with that.

Could you ever go back to a “normal job,” working for someone else? Absolutely… sometimes preferably… but it would need to be the right job, right inspiration, assuming I had the luxury of options. It would be fun to use some of the perspective and experience I’ve gained to help launch or scale a more established business.

What personality traits must someone possess in order to do what you do and be successful? In my experience, its helpful to be a humble self-evaluator and to understand when to seek help, and its necessary to deal well with uncertainty.

 In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what 3 words describe how you might have felt? Be well rounded.


Kimberly Musial  Owner,  The Yoga Hive ,
Live: Highland Park •  Work: Garfield •  How Long: 3 years

Projects:  Yoga Hive has brought new and unique events to the Pittsburgh yoga community, like our October and February yoga challenges that we’ve been holding since we opened and our Yoga Basics Bootcamp. We also partner with some amazing teachers to bring unique workshops to our clientele, like an entire workshop based on the classic yoga poses chaturanga (low push-up) and down dog. This year we’re hosting “40 Days to a Personal Revolution” a program based on connecting meditation, yoga and diet into everyday living.

What was the defining moment that propelled you to start your own business?  In May of 2009 I was in Mexico at a vipassana meditation retreat that included ten days of silence and about ten hours a day of meditation with no reading, writing or eye contact. By day eight, I had an epiphany and knew that I absolutely had to leave my corporate job to open a yoga studio. I don’t think most people have such specific realizations, but that was definitely a divine defining moment.

What struggles did you face when starting your own business?  Where to begin? For one, the Yoga Hive went on and off of the shelf because I couldn’t find the right location, rent, etc. And I decided to buy a house so that took over my life for awhile. Dealing with commercial contractors was challenging, the landlord was going into bankruptcy and there were rarely any straight answers, deciding how much money to spend on marketing and how to market a yoga studio and how to find really strong and well-trained yoga instructors were all difficult.

What was the riskiest move you ever made?  Leaving a well-paying job for the pursuit of a dream.

If you could change the past, is there anything involving your career that you would do differently?  Surely, but the past will always taunt us with “should’ve, would’ve and could’ve.” I’ve learned so many lessons that I’m grateful to still be kicking.

Could you ever go back to a “normal job,” working for someone else?   Yes.

What personality traits must someone possess in order to do what you do and be successful?  Tenacity, perseverance and gratitude for each person who arrives at yoga. While not a personality trait, the unwavering support of my friends and family must not be overlooked.

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what 3 words describe how you might have felt?  Surprise, joy, gratitude.