Above: Michael Norton, a facilitator for Startup Weekend’s parent company Techstars.
A pitch for a downtown Spartanburg music venue claimed first prize at Startup Weekend Spartanburg held Feb. 24 through 26 at the University of South Carolina Upstate’s George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics, nicknamed “the George.”
For 54 hours, a group comprised of 72 aspiring entrepreneurs worked to make their small business ideas a reality.
Brian Brady, director of the GreenHouse Business Incubator at the George and co-organizer of Startup Weekend Spartanburg, said 30 business ideas were submitted.
The field was whittled down to 17 and participants split into small groups of four or five people to develop a pitch for their concepts with help from a team of 11 mentors and coaches.
Teams made their pitches before a panel of judges on Sunday and the winners were chosen.
“This is an experiential learning exercise,” Brady said. “We were trying to expose as many people as we could to entrepreneurship. And we wanted to raise awareness of entrepreneurship in Spartanburg — to make it known how vibrant the ecosystem is here.”
The Sparrow, a music venue that could accommodate 500 to 800 people, provide local musicians with a place to ply their craft, and attract regional or national acts to the city, was named the winner. The concept’s founders were gifted a year’s worth of public accounting firm services.
ToGo, a ride-sharing app that solves the problem of expensive taxi or Uber rides by connecting individuals who need to go to the same long distance location, came in second.
In third place was MeetRx, an app that gives doctors a better onboarding experience and sense of community by connecting them in a secure location.
Grate, a grill grate that links to a smartphone and shows hotspots on a grill’s surface to make sure meat is cooked perfectly, was named the crowd favorite.
“It was a pleasant experience,” said Reid Johnson, who was part of the Sparrow squad. “It was well organized. Everyone involved utilized the offerings. The networking possibilities were immense.”
Johnson, a musician who recently moved back to Spartanburg after touring the country as part of several bands, said he plans to take make the concept a reality. It won’t be called the Sparrow, as there is already another venue in the state operating under that name, he said.
Johnson said his vision for the venue started on St. Patrick’s Day 2016 when he and his friend Daniel Ross put on a block party in downtown Spartanburg and about 2,000 people showed up.
He helped put on the Melting Pot Music Festival, which attracted 30 bands. He is planning for a second installment of the block party on March 17 and has already booked eight bands.
“That’s really how all of this began,” Johnson said. “I plan to continue cultivating relationships with local artists and really hear what they want to see and make sure they have a platform and a space to perform. The doors are beginning to open. This really gave me the validation that this is something that is needed.”
He said the loss of the Handlebar in Greenville, Magnolia St. Pub in Spartanburg, and other venues has created a void in the local music scene.
Johnson said he also wants to have a positive economic impact on his hometown.
“Startup Weekend was a great experience,” said Chris Goldman, an entrepreneur from Spartanburg who was a member of team Sparrow. “Most people think it would be kind of awkward, but when people come and sit down together and give their talents and abilities, the impossible becomes possible.”
Brady said planners expected only about 40 participants to show up this year. But registration swelled to 72. He said 28 of them were college students who were given scholarships from sponsorship funds.
Some of the participants were local. Others came from Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Raleigh, N.C., and as far away as New Jersey.
Coaches and mentors included Keith Sheilds and Joshua Tucker with the Greenville-based software company Designli; design strategist Drew Stanly; Gil Vassoly, with Gibbs International; Katherine Wakefield with Web Code Chicks, leadership specialist Alexandra Eby; Bill West, CEO of Haystack Analytics in Spartanburg; Chris Stokes with Wellingham Financial; Erin Ouzts, president of LaunchPad Ventures; software developer Joe Walling; and Joe Gibson, a business and marketing consultant.
The panel of judges was made up of Melinda Lehman, founding partner at Happen, Brendan Buttimer, a community development loan officer, Area Manager of the Spartanburg Small Business Development Center Elizabeth Smith, and John Bauknight, president of Longleaf Holdings USA.
Platinum sponsors included Spartanburg-based American Credit Acceptance, the George, and J M Smith Corp. Gold sponsors were the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Upstate Business Journal and Designli.
The South Carolina Research Authority, Leigh Fibers, Alliance Wealth Partners, Spartanburg Marriott, Wild Ace Pizza and Pub, and Cribb’s Kitchen served as the silver sponsors.
In addition to Brady, Parker Baxter, Philomena Raines, Meagan Rethmeier, Kayla McGill, Amy Henderson, and Logan Dickey organized the event. Michael Norton served as the facilitator. Jaime Van Emburgh also served as a volunteer.
Brady said he hopes to host Startup Weekend in Spartanburg again next year.
For more information, visit: www.up.co/communities/usa/spartanburg.