State Farm Shows Off Its Entrepreneurial Side

2 members of IDEO Chicago offer words of wisdom on pushing the boundaries of design and development in between lightning rounds of pitching during Next Door’s “Amplify’d” event.


I’m actually leaving my job tomorrow,” one brave entrepreneur announces to the audience.

He doesn’t appear to have any employees, dedicated office space and it’s unclear how much working capital he has.

But make no mistake. He’s making The Leap. Because what he does have is a promising piece of software with slick interface that delivers the most viable job candidates to recruiters.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. Last Thursday, 20 other startups made the cut to join him for “Amplify’d,” a one-day lightning round of pitches at State Farm Next Door. During the event at the part community workspace, part café, each participant had 5 minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges from incubators, retail consultancies and business accelerators.

Think Chicago’s version of “Shark Tank,” but a little kinder and gentler (these are still the people behind the concept of being a Good Neighbor, after all).

As the participants gave their pitches, I could see the judges would have their work cut out for them in selecting one brilliant idea above all or even a few.

How useful would it be to have an app that helped me find everything in the neighborhood for my dog?

What kind of progress could a pair of multisensory gloves with sensors and lights make during interactive therapy for children with Autism?

How many times would I love to have a “Hold-On” button on my phone to tell the caller I would be answering momentarily?

In between the lightening rounds, speakers from IDEO Chicago, and offered some words of wisdom and war stories about obtaining funding. Like every entrepreneur (myself included), they had made plenty of mistakes between where they began and where they are today – and learned what to do differently. But despite all those miscalculations, false assumptions and disappointments, I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. Even when the alternative was the “sure, safe thing.”


And the winner is…

In the end, the winner of “Amplify’d” was a mobile app called FasPark that delivers real-time local information about street parking and provides a driving path for getting there. Which couldn’t be more fitting, considering we were in one of the hardest areas to find parking in the city.

Second place went to, a “next generation” college search site where families of college students can find the best potential opportunities for financial aid and potentially minimize the student’s loan debt upon graduation significantly.

The third place award was given to a former college professor turned entrepreneur who developed an educational app called Nidaba. Designed to send daily activities to the parents of K-12 students, the app incorporates social gaming, points and badges so that completing learning challenges is a fun experience for parents and their children alike.

In a way, State Farm was on the big stage too.

In my view, “Amplify’d” represented one of the bigger moments for State Farm Next Door in its first year of operation. At its most ideal, it’s a community hub for collaborating and holding business meetings. But events like this are the much-needed extra step to build credibility even further – an excellent opportunity for the company to show its support to the very same entrepreneurs who might be using its space regularly to brainstorm how to get their ideas off the ground. For the good of building Next Door’s brand presence and judging by the participation, I hope they’ll continue with events like it.

Finally, forgive me for briefly getting on the soapbox: “Amplify’d” got me thinking that if more corporations hosted events like this to give aspiring entrepreneurs a greater spotlight for potential funding, we’d further develop and strengthen another needed financial avenue to the small businesses that are often referred to as the lifeblood of the economy. Not to mention it’s good PR for the brand hosting it, other sponsors/judges and of course, the entrepreneurs themselves.

At the very least, it’s the kind of event that’s a lot more exciting than watching entrepreneurs fill out paperwork for a bank loan.

State Farm Next Door helps VCs and entrepreneurs connect with “Amplify’d”

It’s time to find out once and for all if that new business idea of yours was meant to fly. Or rather, get “Amplify’d.”

Next Door, the new concept from State Farm launched last year that’s part innovation lab, part community space and part café, is giving aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their ideas to several venture capital groups and angel investors.

The one-day lightning round on Thursday, June 14 called “Amplify’d” will consist of 20-30 pitches from startups, each selected based on their online submission of a game-changing idea that will shape an industry.

Says Brett Myers, Next Door’s program director: “We figured ‘why not help the next big idea instead of waiting around for it?’”

Each participant chosen will have about five minutes to pitch in front of potential investors. The event will also feature guest speakers throughout the day.

Next Door was designed to be a launching pad for entrepreneurial ideas long before this event.

As Mr. Myers explains, “We’re excited to see more and more startups using Next Door as one of their hubs. We see them brainstorming on our whiteboards, making connections through our events and holding meetings in our conference rooms.”

Passing by the location near Clark and Diversey in East Lakeview, it’s not unusual to see many laptops open and lattes sipped in the ample-sized lounge and café area. Next Door is even looking to add more bands to play in the space this summer.

Of course, there’s customer interaction at Next Door, too. However, it’s more of the financial planning variety than traditional insurance. If visitors so choose, they can meet with State Farm’s Financial Coaches in stylish and portable “pods” that keep the conversation private.

I’ve maintained that this kind of “co-working, community space that also happens to house a business” concept is a very fresh, low-pressure approach to selling financial products. People don’t often make decisions on complex products in one sitting, so why design an environment with the assumption they’re already at that final decision point?

