Holsinger-Robinson helps people commit to action

April 12, 2010
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If you’ve heard of Bill Holsinger-Robinson, it may be because of his role as executive director of ArtPrize. But that is only one of the hats he wears. He also is the president of Pomegranate Studios and the COO of Spout.

Holsinger-Robinson’s several business titles seem a far cry from his college degree in philosophy, but it was his education that set the stage for his future.

He began his collegiate career at Alma College in 1987. It was there that he met his future wife, Tamara, who was pursuing a degree in exercise and health science. In 1991, they both graduated and were married.

Tamara was a competitive cyclist at the time and, because of her interest, Holsinger-Robinson also was drawn into the sport. The two spent their weekends that first summer after college racing bikes throughout the Midwest.

“She graduated with an exercise and health science degree, and what do you do with that? You become a mechanic at a bike shop.

“I graduated with a degree in philosophy — and I became a chef,” he said.

“I had no idea what I was going to do with (the philosophy degree), but it seemed to be the thing I did the best in. It was all about argumentation and creative problem solving, which has actually served me very well.

“When you write a philosophy paper, it’s not only describing a position you’re going to take on a particular issue, but, defending it, you have to adequately articulate what a counterpoint is. Being able to see things from a lot of different perspectives is the training, I think.”

He took a year off from school and then began to study for a master’s degree in comparative religion with a specialty in cognitive science and developmental psychology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

“Their program for the study of religion has a more anthropology and social sciences focus, as opposed to a humanities or theology bent,” he said. “It’s a good program. I was able to teach, work with interesting professors, and I presented twice at the University of Chicago at a conference.

“Then in 1995, I found out my wife was pregnant.”

At the time, Holsinger-Robinson was still working as a chef in Holland, as well as taking classes, teaching and being a grad assistant at Western.

“My schedule back in those days was, at 7 o’clock in the morning, I would be down in Kalamazoo for office hours, because I taught at 8 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. By the time I would get out of class and talk with students afterwards, it would be 10. I would read everything that I could for the classes I took from 11 to noon, and from 1 to 2 maybe get a nap in, then scream back to Holland because I worked from 3 to 10. I would get home and study from 10 until midnight, 1 o’clock, then scream back down to Kalamazoo and start the whole thing over again,” he said.

When his son was born in April 1996, he decided it was time for a schedule change.

“He was born on a Thursday, and the following Monday was the beginning of the spring term,” he said. “I went to that first class and was completely sleep deprived, and said, ‘No. That’s not going to work.’”

Bill Holsinger-Robinson

Company: Pomegranate Studios, Spout, ArtPrize

Position: President, COO, Executive Director

Age: 41

Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pa.

Residence: Holland, Mich.

Family/Personal: Wife, Tamara, of 19 years; one son and one daughter.

Biggest Career Break: Joining an e-commerce team at Herman Miller Inc.

He decided to postpone his education.

“I’m literally a thesis away,” he said. “I still have a folder with source materials, and I’ve done a 30-page write-up on what it was going to be and the direction I was going to go with it. I need two months of writing time to pull it all together.”

But Holsinger-Robinson admits those two months probably won’t be coming along any time soon. Once he decided to postpone his education, he began looking for a full-time job. In January 1997, he started working for a subsidiary of Herman Miller Inc.: Miller SQA.

“It was a refurb market for Miller, which did some really interesting things. I started there in customer care. It was the bottom of the totem pole as far as entry-level office business jobs,” he said.

“That was my first foray into business. I had no idea what to expect, but the company was making a lot of investments in technology.”

While still at Western, Holsinger-Robinson had done some exploratory work on the Internet as a way of maintaining relationships around the U.S. with other students in similar programs. With the new technology direction of Miller SQA, Holsinger-Robinson was given the opportunity to work on a team that investigated using the Internet for sales and business relationships.

“E-commerce had just started, and in 1998, Miller started its first foray into e-commerce. I got lucky and got a hold of the project,” he said. “I was still on the customer care side of things, but was figuring, ‘How do you operationally support e-commerce?’

“No one knew, so it was a lot of fun sort of making stuff up.”

That project rolled into another that brought e-commerce to some of the company’s larger clients. Holsinger-Robinson worked in e-commerce until 2003, when the office furniture industry was struggling and he was let go in one of a batch of layoffs.

“It was actually really liberating,” he said. “Being laid off was a really good thing, from my perspective. I didn’t see there being any more movement for me in Miller. Getting kicked out was a nice kick in the butt.”

Within a few weeks, Holsinger-Robinson found work as a managing consultant for Sagestone, now RCM Technologies. He was only with the company for a year but left as its director of marketing.

“It was a really great set of experiences,” he said about his time at Sagestone. “I learned a ton about how a business operates from the inside, a ton about consulting. I think more than anything else, I learned a lot about myself. It just wasn’t the right cultural fit.”

When he left Sagestone in 2004, he started his own consulting firm called Applied Thinking.

“It was about all of the stuff that I wanted to work on,” he said. “It was about helping companies set visions for themselves, think about their overall identity and corporate strategy. I think one of my skill sets is helping people commit to action.”

Much of the work he did was helping companies align with their core beliefs, or change those beliefs to fit the business’s current trajectory.

Then, in 2005, he ran into an old Herman Miller friend at a coffee shop.

“He had just recently been whacked. I told him what I was doing, what I was interested in, and I got a call from him a couple weeks later, saying, ‘Hey, I met this guy named Rick DeVos. He and his buddies are working in his basement on this interesting Web site that’s like Netflix meets Friendster. I’m supposed to be evaluating it for his dad, but I’m not sure I completely understand it. Would you be willing to meet with these guys?’”

It was the middle of March when Holsinger-Robinson met with the group led by Rick DeVos.

“They pitched me on a company called In Maven, which eventually turned into Spout,” he said. “I think we had an hour scheduled, and I was there for two, two-and-a-half hours. It was a really interesting concept. It was really good chemistry.”

The following week, he got a call asking for help in launching the new company. He started out working on a contract basis, before becoming part of the company full time. Spout launched its beta site around Christmas that year, with its public launch in March 2006 at the international music, film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas, called South by Southwest.

“(Spout) was so Web-centric. The concept itself was such a pure Web play, and leveraging all the great stuff from the Web,” he said about what attracted him to the company.

Spout is considered the first project from Pomegranate Studios, a business incubator. The second project for the studio was ArtPrize, the successful downtown Grand Rapids art competition that premiered in the fall of 2009. A third program, Momentum, is a smaller incubator that Holsinger-Robinson said could be viewed almost as a feeder program.

At the heart of Pomegranate Studios’ projects is providing a spark to encourage people to communicate, experiment and take action.

“First and foremost, if you look at the consistency of everything Rick has done, they’re all about enabling voices — the power of conversation and people communicating in new ways with one another,” he said.

“It’s also been about action. It’s been about that spark of creativity to reach out and perform an action on your own. Call it a spark of entrepreneurialism, a spark of creativity — whatever it is. It’s all been about this idea of how do you get people to experiment and try things and not worry so much about failure. Failure ends up being a consequence of doing things. All of these projects are in that vein.”

At first glance, Holsinger-Robinson’s educational background — philosophy, comparative religion, cognitive science and developmental psychology — doesn’t seem like one that would lead to a career in business. Take a deeper look, however, and the connections begin to appear. He has a natural curiosity for culture and the way people think. Those characteristics have proved to be vital throughout the course of his career.

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