Serial entrepreneur got his start at UNI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center
Travis Steffen remembers the first time he contemplated building a business. An undergraduate student, he was sitting in his dorm room at Dancer Hall, chatting with his two roommates. They wanted to make bed lofts and sell them to incoming students. They calculated a $10,000 profit, life-changing money in college. Although they later found out UNI already contracted with a bed loft company and dropped the idea, Steffen couldn’t shake the potential.
Originally from Muscatine, Steffen attended UNI to play football and major in exercise science. After an injury set back his athletic career, Steffen found out about the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center through a friend. It stimulated him—ever since that conversation in the dorm, Steffen wanted to build something of his own.
He entered into a business plan competition and won, earning office space, a computer and other resources provided by the JPEC. In the mid-2000s, people did not take entrepreneurship as seriously as they do now. But Steffen knew this was what he wanted to do.
“At the time, I wasn’t interested in anything academically,” Steffen said. “Then I got this email that I’d won the business plan competition, and it was this enjoyable moment. I thought maybe I’m actually good at this in some way, and I started my company.”
His first company, named Synn, sold clothes for mixed martial arts—an interest to Steffen since he watched the TV show “Tapout,” which centered on the sport. It was a moment of learning for Steffen, who found grounding in the JPEC.
Laurie Watje, associate director of the JPEC, was one of Steffen’s closest advisers at the time. She believes Steffen was born to be an entrepreneur but just needed a little guidance to find success.
“He was going to make it happen no matter what,” Watje said. “I would say we were able to provide some of a grounding. He would go off and do stuff, and when he would come to this hurdle, we could help him get over that.”
Steffen stayed at the JPEC until he finished his master’s degree program in 2010. He has since become an extremely successful serial entrepreneur. He’s successfully exited seven companies, many of them in technology, and is now the CEO of GrowFlow Corp, a technology platform for cannabis companies.
Steffen takes pride in his experience at UNI. He returned in 2019 as an Alumni-In-Residence and was impressed with how the JPEC program has grown over the years.
“We didn’t have the resources, the partnerships, the academic support that they have today,” Steffen said. “And that’s got to be such a massive difference-maker to the students. I sat in on some of their sessions, and it was enjoyable to see some of the things they’ve put into place.”
He is excited to be involved with the JPEC and paying it forward.
“I am excited to be involved in some way and help some of these kids that are looking to do something big,” Steffen said. “I spent a lot of time just spinning my wheels and desperately needed a mentor [that the JPEC provided]. I still made some costly mistakes along the way. I hope I can help a few of the students avoid one or two of them in some way, shape or form.”