ONE SPARK EVENT: Crowdfunding Comes to Jacksonville, Florida

ONE SPARK EVENT: Crowdfunding Comes to Jacksonville, Florida
By Marianna Smith, JD

One spark can light a fire! That is exactly what happened in Jacksonville, FL, during 5 days in April 2013. The entire downtown area was packed with over 400 creators pitching their ideas, creations and dreams to an audience of observers, critics and hopefully potential investors during One Spark 2013.

For the reader who is not from Florida, Jacksonville is located in north Florida as the first city on I-95 only a few miles from Georgia. The greater metropolitan area of almost 1 million is located on the beach of the Atlantic ocean and has a major river going through the downtown area. It is home of 2 naval bases, a professional football team, a number of solid universities and colleges, and a downtown in serious need of revitalization. Plus because of a merger of city and county government, it is the largest land mass city in the country. It’s nothing like Miami or Orlando or even Tampa. Some have said, it is really sleepy South Georgia with a Florida zip code. In short, One Spark is the most brilliant and exciting thing that has happened in our city in recent memory.

Like many others who visited the festival, I was intrigued and excited but confused about the idea of crowdfunding or even the idea of crowdsourcing but after a few hours of walking, talking and looking I realized the concepts are not new. They have been around and I have participated in them all my life. Every time NPR or PBS does a fund drive and I send them a check for $100.00 in exchange for a coffee mug with their logo, we have completed a crowd funding transaction to provide their operating funds and my future pleasure. When I buy raffle tickets to help build a new Catholic church or school or buy band uniforms? Ditto. When I buy a lotto ticket from a semi-state organization with any profits to support state education, it is crowd funding. But it isn’t always money people are seeking. Wikipedia seeks information…..from the crowd. And gets it. When Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, FL, a group of African American ministers got on the radio and asked people to express their outrage that the suspect had not been criminally charged by coming to Sanford for a demonstration. I put my Pick-of-the-Pound dog in the back seat of my car and drove there to join the group. They didn’t ask for money or information. They wanted people to come to Sanford, and they did. Tens of thousands of them plus me and a 95 lb white dog with big brown spots, two floppy brown ears, one brown eye and a banner over his back saying JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON. Yes, I had been crowd sourced….before I even knew the meaning of the word. And the effort worked. Within 36 hours, the governor appointed a special prosecutor and the criminal justice system began to do its job. Frankly, the best example is the 2012 Obama campaign. A perfect example of crowd sourcing/funding by thousands of small contributors.

There were more than 400 creators at the 1Spark festival. Let me tell you about only a few of them.
One was a man who has a great idea to grow food that doesn’t require acres of land. He purchased a container (like the ones they use on ocean going container ships) installed insulation, an air conditioner and an exhaust fan and solar panels on the top. Down the middle is a path for walking. On the interior right side is a long fish tank with big fat fish swimming around. Above that are rows of plants with LED lights over them and plants growing in water. The entire left side is the same kind of shelving with lights and plants in water. The only thing necessary to grow these vegetable plants is to feed the fish. They provide their waste which goes through a filter and provides the nitrates, nitrites, etc. to make the veggies grow green and beautiful. Get it? A closed system! This brilliant idea costs about $25,000 after tax rebates and could feed a whole village.

Another great idea is from a local doctor and wife of our former mayor. She is a radiologist and has observed how much trouble it can be for women to get copies of earlier mammograms when they change insurance companies, change doctors, or relocate. She has a beta model of storage in the cloud that can automatically move the previous medical records and film to the new facility and new doctor. Local hospitals and insurance companies are cooperating and she is seeking funding to expand this life saving service. This idea can not only save lives, it will save time and aggravation for all patients, doctors and imaging companies.
There were musicians and dancers and glass blowers who dream of creating a haven for artists to work, perform, create and just hang out together in a cultural arts center in one of the old empty buildings in downtown Jacksonville…..all they need is some seed money. They have the talent and the energy. Another lady has a company making soup and dip mix. She has so many customers she can’t handle all the requests for product, so she needs an investor to help her scale her business with a bigger kitchen facility and some workers. That spells JOBS. Something our town badly needs.

