Party On!

sam drawing

by Matt Shaw // illustration by Sam Shaw // photos by Wayne Wood and Christina McFall

The world's largest crowdfunding festival has arguably provided a spark to Jacksonville's collective entrepreneurial spirit.

Year two of One Spark saw an expansion of the festival with more creator projects, new sponsors, an enormous crowd and foundational changes to the awards structure intended to increase monetary prizes to the winners. Transplant billionaire and Jacksonville’s very own entrepreneurial messiah Shad Khan even lent his proverbial matchbook to the sparking endeavor, pledging a million dollars in each of the first two years and investing another million in loosely affiliated accelerator, Kyn. The festival was a fun party. A reason to celebrate the city and look optimistically into its future. Hell, people were even riding the skyway! All indications were, the flame had been lit.

However, in the nine months since last year’s festival, the light has dimmed a bit as criticisms began to surface about everything from the company’s structure to the amount of prize money awarded to winners to the stated goals of the festival.

Success stories with direct ties to funding received through the festival have proven evasive at best—of those listed on One Spark’s website, perhaps only bluegrass band Grandpa’s Cough Medicine (who recorded an album with their One Spark funds), or Naturally Smart Desserts (who now have their treats in dozens of grocery stores) can provide a strong link between One Spark funding and success. Perhaps most notably, the operators of Edgewood Bakery (One Spark alums) and Stache Investments are currently locked in dueling lawsuits after business relationships soured towards the end of 2014.

The festival has struggled to attract the big name investors it promised would be there to reward the best ideas. Those who invested in creator projects have complained about receiving gimmicky incentives like coozies, high fives, or nothing at all in exchange for monies donated.

And, after two years, many residents of the city remain generally confused about the purpose of the festival—which may be unavoidable when pitches for projects can vary widely from building new tech applications to growing the world’s largest afro (seriously, a real project at the inaugural event). Many aren’t even aware that One Spark, itself a startup, is struggling to achieve sustainability.

Shortly after last year’s event, CEO Elton Rivas shifted quietly from his role overseeing much of the day-to-day at One Spark in order to focus on a business accelerator called Kyn. At the time, many, including Khan’s Stache Investments, saw Kyn as an opportunity for synergy between local investors and the entrepreneurial spirit cultivated by One Spark. The fallout between Stache and Kyn was documented extensively by local media, but, fair or not, in the wake of Kyn’s failure, One Spark lost a little of its mojo (and residents of Jacksonville have been left to try and comprehend the difference between an accelerator and an incubator).

Sitting at a round conference table inside the One Spark offices on East Bay Street, Rivas looks a bit weary. Aside from the indecipherable flow chart with esoteric tech terms remaining on the white board behind him, Rivas has a lot on his plate. In early December, executive director Joe Sampson—who had been with the company since early 2013—resigned, and Rivas took over the position. When asked whether he feels burdened by the success of the festival, Rivas seems to sigh in relief. “Anytime you are labeled a success,” he says, “there is going to be pressure to do more.”

When reflecting on One Spark’s meteoric rise, the burden weighing on 33-year-old Rivas, though partly self-imposed, is also partly unwarranted. Three years ago, Jacksonville did not have a One Spark Festival. Then, two years ago, Rivas—with friends Dennis Eusebio and Varick Rosete, the help of retired investor Peter Rummel and a core group of volunteers—brought the event to the First Coast. In September of 2014, Rivas took One Spark to Berlin, where "Europe's first live crowd-funding festival" was met by a "crowd" of 5,000 and mixed reviews. Though the event was a far cry from its First Coast counterpart, Rivas and company said the numbers (which included 50 creators drawn from 200 applicants) were on par with expectations.

The intention from day one was to provide opportunities for innovators and idea-generators to connect their projects to investors. A year ago, 250,000 people showed up. Now the city seems to want more.