In fact, other traditional settings (i.e., banks) are modifying their environments to be more inviting and multi-functional. In the process, brands like Next Door are learning about the specific needs and challenges of a demographic in their 20’s and 30’s coming through for complimentary financial classes and one-on-one coaching. Undoubtedly that should have an impact on the way the audience is communicated to.

Submissions for the chance to be selected for “Amplify’d” are due by Monday, May 14. And really, with only a few questions to answer on the online application, the process for throwing your hat in the ring to be potentially chosen couldn’t be easier.

You must submit your idea through Next Door’s “Amplify’d” website. You’ll find more details there.

Original Post:

First look inside State Farm Next Door : An environment in an innovative State.

As I started to make my way up Diversey Avenue, I heard the clamor of a jazz band playing near Trader Joe’s grocery store.  That couldn’t be coming from State Farm, could it? Surprisingly, it was. And already in that moment, I think that maybe, just maybe, I experienced a small piece of what State Farm is striving to do with its new community-based effort, State Farm Next Door.

The "teaser" wall is down. We're going in.

State Farm was nice enough to invite me to a pre-launch party for select guests to come experience Next Door for themselves. I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. It honestly exceeded what I thought I would see. Along the way, I got to sit down with the managers, planners and vendors who showed me what people could expect from Next Door when it officially opens on Thursday, August 11th.

Is it OK if we have fun in here? Cool.
If this was some thinly-veiled approach to selling services, I seriously didn’t feel it. Really. The subtle references to finances and planning are there, but you get the sense that State Farm has been extra careful not to come across as heavy-handed in selling. If it was too pushy, it just would not work. Period. And thankfully, they know it.

We’re really making a conscious effort to let people come in, discover Next Door for themselves and make it their own,” says Stephanie Reynolds, Next Door’s Store Manager. “Our atmosphere here is all about making it the most creative and collaborative experience possible. It’s not our goal to try to sell. But when they do ask, we want to make consumers more educated and confident about their financial future in a very comfortable space.

Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There. With a cool lounge area.

Wander over to the cafe for a gourmet espresso.

Some of the features of Next Door include:

  • A cafe area serving gourmet coffee, tea and espresso as well as baked goodies
  • A main lounge that features large red, black and grey couches with coffee tables
  • A smaller “creative” area featuring little white tables you can draw on and a projection wall that can show TV shows, movies…anything
  • A huge community chalkboard calendar that promotes all kinds of monthly events, from classes to pizza parties
  • 2 conference rooms with flat-screen TVs and whiteboard wall dividers (which you can rent for free, by the way)

And of course, those Pods.
A lot of these design elements are, dare I say, fun and creative. Still, you might be wondering, “OK. But let’s get real. What if I want to get into some sensitive financial stuff? I can’t just discuss this out in the open in a cafe.” State Farm considered that. A financial planner named Adam showed me one of the “Pods” that a planner can take a guest or two into to get more privacy for financial-related chatter. This is probably my favorite feature of the place – these things look right out of the IKEA catalog and are just as functional. You can roll them to different parts of the store if need be.

When you want to chat about finances, step into a Pod with a planner.

“You learn from us. We learn from you. We’re all smarter for it.”

We’re entering a new phase beyond just the “pop-up store” where people can try products for a few days before a temporary store is disassembled. It’s a phase of Store As Audience Research Tool. Maybe you think you’ve seen this before but trust me, you probably haven’t. Very few stores if any have been set up almost exclusively for the purpose of learning and understanding the behaviors of its audience in the way Next Door has.

I’ve heard a lot of questions about ROI and metrics of success for Next Door. So let me just say this – there’s absolutely nothing more important in branding than knowing what your audience is thinking. It’s elusive. It’s shifting. It’s hard to interpret. If it was easy, everyone could do it and I’d have to find another way to make a living. So when you effectively set the stage for that audience to come to you and tell you their thoughts and feelings, you’ve got an invaluable environment worth keeping. Some of us have run focus groups where we’d have to practically bribe people to show up, right? Well, how about someone who voluntarily comes into your environment, has a few questions, winds up signing up for a seminar given by one of your people and returns with 5 of their friends to learn more?

For Brett Myers, a key head at State Farm behind Next Door, this represents months and months of intensive, detailed planning. It’s not a stretch to say every single table lamp, book, piece of glassware and paint color has been obsessively considered prior to entering this space – by the way, do you think about your own environment in reflection of your brand with this kind of detail? Maybe you should.

Strange as it may seem to some marketers in such a research-driven world, it’s not about number of meetings taken in the Pods. It’s not about guests converted into customers. Or number of cups of coffee sold.

It’s about getting consumer feedback and lots of it. It’s about understanding the real fears and questions that a young target has. And it’s about taking all that feedback and reporting it back to State Farm corporate so they can use it for all kinds of initiatives – undoubtedly to ensure that the brand is speaking in a voice these consumers want to hear.

Anybody can rent one of these conference rooms for free. Really.