A mixed media artist from Beaufort, SC, had the most fascinating and delightful creations you can imagine. I bought a 10 foot wide flying Pegasus to install at the top of the enclosure of my pool to fly and bring a smile to my face every single day. He crowd sourced me to a happy smile. Another young man had written his first novel which is available as an ebook and has some good reviews. He was looking for help getting it published. A lady created a chair with extensions on either side so you can Skype more than one person without them having to hang off the edge of a chair seat. One woman had a timer that doesn’t have to be set each time it rings. Her father got bedsores in a nursing facility because they didn’t turn him every 2 hrs. Even with a timer at his bedside he often forgot or was too sleepy to reset it every time it awakened him during the night so she created one that you can set to ring every 2 hours forever. One young lady was cutting her own patterns and making custom clothes. She only needs bigger and better equipment to fly like my Pegasus. One young fellow had a 3D printer. I was blown away by his creations with the small printer he currently uses in his consulting with architects, contractors and artists. He needs an investor to buy a much bigger machine so he can create metal products. This is the wave of our future and I was standing there watching him work! WOW!

People had creams and lotions and unguents galore. Some were able to make these old tired hands and feet stay smooth for hours! There were lots of electronic gadgets and magic stunts to do with your computer but, frankly, they were far above my pay grade or knowledge base of these machines so I could only marvel at the final results. I certainly cannot even try to explain them.

There were also lectures covering information on how to scale a business and how to avoid fraud. They discussed P2P which I now know is People to People (peer to peer) lending and investing. I learned Australia is the leader in this form of investing and have extended it to what we generally call student loans. Several schools there have established programs for alums to lend directly to students at an attractive rate of interest but still lower than the banks. So far, everybody down under seems jolly happy with it.
(As an aside, dear reader, I looked into the P2P student loans and learned that a college education in Australia costs only a fraction of the amount paid by US students. Here, students are looking to borrow amounts ranging from $25,000 to $250,000! The numbers create a very different dynamic and kind of market.)

Before you decide this is small time, remember the exhibits of more than 400 creators covered the entire downtown area and along the river banks. The owner of our football team pledged to provide up to $1million dollars for investing in promising ideas. The organizers split $250,000 among the creators with the amounts determined by votes cast by the visiting crowd. It was competitive and it was exciting.
The same is true of crowd funding all over the country. There are a number of websites that provide platforms to help creators find funding. Many of these are managed by folk who have struggled to find funding for their own ideas and have created a model that worked for them and they will share with others. They go all the way from the NPR model of $10 will get you a CD to $5,000 will enable you to be the star of your own CD. Others will guide you through an intricate process of helping to title your project, set financial goals, create a business plan, set a time frame, do videos or special graphics, write a description and get you before the public. They charge a percentage of what you raise. One fellow told me he charges 3% if you don’t meet your goal and 8% if you achieve it. Seemed fair to me when you compare it to the percentage charged by real estate agents or plaintiff attorneys! These companies go all the way from what I call the NPR plan to creating a prospectus and seeking equity funding for more costly and complicated projects.

Now that I am aware of the size and depth of crowd sourcing, it seems to be in every publication I read. The NY Times op-ed on Sat 4.27.13 had an article about the Brooklyn Navy Yard.There was a story about a couple who raised $38,000 in seed money by crowd sourcing to manufacture a spoon for feeding babies…..and they had not even got into production yet! In another story, a guy designed a new kind of running shoe and has raised $10 million. This is big time, folks!!!

So what happens now? The private group that staged OneSpark will remain intact with a year-round staff. They are already planning year 2 and are working on a plan for the next five years. It is their intent to have quarterly events where entrepreneurs can meet with potential investors and show that Jacksonville is a creative community year around. This reminds me of the ANGEL meetings of investors around the country. There has been a Spark Grant created with $60,000 to assist artists who put their studios in an area on the North Bank of the River which is now known as the Spark District. So watch this space and come visit us next year for the One Spark festival.
This just proves that even sleepy old southern towns respond to a SPARK.