Peter Rummell made his way through the growing crowd on Laura Street early Wednesday evening,
The One Spark benefactor hadn’t been sure what to expect for the dramatic retooling of the crowdfunding festival.
But as he strolled down Laura Street a bit after 6 p.m., he heard and saw validation.
A mix of handshakes and congratulations from people who were enjoying the inaugural merger of First Wednesday Art Walk and One Spark.
Sure, the festival was shorter — from six days last year to just one. And there were significantly fewer One Spark creators, down from over 535 last year to 66.
But Rummell was OK with that. He loved the mix and what he saw as an increase in quality of the entrepreneurs who, for the first time, had been screened by judges.
By 12:30 p.m., Rummell was “amazed” by the turnout.
Shortly after 6 p.m., he smiled and said, “It’s a zoo.”
And that was before the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd hit Downtown later that evening, reminiscent of One Spark of old.
The test continues today, with the Innovation Day conference and One Spark Ventures’ Spark Tank. The latter has 10 creators privately pitching their businesses to a panel of experts.
Today, Rummell said, is the “real big pivot day” as One Spark’s focus turns to connecting entrepreneurs with an ecosystem for success.
That’s a focus he believes organizers — including himself — lost track of along the way since One Spark debuted in 2013.
Those years, though, changed a lot. They put Jacksonville on the map as a place for entrepreneurs, they launched several successful businesses and they even changed a veteran businessman like Rummell.
Setting a new trend
In the past, mentions of One Spark almost immediately focused on crowd estimates. From 130,000 the first year to 260,000 in 2014 and 320,000 last year.
To many, the festival atmosphere soon eclipsed the original intent of helping startups become successful.
Organizers had discovered a way to surface ideas that other people hadn’t figured out, Rummell said.
But, he added, they didn’t do the easier part of “finding investable money interested in meeting new ideas.”
And the model was not financially sustainable, with Rummell’s $3.5 million bankrolling the majority of the festival’s expenses.
He said one of the “aha moments” came after the record attendance in 2015.
“All we achieved is I lost more money. That’s not a great trend,” he said. “A Jacksonville cocktail party was not what we were after.”
So, One Spark underwent a major retooling, common for new ventures.
“It’s very few first ideas that go through the machine without some morphing or adjusting,” Rummell said. “The hardest part of starting anything is figuring out if and when you change.”
CEO and co-founder Elton Rivas was asked to resign, One Spark Ventures was created to match businesses with capital and the organization put more focus on finding partnerships.
Rummell said he realized finding investable capital is “not a game for amateurs.” It requires building an infrastructure and knowing how to talk to investors.
He said One Spark Ventures President Chris Carter brings “a sophisticated understanding of that world and how to talk to it.”
The new partnerships include working with Downtown Vision Inc. to combine Art Walk with a One Spark creator showcase and with Jacksonville Community of Entrepreneurs Inc., which is presenting the Innovation Day conference today.
The value of partnerships — collaborating with others — is good for One Spark, Rummell said. He felt the organization had become self-contained, at times operating in a silo.
The early years with One Spark also were good for Rummell, who got to work in an area of business new to the veteran.
Embracing the fail-fast mentality
As a real estate developer, Rummell deals with bricks and mortar. In general, it’s not the most creative business, he said.
“If the world depended on the real estate business to advance causes we’d still be riding horses,” Rummell said.
One Spark introduced him to the creative and passionate world of young entrepreneurs and innovators and what he called the “fantastic concept” of fail fast — acknowledge everything is not going to work, don’t lament over it and move to the next step.
“I love that concept,” he said.
The exposure has made him expand his horizons and has been “a really great gift for me,” he said.
It has played out for him during the planning of The District development on the Southbank, a multigenerational, healthy-living community.
The secret to The District’s success isn’t the bricks and mortar, the design of the apartments or the layout of the retail aspect.
Instead, Rummell said, it’s the programming that will make healthy living and multigenerational living come together and be successful.
The trial-and-error of fail fast helped him appreciate those nuances, Rummell said.
The early years of One Spark taught Rummell the necessity of giving things a chance. While 40 years of managing people requires a certain level of patience, Rummell admits it’s not fully in his DNA.
The festival also allowed him to teach a few things along the way.
Rummell said through One Spark, he showed people how to take a risk, putting your money where your mouth is, so to speak.
“That’s hard,” he said. “But I’m proud I took a shot.”
He also believes he taught the value of focus, which is especially important when building — and rebuilding — a new venture.
He admits One Spark organizers lost focus a couple of times. “I take the blame for that,” he said.
But refocusing and retooling is what kept One Spark alive versus just walking away from it.
He expects Friday there will be discussions about what went well this year and what needs to be refocused.
Gauging success will come in a couple of ways.
For Wednesday, it was the turnout. Jake Gordon, CEO of Downtown Vision, said Thursday morning, early estimates put the crowd at about 70,000. A typical Art Walk brings in 10,000-15,000 visitors, he said. Oktoberfest is about 35,000-40,000.
As Rummell stopped at the Jacksonville Landing on Wednesday night, he looked up Laura Street. “What we were looking for is validation for the future,” he said. “This is successful.”
Rummell hopes Thursday’s events accomplish the original idea of One Spark — connecting investors with ideas.
He thinks it will take a couple of months to see if they were successful in that regard.
In a couple of months, he hopes to have a half-dozen projects thought out, with support and funding.
But for Wednesday, success was more immediate.
It was seeing steady crowds throughout the day, showing interest in One Spark is still there.
It was the countless conversations, answering questions and talking about how it was going.
Though his voice was nearly gone by 6:30 p.m., Rummell didn’t have to say anything to show he was satisfied.
It was clear in his smile.