Partnered with Doejo

To get the cafe portion of Next Door off the ground and give it a feel authentic to the neighborhood, State Farm partnered with Doejo, a digital agency whose founder is behind several independent Lincoln Park/Lakeview coffee shops, including Kickstand and Noble Tree. As Darren Marshall of Doejo explains, Next Door will revolve and evolve around those who enter.

We’re very interested once people start coming in because their feedback will help shape this space,” says Marshall. “When you think about it, a coffee shop looks and feels different one week to the next because of the people inside it more than anything. It’s the same way here. In some respects, this store may look different 30, 60, 90 days from now and if it does, that will come from what the consumers within it tell us.”

While Doejo will concentrate primarily on the cafe portion of Next Door, their team may very well collaborate with State Farm when necessary on ideas involving the overall environment.

Special thanks to Desiree Fuzak, Stephanie Reynolds, Brett Myers, Darren Marshall and many others on the State Farm Next Door/Doejo team who helped provide me with their insightful thoughts for this post. 

More praise for State Farm Next Door before the doors open

As the State Farm Next Door launch here in Chicago nears, I’ll post other thoughts from around the web here that are relevant. In fact, I thought I’d share this recent blog post from Brains On Fire, a South Carolina-based agency, on Next Door (they were also nice enough to throw some kudos our way here at Chicago Brander in the process). From a strategical standpoint, their post gives some reinforcement to what I’ve heard in many of your comments on my earlier post that the “selling without selling” approach is not just a feel-good method but a sensible and realistic one for this audience when it comes to planning their futures. Enjoy.

State Farm becoming a better neighbor with Next Door concept

As someone who worked on the State Farm account for a few years, I view the company’s latest concept with more than a casual interest. The company with the familiar “Like a good neighbor…” jingle is about to launch an entirely new retail idea smack dab in the middle of my neighborhood in Lakeview. And at least at a first glance, I think they’re on to something good that more in the insurance industry might want to take a closer look at doing themselves.

State Farm Next Door opens August 1st and the concept is a more open, casual community space that offers free Wi-Fi and coffee (via its Next Door Cafe) as well as personalized coaching/small group classes on financial matters that range from paying off student loans to learning how to budget your finances.

The "Good Neighbor" with a new look.

This may not seem like a huge departure from the typical agent office, but it is. Here’s why. For a long time, State Farm talked about the fact that their agents live in the same community as their customers. Which is normal. But even though you can continuously say, “We live where you live,” there’s nothing quite like actually demonstrating it visibly by being more of a central hub.

Plus, there will be no actual insurance sold at State Farm Next Door so they aren’t cannibalizing their own agents’ efforts by selling policies here. There will be financial consultants and all the services at Next Door are free. Personally, I think the latter part of that sentence is important for bringing down some barriers among younger people who would normally walk on by because they don’t see the point in planning when they don’t even have the funds to pay for ongoing classes.

Stepping out of the “Auto/Home/Life” rate rut.

Let’s be honest. You first walk into or call State Farm, Allstate, Farmer’s, etc. because you have a need for auto, home or life insurance. You need to get covered, you compare rates,  you buy. You don’t like your rate after a while? You look around, you compare again, you buy.

Fighting a branding battle based on rates doesn’t benefit State Farm. I never thought it has. It’s territory that Geico and Progressive have owned quite well for years. Even when State Farm talks about the dangers of “cut-rate car insurance,” they’re still planting the seed of shopping based on rates and playing into the hands of their competitors.

That’s why, even though the newest ad work for State Farm is entertaining, that’s not necessarily what I see pulling people in. I see the Next Door concept having real upside by broadening out from buckets of insurance sold from an agent behind a desk into more generalized classes on finance and budgeting for 20-somethings and 30-somethings in the neighborhood who needed that guidance but couldn’t find it up to this point. You don’t have to walk into Next Door with an intent to buy. You walk in with an intent to learn (sorry, I don’t think I’ll walk in with an intent to just have a cup of coffee when there’s Starbucks and Caribou close by, but I appreciate the offer).

No hard selling, new look

In a way, State Farm’s Next Door feels a lot like smart social media itself – not a hard sell but a place to inform a community. And possibly learn from it along the way. I also like the fact that State Farm has the guts to do a true departure design-wise (different logo, wood background) for this sub-brand of Next Door, because in this case anything that looks too close to the familiar auto/home/life color palette would be a bit of a turn-off. A bright red building would scream “State Farm,” but it wouldn’t say “come in with your financial questions or just to hang out.” The location doesn’t hurt being steps away from Trader Joe’s and the Diversey/Clark/Broadway intersection.

Some may think the idea is a stretch, but I disagree. I think for a brand that’s been around for as long as State Farm, it’s a stretch within their brand that makes sense and might even be overdue. Even more so than insurance and agents, State Farm is supposed to be about, well, being a Good Neighbor with warm, friendly guidance. I think the Next Door concept is authentic and true to that ideal. Will that translate into a steady flow of interested customers? Well, we don’t have to wait until the doors open. Let’s hear from you:

Does this type of cafe concept with free classes, coffee, Wi-Fi and “no strings attached” appeal to you from a financial services and insurance company?