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Alum follows creative path to become Entrepreneur-in-Residence

Mike Manna stands on porch

Mike Manna, left, stands with city officials after finishing his renovation of the historic Soper-Burr house in Bloomington in October 2012. (Courtesy photo)

Imagine you are kidnapped, tossed into the trunk of a car, driven to some strange small town you’ve never been to before, let out of the trunk, and abandoned. Oh, and you’re naked.

How long would it take you to start your own business in your new town and then to sell it for a profit?

The Naked on Main Street scenario is a scary one for most, but not for entrepreneur Mike Manna ’93. It’s a scenario first posed to Manna years ago by a mentor, who (by the way) always said he could get his naked-to-storefront business off the ground in six months, and sold to someone else in three years.

“That was my ‘wow’ moment,” Manna told STATEside. “It’s the creative part that allows you to get out of the trunk. It’s about thinking outside the box and through the back door.”

Manna is one of several alums returning to campus this semester as part of the Startup Speaker Series, presented by Illinois State’s George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization. The series kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 30, in State Farm Hall of Business Room 357, with a presentation from alumnus Corey Ferengul ’93 titled, “You’ve Got an Idea … Now What?”

Manna is also the Means Center’s inaugural Entrepreneur-in-Residence, working closely with the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization student group as a mentor and offering advice and direction on students’ ideas and business proposals.

Manna himself was an art major, but his list of accomplishments in the business world since graduation read like a resume from a half-dozen different people – from the service industry to real estate to historic preservation to tech start-ups to a Learn to Play Guitar in 5 Minutes or Less Using Impossitoneing instructional DVD.

Manna stayed in town after graduation and kept working as a bartender, eventually at a now-defunct spot in downtown Bloomington. Today, downtown is home to tons of bars and restaurants, but back in the mid-1990s it was struggling, undermined by expansion in east Bloomington. Sensing an opening amid all the abandoned storefronts, Manna made a move and opened his first business – The Lizard’s Lounge – in 1996.

Almost immediately, town of Normal officials announced a dramatic redevelopment of downtown Normal, meaning bar patrons would need a new place to go. So they went to downtown Bloomington.

Manna’s timing was perfect.

“Little did I know that it was like buying Google stock when everybody was still laughing at the name,” he said.

Over the years, Manna has thrown himself into numerous businesses, including his own web hosting company and other technology ventures. He’s also owned property in downtown Bloomington for 15 years and renovated a number of buildings. His most recent redevelopment project was a full rehab of the historic Soper-Burr house in Bloomington, which dates back to the 1850s. It was a challenging project – he prefers a challenge – and it took him 15 months, but he finished it last October.

An entrepreneur needs to be both creative and opportunistic, Manna says. That mix is evident in Manna’s latest move as a partner in private equity firm Hurst Capital, which recently made a bid to buy the bakery side of bankrupt Twinkies maker Hostess. (That bid is still pending as bankruptcy proceedings continue.)

For now, Manna is looking forward to his Entrepreneur-in-Residence role at Illinois State. He said he’s eager to be part of a young but growing effort in higher education to teach entrepreneurship. As a property owner, Manna says he’s seen plenty of people who call about renting a storefront but are totally unprepared for what running a viable business entails. He’d like to do something about that, describing his interest in helping others a sort of “Hippocratic oath” among entrepreneurs.

“The people that teach doctors are doctors,” Manna said.

Manna is a good fit for the Means Center residency in part because of his varied background, said Doan Winkel, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and associate director of programs for the Means Center.

“He has an interdisciplinary focus and understanding, so he can appeal to a wide array of students, not just business students,” Winkel said. “He is a fountain of ideas and energy to introduce and engage students in entrepreneurship. This is truly a passion of his.”

Manna will discuss “Show Me the Money: Realistic Funding Options for Start-ups” during his Startup Speaker Series talk, set for 12:30 p.m. April 19 at State Farm Hall of Business, Room 357.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@ilstu.edu.

 

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