By Ashley Boncimino
Published March 10, 2014
A chill February wind cuts its way into the heart of Spartanburg’s Grain District, where warm light pours through the 10-foot-tall windows of an old, red-brick building on South Daniel Morgan Avenue.
Inside, 35 entrepreneurs are furiously filling whiteboards and talking with their hands in what could be the first steps of their life’s work.
“We need to think of how this is compelling, then what we are going to produce,” says Daniel Donaldson, a student at The Iron Yard Greenville’s Code Academy and father of four from Greenville, Texas. “I don’t know if we need to do all that tonight, but that’s the direction we need to go pretty soon.”
From left: Daniel Donaldson, Joshua Maxwell and Andrew Ramos discuss business plans at Spartanburg’s Startup Weekend. (Photo by Ashley Boncimino)
The reason for the rush is Startup Weekend, a three-day event where entrepreneurs have 54 hours to transform an idea into an end product. First held in Boulder, Colo., above a bike shop in 2007, Startup Weekends have been held in more than 400 cities and in more than 100 countries. The Spartanburg event is the second in South Carolina but the first in the Upstate.
“The great thing about Spartanburg is there’s a huge network of people who want to see the city succeed,” said The Iron Yard Accelerators Program Director Kate McCarthy, who was a leader in organizing Startup Weekend Spartanburg. “I feel like that philosophy is carrying out to what you’re seeing today at the Startup Weekend.”
At 5 p.m. on a Friday, participants check in, eat dinner, and then pitch business ideas, from apps and software to brick-and-mortars and manufactured undergarments. Some people, such as Clemson University MBA-in-entrepreneurship candidate Drew Felty, came with working prototypes, while others, like Converse College student Nadia Gathers, improvised.
Established professionals joined the ranks of college students in voting to create teams, as each participant chooses the idea, and the people, they think will be most successful. At the end of the weekend, each business idea will be presented to a panel of judges. A hushed anticipation builds like it would for a roller coaster. A train whistle howls in the background. Teams are formed. The clock begins ticking.
“I went home and I was like, I have to make this now. I have to bring this to fruition. I have to present this in front of people,” said Gathers. “People are going to remember this.”
A long time coming
Twenty years ago, the people of Spartanburg might have laughed at the idea of a co-working space, a brewery, even a business competition coming downtown. City Councilwoman and HubBub Executive Director Cate Ryba remembers when downtown was just a coffee shop and parking lots.
But momentum has been growing in Spartanburg, particularly after the rebranding of downtown’s west side as the Grain District, an emerging arts and culture hub for young businesses.
In the last year, The Iron Yard opened both its co-working space The Mill and its health care information technology accelerator, the University of South Carolina Upstate opened its small business incubator, and Wofford College revamped its student career services to focus on entrepreneurial skills and practices as The Space.
Even more, the city of Spartanburg is holding its second annual downtown business competition, the Main Street Challenge, where it offers three winners subsidized rent downtown, as well as startup business services. Last year the competition netted 58 entries, and at least 24 new businesses opened in 2013 overall, according to the city’s Economic Development Director Patty Bock.
Smaller cities like Spartanburg encourage everyone to be entrepreneurs, said Los Angeles native McCarthy.
“When you’re in a place that’s saturated with amazing things, it’s very easy to be a consumer of those things,” she said. “When you’re in a place like Spartanburg, you simply don’t have that quantity or variety of things available to you, so you have to make it yourself.”
And in smaller cities, up-and-comers have access to the market’s big players, she said.
“I don’t get to sit at the table with the top international CEOs in Los Angeles, and I get to do that in Spartanburg,” said 27-year-old McCarthy. “These are people who have multibillion dollar companies and operate worldwide, and they want to know what I think ... That is very empowering to both be able to provide my perspective, but also to have these people as mentors.”
Startup Weekend, the latest installment of Spartanburg’s entrepreneurial development, gives prospective entrepreneurs a peek inside the black box of business ownership.
“Even if you don’t get your startup, the point is the experience,” said Donaldson, who came to the Upstate with a nonprofit background just to learn front-end development at Greenville’s Code Academy. “I have ideas in the back of my head, but I feel like I need to get better at chopping them up to solve solutions. I thought this was a great opportunity for that, just to get some experience in wrestling with problems.”
Saturday morning, the building opens at 8 a.m. By 8:30, at least 20 people are hunched over computers, poised next to whiteboards or quietly conversing with one another at the now established work pods around The Mill, The Iron Yard’s co-working space in Spartanburg.
Mentors for the weekend — Website Pipeline Vice President Joe Gibson, The Iron Yard Managing Director Marty Bauer, The Iron Yard Chief Strategy Officer John Saddington, and ChartSpan CTO Terry Horner — wander between groups to offer advice and mentorship as the teams progress in their plans.
“They each brought to us a different take on what we should really focus on,” said Gathers, whose peer-to-peer lending platform Hustl needed a better plan for attracting venture capital.
“What they [mentors] find wonderful is that they have the opportunity to tell people not to make the same mistakes that they’ve made,” said 17-year-old Riverside High School senior Lorenzo Barberis Canonico.
A transplant from Italy, Barberis Canonico’s idea didn’t make it past the pitch phase, so he decided to join TaleSpinner, an app that facilitates childhood learning.
In other corners, teams are facing unexpected roadblocks.
“What we’re really lacking is designers, as they both had to leave yesterday,” said Scoops creator Clare Belmont, who developed a backless and strapless adhesive bra.
Instead of websites and apps for marketing, Belmont’s team settled on prototype packaging made from an ice cream carton, tissue paper and logo prints.
“We’ve got our idea,” she said. “Let’s just see how it goes.”
Afternoon sunlight streams through the huge windows as McCarthy finally yells, “Pencils down!” at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. As soon as she does, tension vanishes in the room with a collective sigh, leaving 35 now more experienced entrepreneurs to relax with a beer before the final presentations begin.
After half an hour of marketing and business tips from medical records startup ChartSpan Chief Marketing Officer Ryan O’Hara, the pitches start. The four judges — Saddington, Wofford College The Space Dean Scott Cochran, Capital Angels Managing Director Charlie Banks and Contec Inc. President Avi Lawrence — listen attentively, ask questions and head to a back room to confer.
It’s clear that while this is a competition, it’s not a cutthroat one.
“It’s cool to see that we’re all supporting each other’s pursuits,” said Belmont. “There’s competition in the broader sense, but just being here, just being in a room with all this energy, everybody’s working together, it feels like.”
The 54 hours were up. Winners were announced. Pictures were taken. Beers were downed. Now, participants shifted focus to the months and years ahead.
More than one team said they would carry their idea forward, especially if their team members expressed interest in staying on as well.
“I’m fascinated with the fact that people have really absorbed this idea, and that they’re working so hard on it,” said Belmont of Scoops. “Everyone has their own piece now — the website, the packaging, the marketing.”
For most, while getting a business out of it would be helpful, the goal is really to get experience and, in part, gain connections with people who could help with future ventures. Many would do it again.
“I wasn’t coming to build an enterprise,” said Gathers, who plans on further developing Hustl. “But now I can say, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”