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Matt Douglas, Founder and CEO of Punchbowl.com

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University of Rochester Stingers: My First Start-up

Note: This is the first in a series about the University of Rochester Stingers — a group I founded in the fall of 1994. 

Part I: How I founded the Stingers

In the fall of 1994, I came back to the University of Rochester campus as a Junior with the goal of joining one of the popular a cappella singing groups on campus. So I tried out for the YellowJackets and then Swingshot (now called AfterHours). I didn’t get into either. After the initial disappointment, I decided to start my own group. As a trombone player and music major, I decided to create the first ever a cappella trombone group. I wanted to create a group in the style of the YellowJackets: we would play modern, popular music and throw in our own humor and style. This wasn’t going to be a chamber group or some boring ensemble: we were going to wear shades and play rock ‘n roll (yes, on trombones!)

Just like a “real” startup, my first goal was to get some funding for my new group. After learning that I was too late to apply for funding from the Student Association, I went to visit Paul Burgett, the well-loved and popular Dean of Students. I’ll never forget how quickly Paul pulled out his wallet after hearing my pitch. He handed me $100, and told me to get it started. That was all of the motivation I needed. (Side note: in October 2011, I returned to campus for my 15th reunion, and I was able to tell Paul how much his belief in me helped me to this day. He’s one of the greatest educators I’ve ever met).

My next step was to give the group a name. I distinctly remember my goal when naming the group. I wanted to brand the group in a way that would closely align us with the most popular musical group on campus — the YellowJackets. (and the mascot of the school is a also a YellowJacket). So, in a moment of inspiration, I came up with the name the “Stingers” — and it fit the bill. Even to this day, I still love the name.

46697-screenshot2012-10-22at1-36-26pmstingers_logo
The original logo, designed by Jessica Weir (now Douglas)

Armed with a great brand and funding, I worked hard to recruit members to the group. I put posters up all over campus and in the music department encouraging people to contact me to join the group. My new girlfriend (Jess) helped me publicize, and she came up with a great logo that we put onto the posters. Within a few weeks, I had assembled twelve trombonists on campus that wanted to join my new group. I was psyched.

Note: I’ve seen some incorrect information on the web that mentions that the group was founded in 2003, or that John Hendron was the founder. I hope this post sets the record straight and provides the correct history of the group’s beginnings. Last year, John H. posted a mostly accurate history of the group.

We had our first practice in mid-September of 1994, and it was a big success. Orlando Quiroz stepped up and took an active role in procuring some all-trombone music, and others (like Clint Young) volunteered to be the secretary. John Hendron offered to put together some arrangements. We filed paperwork with the Student Association, and we were an official group.

Note: The original members of the group were Matt Douglas ’96, Orlando Quiroz ’96, John Hendron ’96, Becky Ross ’97, Tim Mlynek ’98, Bobb Greene ’97, Katie Conover, Nate Russell ’98, Clint Young ’98, Michael Buchler ‘Grad, and Josh Haddock ’98. I hope they see this post sometime.

Fast forward a few weeks: after only about a month in existence, I pulled a coup and convinced the director of the YellowJackets to let us open for them at their biggest concert of the year (Parents Weekend 1994). With only a few weeks to prepare, the group started to take a turn towards something I never wanted: members of the group wanted to play “traditional” chamber music and without other music, I had no choice. Slowly, my vision of “a cappella music in the style of the YellowJackets” was starting to slip away.

So, after only about a month in existence, on November 4, 1994 at 9:45pm we had our debut in front of a packed audience at Strong Auditorium. We dressed in black and white turtlenecks, and to my dismay we played music that didn’t really fit the vision. But we were real, and had an audience.

Ready for a blast from the past? Here’s the actual debut of the University of Rochester Stingers in 1994 (I’m all of the way on the right — skip to 5:29 to hear me introduce the group for the first time, and for a really bad version of ‘Brown Eyed Girl’). Thanks very much to John Hendron for uncovering and posting this video gem:

Who says that your college experience isn’t preparation for the business world? There are so many similarities between the Stingers and the early days of Punchbowl. I know now that the experience of starting the Stingers helped me prepare to start a company in many, many ways. Stay tuned for Part II: How the group lost its identity.

Update: Paul Burgett saw this post and writes “Matt:  What a treat to get this post.  I remember well your initiative to get the Stingers going—always a challenge for any startup group.  But you were smart and persistent; that plus a little money can go a long way.  Hard to believe that was 18 years ago. Good grief, where does the time go?  I look forward to receiving the next installment of your post.  Meantime, thanks for your leadership in those long ago days and all best wishes for continued success in all your current pursuits.”


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©2020 Matt Douglas