The Equity Factor

How to Create a “Coachella” for Small Businesses

Three cities create festival atmospheres to attract startup activity.

The view from a 2014 Tom Tom Founders Festival stage (Photo by Tom Daly Photography)

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Everywhere you look, business communities in cities large and small are establishing some variation of a “startup week.” Colleges, venture capitalists and city economic development departments are also pitching in to create unique events that show the national tech community and other small business founders what it means for a city to be committed to business retention and growth.

Some standouts are creating a lively festival atmosphere, drawing crowds to musical performances, local food and drink, and celebrity keynote speakers, mimicking the revelrous feel of other site-specific cultural icons like SXSW, Coachella and Burning Man. Here are a few.

Charlottesville Gears Up for Tom Tom
From April 13th to 19th, Charlottesville’s Tom Tom Founders Festival jazzes up a convening with art, music and food.

With sponsorship from the University of Virginia, the festival enhances its community vibe with six block parties, including a metal showcase, a songwriter competition and a neighbor-curated series of acoustic front-porch concerts.

On the innovation side, Tom Tom will include a Founders Summit, headlined with talks by the founders of The Container Store, Maker Faire and Reddit. The festival started in 2012, inspired by the Charlottesville tradition of celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as Founders’ Day. According to organizers, the event “connects Jefferson’s revolutionary legacy with the difficult and visionary work of founders today.”

The week will also include a lamppost banner competition, an art bike tour, and a chance for UVA students and alumni to pitch for seed-stage investment funding (over $500,000 was awarded in 2014).

New Orleans Entrepreneur Week Doubles Attendance
The city’s seventh annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) wrapped up at the end of March, becoming the largest ever. Attendance was more than double last year’s — 10,585 people, compared to 5,200 in 2014.

NOEW is produced by The Idea Village, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization seeking to attract and retain talent in the city. The festival stemmed from an older program of theirs to bring MBA students to New Orleans to help out small businesses over spring break.

This year’s festival included sessions on conventional topics like valuation and branding, but also a legal aid hackathon and a pitch night for entrepreneurs focusing on career pathways and leadership development for youth. It culminated with a crowd-driven pitch event, called The Big Idea during which 3,000 people watched as $50,300 was given to 12 emerging startups.

In a statement, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “I am pleased that New Orleans Entrepreneur Week has solidified its position on our annual cultural calendar, alongside events such as Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.”

Jacksonville’s One Spark Festival Regroups
Builders of large-scale festivals can also hit some rough patches. Although Jacksonville’s One Spark Festival has announced an estimated opening day attendance of 35,000-40,000 visitors (One Spark spans April 7-12), it comes on the heels of a rocky year between festivals.

The Florida Times-Union reports that a startup accelerator created by a co-founder of One Spark, saw $1.1 million pulled from funders citing mismanagement. Only 12 percent of the money ever made it to the entrepreneurs in the program. Additionally, two people involved in One Spark 2013 were involved in a separate lawsuit involving $800,000 of seed money for a longtime bakery, which has subsequently closed.

Harvey Slentz, a Florida State College professor told the paper that the One Spark issues only show how festival-enabled funding shouldn’t be considered donations or grants by recipients; instead, investments come with expectations and sometimes strings attached. “Especially the creators need to understand that the investors are going to be inherently expecting something within the time frame that’s agreed,” said Slentz.

Meanwhile, the World’s Largest Crowdfunding Festival powers on. Today, a creator showcase of hundreds of projects will take over 20 square blocks of downtown Jacksonville. Musicians will compete over $30,000 in cash on a music stage sponsored by iHeart Media, and attendees can take a break between events in the festival’s food or beer villages.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: jobssmall businessstartups

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