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Entrepreneur Kit Mueller is “more psyched than ever” about Pittsburgh’s start-up potential. Are we ready to rival the West Coast?

If you’re part of Pittsburgh’s tech startup community, chances are you’ve crossed paths with Kit Mueller. The exuberant 39-year-old entrepreneur advises startups, invests in them, and organizes events to get entrepreneurs in the same room talking about what’s worked, what’s failed, and what’s ripe with potential.

Entrepreneurism comes naturally to Kit. He built his first tech startup at 21, and jokes that he has been unemployable ever since. Nevertheless, his career has been full of business opportunity. With StartUp Weekend, Built in Pittsburgh, Speak Freely, ShiftPgh, Seed_, RustBuilt, Kit is keeping busy.

Kit believes Pittsburgh’s startup scene has the potential to rival the almighty Silicon Valley. We’re a few strides behind, but closing the gap—and faster than ever before.

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YOU TOOK AN 8-YEAR BREAK FROM PITTSBURGH. WHAT PULLED YOU BACK?

I told myself, if I’m going to move back, I’m going to be a force of change. We’re going to do some cool stuff here that’s happening elsewhere. As a litmus test, I worked on the first StartUp Weekend in Pittsburgh—it’s pitched as a 54-hour competition, but more than anything it’s a community building effort. That weekend revealed this community’s leaders and supporters.

WHAT CAN PITTSBURGH OFFER TO ENTREPRENEURS?

Pittsburgh is a city built by entrepreneurs. We saw our parents and our grandparents work hard. Everything about this town is blue collar ethic. That kind of person is priceless in a start-up – from the leadership level to worker bees.

HOW DOES THIS STARTUP COMMUNITY COMPARE TO THOSE IN OTHER CITIES?

Pittsburgh is just a couple years behind other top-tier start up communities. The embers that are burning now are exactly what I saw in Chicago. Politicians are starting to see that it really matters. The right people are on board. Companies are caring. There are more and more events that engage entrepreneurs. I’m psyched about what’s happening, more psyched than ever before.

I had a buddy, a venture capitalist, visit from the West Coast. He was shocked that there’s no hub or campus in Pittsburgh where startups hang out. That was the reason I really wanted to start Built in Pittsburgh and ShiftPgh.

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WHAT HOLDS PITTSBURGH BACK?

This community’s last biggest successes were a decade ago. We’re still having conversations about FORE and FreeMarkets. Because we have had that gap and not a lot of activity or wins recently, you don’t have a second tier mentorship level. We need more activity, and thus more wins.

There are hundreds of millions of dollars here in unrealized angel investments. Investors don’t know how to talk to young entrepreneurs who are building a whiz bang thing. Conversely, the entrepreneur doesn’t know the proper terminology to talk to an investor. They both need to speak the same language and know what happens at each meeting – from the first coffee to the time of the term sheet.

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WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING PITTSBURGH ENTREPRENEURS?

I always think of the entrepreneur who starts with an idea off campus that doesn’t go well. They think, “That’s it; I have to move to the West Coast.” Meanwhile, a block away, some like-minded person is fighting the same battle. It does get lonely and frustrating as an entrepreneur, but if you know people are banging their heads against the same wall, it’s really helpful especially when we can convene over beers or work on projects together. People need to have serendipitous meetings, because that’s how this stuff happens.

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN TO GROW PITTSBURGH’S ENTREPRENEURIAL BASE?

We should start teaching that entrepreneurship is a valid choice, and strengthen what it means to be an entrepreneur. Let’s show people all the resources. ‘I have this idea, is it worth anything? Who do I talk to? How do I get money? How do I build my team?’ With StartUp Weekend, we make a concerted outreach to universities here. I want people to know it’s possible to become an entrepreneur, and how to do that.

Kit is a familiar face around the Beauty Shoppe. Not only was he one of the it’s first members, he has organized two StartUp Weekends at its 5014 Penn Ave space (and other locations around East Liberty). Come meet Kit and pitch your startup idea at the next one April 5 – 7.

KIT WAS INTERVIEWED AT THE UNION PIG AND CHICKEN, 220 N HIGHLAND AVENUE, EAST LIBERTY. PHOTOS BY ERIN KELLY.