As a member of the local young professionals network in Brattleboro, I received a notice about an upcoming event being sponsored by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) that caught my attention. The event was billed as an “Idea Jam” as part of a larger program being spearheaded by BDCC (called Instig8) to spur entrepreneurism in the community. Here is the description to help you see why, in the sea of invites, meeting notices, and social commitments, this stood out as something I was willing to carve out an evening for:
This (the Idea Jam) is the launch for a program called INSTIG8 which strategically fosters a safe environment for creative entrepreneurs to try, fail, learn, build, explore, and connect to other like-minded individuals while developing their business concepts and models. At the event, be prepared to share an idea about a new business in 60 seconds or less. This is not a competition. The purpose is to start conversations, look for collaborators, and contribute to a growing creative, and entrepreneurial culture in area. If you're not chosen to present your idea, don't worry, there's always next time. After the Idea Jam, talk about the ideas, stay to network, enjoy some food, and start to collaborate. Most successful startups are the result of collaborations!
The actual evening was a lot of fun - there was delicious food and drinks, lots of conversation around high top tables, a jazz performance, and brave and enthusiastic people standing up and presenting their idea to an appreciative and snapping crowd (snapping was encouraged over clapping). No one took themselves too seriously, but it was clear that there was an appetite for the event as there wasn't a lull in presentations. For a good half hour people were getting up in front of the 100 or so people that were there to present their idea for businesses, collaborations, non-profits, etc.
The projects and businesses presented ran the gamut from a drive-thru coffee shop, to a gender neutral clothing line, a mobile environmental education program, housing for young professionals, art installations along the highway, engineering a better football helmet, using local apples to produce apple jack liquor, handmade mittens, and many others. The two rules of the Idea Jam was that you could only speak for 60 seconds and there had to be an "ask" at the end - what do you need in order to move the idea forward.
Following the event I reached out to the facilitator, Dr. Birton Cowden, Associate Director at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMASS, to hear more about the Idea Jams he has facilitated in the past. I sent Dr. Cowden some questions and the following is a condensed version of the information provided related to Idea Jams. He also provided great information about entrepreneurship that I didn't want to jam into this one article so I will have a follow-up post with that information.
RS: Where did the idea for the Idea Jam start?
BC: R.T. Brown (BDCC Project Manager) approached me to discuss what was occurring in southern Vermont and his vision of its entrepreneurial revolution. After strategic planning and securing funds, the hard part for any entity is knowing where to start. Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem from scratch is quite a daunting task. Knowing my expertise is being the instigator of creating such entrepreneurial communities, R.T. wanted advice on how to get the ball rolling. From this conversation, it became apparent that there was not a platform for ideas and projects to be shared with other players in the community. Thus, it became clear that the first place to start was an Idea Jam to create the creative, safe environment to tell your peers about your idea or project. From all of those ideas, the community can begin to network in a new way to provide feedback, resources, and potential partnership to get new things done.
RS: Are you doing these types of events elsewhere? If so, what types of communities/organizations are calling you in to facilitate similar events?
BC: With my background, most of the events I have been a part of have been on college campuses or corporations. However, as my expertise has grown, more and more municipalities and regional players have been reaching out to create their own entrepreneurial haven. At a high level, the entities contacting me know entrepreneurship is the key to their future success, but don’t have much in place or a community assembled. While I can help in entrepreneurial ecosystem design, the true need and value I provide is getting the entity to stop talking and start implementing.
RS: What is the most exciting and successful idea to come out of an Idea Jam that you have been a part of?
BC: There have been a lot of cool ideas that have come out of Idea Jams, many of which are still in process. I would say the most interesting outcomes from an Idea Jam have not been the ideas pitched, but more of the new network connecting that has resulted. I have heard on several occasions that co-founders have met because of an Idea Jam, and either started working on a hybrid of their ideas or some other venture idea that wasn’t presented at the Idea Jam. I think this tends to happen because ideas get molded or broken after they have been communicated and feedback is provided.
RS: Have you been able to track any particular idea or project from the Idea Jam to reality?
BC: One that comes to mind is Ader, who started off with an idea to pay people to watch online ads. They have since pivoted to be an ad platform for Twitch, the videogame viewing site.
RS: What have you found to be the most critical next step in moving from the Idea Jam to more concrete projects/businesses (follow-up, networking, financing, etc.)?
BC: The next steps after an Idea Jam is getting things done; less talking and more doing. This doesn’t mean, however, build it and they will come. We know from the stats that for startups, “they” don’t come. The true next step is to start vetting the ideas to see if they are feasible and desirable. I like to utilize the Lean Launchpad methodology for this, which is an evidence-based approach to building a business. I have taught many courses and ran workshops on this subject. If the idea does seem feasible and valuable, then another step is to start finding others to join this journey. One way of doing this is by hosting co-founder speed dating events.
At some point, money, space, and general resources become a necessity. Establishing local entities that can act as a center for entrepreneurship is key to creating the connections necessary to get over these hurdles.
Big thank you to Dr. Cowden for taking the time to answer my questions.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and @birtoncowden.