Elton Rivas, One Spark cofounder, and Peter S. Rummell, one of the festival’s major backers and immediate past chairman of ULI, offer some insights into how they created the event and how they might improve the model.
1. Think imaginatively, but go for a lean startup model.
Rivas says the event’s creators imagined a sprawling multi-city competition in which innovators from Jacksonville would compete for prize money against counterparts in Memphis and Tampa. But organizers realized that a narrow, local focus would promote Jacksonville more effectively, and that a successful, modestly scaled event would serve their purposes better than an ambitious misfire. For a template, they looked to Grand Rapids, Michigan’s successful ArtPrize festival, and scaled the event down from three weeks to five days in a relatively confined eight-block area of downtown Jacksonville.
2. Build bridges and enlist key supporters as quickly as possible.
Staging a festival of One Spark’s scale entirely from an online crowdfunding effort would have been exceedingly tough. Instead, Rivas sought to build a bridge between the local creative class and business owners, developers, and public officials, promoting One Spark as a means to improve deal flow. He found a key backer in Rummell, who put up $1 million to underwrite both the festival’s operations and to provide prize money to augment whatever participants received in crowdfunding contributions.
3. Build a robust online infrastructure to promote and support the physical event.
In addition to launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 toward startup costs, the festival’s organizers made heavy use of social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo, a video-sharing website. “Social media was a huge way for us to generate interest in the festival for a very low cost,” Rivas says. “We had 12 million impressions across all of our social media channels.”
Integration between online promotion and the offline event continued once the festival began. The organizers worked with Bonfyre, a St. Louis–based startup, to create a One Spark–specific social network that visitors could use to share comments and photos of the event. They also created a One Spark mobile phone app that helped visitors navigate the exhibits and enabled them to contribute directly to exhibitors.
Use of mobile apps also provided One Spark organizers with a wealth of data they could mine to see how well the festival was achieving its goals. They could pinpoint the locations from which festival visitors cast their votes for exhibitors to receive prize money, for example, which enabled them to determine the extent to which the location and physical groupings of exhibitors affected festival traffic and voting. To a certain extent, “we found that people wanted to go to certain areas downtown, so they ended up casting more votes there,” Rivas explains.
At future festivals, organizers may use these insights to tweak the festival footprint to give exhibitors a better chance to be seen.
4. Design the event to work on different levels for different audiences.
Events such as One Spark have to function on several levels, Rummell says. It is important to provide a basic entertainment experience for large numbers of people who come out of curiosity or just to hear music and enjoy exotic cuisine. But a segment also exists that is seeking intellectual stimulation from the exhibits, and an even smaller group that may be potential investors. At future events, it will be particularly important to do more to attract that elite segment, Rummell says. “We encouraged people who came to invest, but we didn’t make it explicit enough,” he says. While he has heard of exhibitors who got $10,000 or $20,000 investments from people who saw their presentations at One Spark, Rummell says he hopes to find ways to facilitate such meetings, “so that you’re encouraged to go off with that creator and give him $100,000 or buy his company.”
5. Use the festival as a development springboard.
It is crucial to follow up on the leads and opportunities that a festival generates, Rummell says. In the case of One Spark, a group of local business leaders launched a follow-up effort in which they studied the roster of exhibitors and picked the 20 projects they perceived to have the most commercial potential. After a round of interviews and other research, they will distill those 20 projects down to five, which they plan to nurture with additional investment. “The quid pro quo, of course, is that they have to do the business in Jacksonville,” Rummell says. “Hopefully, this will spawn businesses that stay here and grow.”