"I have a disease," Weston Bergmann says. He makes this confession underground, 120 feet below Mercier Street. "I mean 'disease' in such a good way."
The point man and founding investor of BetaBlox actually looks pretty healthy, even sitting in this neon-green conference room, under the unforgiving bulbs that illuminate his company's subterranean hive of offices. His red hair is combed to perfection, his jaw so square it could beat you at Dungeons and Dragons. The sleeves of his plaid shirt are rolled to the elbows, exposing meaty forearms with raised, pipeline veins.
He explains his condition: an acute case of entrepreneuritis. And he's had it at least since he appeared on MTV's The Real World (in its 2005 season, the one in Austin, Texas). Back then, MTV described the Arizona State University student as "bright and entrepreneurial."
But wait, is it a disease or does Bergmann have some heroic gift, a sixth sense for sniffing out fellow visionaries?
"I'm trying to think of a good movie metaphor where somebody with some sort of superpower can just find out the other ones," he says. "It's like that. We think so differently, we act so differently, we want so much different from our lives than the average person does. The cream rises to the top."
Right, the average people - those schoolteachers and pediatricians who have failed to start their own companies while they've mastered a profession. Might they feel insulted by Bergmann's idea of success? "Yeah, and they're not our customer, so insult away," he says.
Recall that, when Bergmann was on The Real World, MTV's website also called him "the kind of guy you love to hate ... an obnoxious, super-competitive jock."
Reality TV is in his past, though, and today he wants to be known as one of the business mentors behind BetaBlox, a startup incubator that this month welcomed its fourth group of businesses.
After an application process, BetaBlox accepts 10 new startups each cycle. The people who get in receive business training and six months to collaborate with their fellow startups. During that time, the hopefuls use the cave offices and its Wi-Fi for free. (BetaBlox itself isn't paying rent for the space.) In exchange, the startups give the incubator 5 percent ownership of their companies.
Bergmann started digging his way to the BetaBlox lair in high school, with his best friends. "I met these three other guys that are just clones of me," he recalls. "We've been friends since elementary school."
The biz buddies started a lawn service and website-building companies that, by their standards, boomed. "By the time we had graduated from high school, we had made more money than all of our friends," Bergmann says. "And, in a weird way, we were making more than a lot of our parents' friends. It was an exciting time.
"And we went off and did a bunch of cool things in college, most of which was entrepreneurial in nature - spread out by bouts of partying and girls." After Arizona State, he reunited with his friends in Kansas City to start a frozen-yogurt store at Town Center Crossing. But Mochi-Yo didn't make it, and in 2011 the partners gave up their lease and sold off the equipment.
"We just didn't want to be part of the yogurt wars of Kansas City," Bergmann says. "We had better things to do with Ivy League educations and all this background and stuff."
In January 2012, BetaBlox accepted its first startups. Four of the initial 10 companies dropped out of the program, and none of the startups were pushing million-dollar ideas.
"As much as I don't want to say it, the first batch was an experiment," Bergmann says. "We didn't want anything good in here because we knew how many mistakes we were going to make."
Since then, he says, BetaBlox has been revamped. Instructors now teach the popular "lean startup" philosophy, and he says there were more than 100 applications for this latest round. Among those now toiling in the cave is Autoswaprz.com, a car-sales website. And Bergmann has high hopes for FlexPro Meals, an athlete-oriented diet service that mails meals to customers.
Hannah Rues says 5 percent of her company, in exchange for what might be its most crucial six months, isn't too steep. She's the founder of ConciergeCare Inc., which matches seniors with local caregivers. Rues was a social worker before she went through BetaBlox's second batch. Last August, she left her job to start the company, which she says is now in revenue. She had her idea but she wanted help learning what to do with it.
"Being a social worker, I had no idea about business structure," she says. "Building a website would be like building an atomic bomb for me." That 5 percent, she adds, is a small price for the guidance she says BetaBlox gave her. "The 5 percent wasn't a big deal for me. I think, honestly, it's the only way I could make it happen."
Even with the company's help, though, a success like Rues' isn't easy to replicate. "I'm just saying the people that aren't prepared to give up their entire life, time and money and values, then you're not going to succeed as an entrepreneur, and you will not do well in this program," Bergmann says.
BetaBlox, after all, isn't for people of merely average ambition.
"I read an article very recently that said that $75,000 was the perfect amount of money to make you as happy as you need to be throughout your life," Bergmann says. "And I felt like vomiting throughout the entire article because it was all about making enough money to be able to provide for your friends and your family and take your kids to college, and not so much money that you're constantly worrying about work. I wake up every day and I don't care about money. But what I do care about is, I want to change the world. I want to create jobs. I want to feed those families that want those $75,000-a-year things."
He goes on: "I can't help but build things. I'm constantly forcing myself to learn. I want to have my name and my companies and my employees and my investments stretch across the entire globe. And that attitude is not taken on by the average person. They might want it in the same way that I wish that I was an NFL quarterback. But I didn't do what I needed to do to become an NFL quarterback because I didn't have that disease."