Last year, Raquel Steffen’s project, a charitable giving application called Bucketwish (which provides match-making between corporations, individuals and the wishlists of charities), earned top prizes in its category. And though she says the money her company received from One Spark “did not have a significant impact on [Bucketwish’s] needs,” Steffens says the experience was worthwhile. “One Spark did enable me to connect to potential funding sources and a network that we would not have been able to reach out to otherwise.”

Sterling Cox, another 2013 creator, agrees that One Spark’s impact on his idea was more about potential. By his own estimates, Cox’s project, a tiny house built inside a 8-by-20-foot shipping container, was viewed more than 7,000 times. “It absolutely gave us a sense of validation for our project. So many people walked through, and almost everyone had something encouraging to say. I can't help but think we're onto something,” he says. Cox joins several other One Spark veterans in resubmitting their projects for a second go, perhaps proof of an entrepreneurial resilience the festival is cultivating.

Though Rivas says there was a time he considered taking advantage of opportunities beyond the First Coast, when he began developing the concept of One Spark he was certain Jacksonville was a capable host city. “We saw a lot of opportunity here, and still do,” he says. “Just like with any startup, we have a long term vision that resets everyday. And we have learned a lot over the past few years.”

Rivas says 2014’s exit surveys (completed by creators in the weeks following the festival) helped the company identify several areas for improvement. Attendees to this year’s event (which takes place April 7-12) will reap the benefits of months of research and development focused on streamlining the user experience on the event’s smart phone application. “We wanted it to be fast, easy to use and we wanted people to be able to acquire the app in less than one minute,” Rivas says.

Corporate sponsorship from Verizon has allowed One Spark to address problems with Internet and cell usage inside the festival. “Jacksonville is one of the few cities that is not wi-fi ready,” Rivas says. “So it’s a consorted effort to make sure everyone can use their phones and have Internet access during the event.”

Aside from providing several boost towers, Verizon will construct and manage the Verizon Creator’s Lounge. Rivas envisions the lounge as a quiet place for creators to meet with potential investors or just take a break from hawking their idea to the masses.

One Spark also happily welcomed The Players Championship as a new sponsor that will underwrite a large portion of the pot of prize money. Prize awards for winners are larger this year, though still not likely to be a significant boost to creators—$15,000 going to the top vote getters, as well as jury-prize winners in each category.

And, in response to feedback, the crowd-funding aspect will look more like, well, crowd-funding. Popular crowd-funding websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter use rewards-based funding to incentivize giving. This year One Spark will follow their lead, as each individual creator will set his own reward structure, so that investors will know ahead of time what they are entitled to in exchange for a monetary contribution.

Another positive force for improvement, according to Rivas, is One Spark’s newly founded Creators Academy. Over the course of 2014, for a fee, potential One Spark 2015 creators were able to take advantage of workshops that included guest speakers, one-on-one mentorship, and networking opportunities. “The creators who participated in the academy are prepared and ready to kill it when they present their projects at the festival,” Rivas says.

In 2014, many creators complained about not having the opportunity to attend the One Spark Speakers Summit. Now a mainstay at the festival, the Summit has been moved to the Tuesday before the project pitches begin and this years’ event boasts a formidable lineup. Nationally renowned journalists, experts in marketing and entrepreneurship and inspirational people from companies including Eventbrite, Forbes and Priceline are all there to lend their insight.

Through changes, successes, failures and growing pains, Rivas is adamant he remains as motivated in year three as he was in 2013. Though he says the long-term vision often resets, the mission of One Spark remains the same. “We are successful if we can connect ideas with resources, first and foremost,” he says. “The next thing we want is the experience to be fun and easy for attendees.” Rivas feels his team has fine-tuned the latter with the changes they’ve made. The former, he insists, has happened in the past, but time is required for the fruits of success to come to bear. “We believe that we are helping to build a collaborative infrastructure in Jacksonville. The main components of which are strong leadership, a culture that embraces innovation and time. We’re not there yet.”

One Spark is undoubtedly an event that takes place. Whether it can be more than that, remains to be seen. Nobody said being a creator, innovator or entrepreneur was going to be easy.