Lean startup experts partner with artist entrepreneur to fire up a nonprofit that empowers young people

The Kenan Institute for the Arts is thrilled to partner with Flywheel in presenting UpStart Live in Winston Salem. This local collaborative approach to social entrepreneurship in supporting and enhancing arts enterprise in our community aligns with the Institute’s strategic focus in Artist Leadership by developing leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators in the arts. Providing opportunities for artists to grow and evolve as artist leaders by building their capacity to generate, lead and sustain their work builds and strengthens our creative community.

It’s early Sunday morning at 525@Vine, a fortress of concrete, glass and steel in the heart of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. Downtown Winston-Salem slumbers, but inside Suite 210, home to a 24/7 coworking space dubbed Flywheel, Dana Dillehunt puts the finishing touches on marketing materials aimed to fetch high-end corporate investors for the project at hand.

Nathan Powell sits one cubicle down, hunched over his iPad, crunching the final numbers — production costs, sales projections, the all-important margins.

Across the way, Rebeccah Byer crafts a blog post for her glassblowing studio’s website — www.theolio.org. “It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning,” she begins, “and I’m working with the rock stars of Winston-Salem.” 

And the man keeping this team on task? He’s Peter Marsh, co-founder of Flywheel and business strategist turned barista. Marsh has just pushed “send” on one last email notification inviting the city’s entrepreneurial community to an important event only hours away.

That would be the final presentation for UpStart Live! — a 48-hour event that has brought together startup experts of all kinds to help Byer launch her idea for a handblown drinkware product into a business that will generate repeatable revenue to fund her nonprofit’s Youth Apprentice Program. Call it “deep-dive, rapid business model development” with a social innovation twist. 

“So now we have to pull this together into a presentation that makes sense of all we’ve cooked up here,” Marsh declares before taking special orders to keep the team caffeinated.

Powell puts in for a double espresso. “Gotta go big or go home,” he jokes.

There’ll be no going home — not just yet. Never mind that it’s Super Bowl Sunday. A 3 p.m. deadline looms.

The magic of glass

Rebeccah Byer will tell you that blowing glass changed her life. Growing up outside Chicago, she didn’t fare well in traditional schools. And the struggle continued at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

“I was 19 and flunking out of school. I felt so lost,” she recalls. “On a whim I took a glassblowing class — and the first day I fell in love with it. I was totally in awe of what I was seeing and smelling and doing. The next day, I said, ‘I’m going to start a glassblowing school for kids.’ ”

By the next semester Byer had made Dean’s List, and she’s blown glass ever since. When she moved to Winston-Salem in 2006 and started a family, her art took a back seat to sons Elliot and Henry, now 8 and 9 years old. But she never lost sight of that dream. 

“Now here I am 22 years later and my dream is reality.”

These days you’ll find Byer at The Olio, the studio she opened last year in a nondescript old building off Northwest Boulevard. It’s part gallery and part work space, featuring the only “hot shop” in the region and an apprentice program for young people struggling to find focus, just as Byer herself once did. Six months ago, she began The Olio’s first community partnership with Youth in Transition, a program that helps foster children aging out of the system.

“They don’t necessarily have a family support structure. They struggle financially. The Olio is a place they can come and get job training and learn life and business skills in a fun environment,” Byer says of the program, which now boasts about a dozen apprentices.

“We want to develop the funding to train them and pay them. As they get more skilled, the job options are quite substantial,” she says. “I think if someone wants a career traveling the world, we can make that happen. If someone wants a career just making a steady paycheck, we can make that happen, too.”

For Byer, it’s a way to give back.

“I am lucky that people were willing to help me along the way — people have taken a chance on me. I am smart, but I wasn’t a good student, and I recognize that in a lot of people. One of our apprentices is dyslexic. She can’t read and write very well, but she has so much potential.”

Sharing the story

Peter Marsh turned out to be one of those people willing to take a chance. He and Byer crossed paths at an event for SWERVE, a hub for creative professionals in the Triad launched by the Center for Creative Economy. They happened to be seated at the same table.

“There was something about him,” Byer says. “I sort of grab onto people because I feel some energy and serendipity about them. And I felt like that with Peter.” 

The feeling was mutual.

“We talked about how startup methods work,” Marsh recalls, “and how we could form an event around this and bring a lot of highly expert volunteer resources to bear to get this product line launched. The startup community has a high degree of pay-it-forward attitude — entrepreneurs who are willing to donate their time to help get things like this done.” 

Enter Dillehunt, Flywheel’s director of marketing and communications, who embraced the concept of using lean startup methods to launch a civic-minded project. She took the lead in planning the weekend and headed up the Marketing Team.

“Startups are usually very competitive — they require a huge deal of personal preservation and protection of ideas and methodology,” Dillehunt explains.

“This is a really unique model that could have legs. It’s not the next Facebook. It’s not the next Twitter or Uber. We are not here to make $10 billion or edge anyone out for intellectual properties. We are all just joining together and donating our time, energy and passion freely to launch a nonprofit.”

Stoking the fire 

On the Friday night before Super Bowl Sunday, the UpStart Live! team begins its 48-hour adventure at the “hot shop,” gathered around the furnace in the nondescript building off Northwest Boulevard. There, they watch as The Olio’s creative director, Sarah Band, and her apprentice, Quinten Matthews, create one of those color-crafted, artisan-quality glasses that Byer believes can fund her nonprofit.

It’s physically demanding work, yet master and student perform what looks like an elegant, well-choreographed waltz. Barely a word is spoken between them, as Byer explains that the prototype taking shape is made from discarded liquor bottles collected by The Olio.

“Bar to table,” she calls it, holding up an empty bottle of Tito’s vodka. “This is our favorite — the labels come off like butter!”

“Melting bottles from local bars and restaurants is a creative way to repurpose, reduce and reuse — and it helps build community. We have some partners that want specialty cocktail glasses made from the bottles they give us.”

Byer believes these glasses — 3 1/2-inch tumblers featuring swirls of color, each one different from the next, can be The Olio’s bread-and-butter product. “But how do we brand and market it to exemplify what the studio stands for?” 

Powell, the financial guy who grew up in Pfafftown and now writes risk-management algorithms for investment managers on Wall Street, likes what he sees: “We have an entire community here that is waiting to help you out,” he says on his way out the door.

Full-court press 

The following morning, more than a dozen bright-eyed volunteers converge on 525@Vine, where freshly brewed coffee, fruit and bagels await them outside the “IQ Court” at Flywheel. 

“Entrepreneurs give back to other entrepreneurs,” Marsh says. “You call them up, no questions asked, they’ll do it.”

Joel Bennett’s day job is leading the Triad Startup Lab for Greensboro Partnership. This weekend, he’s leading the Business Development Team for Byer’s project and serving as scribe for the opening session. As the group brainstorms everything from The Olio’s mission, the potential customer base for its product to branding, Bennett captures the ideas on the massive whiteboard strategically located under the basketball hoop. 

“To go through the ideation process, we need a pathway, a framework for what the problem is we are going to try to solve for you,” Bennett tells the group.

At its core, The Olio is a teaching facility, Byer explains. “We just teach so much more than glass. … I don’t care if the kids coming through the door become professional glass blowers. I just want them to feel empowered to do something they love.”

Apprentices now pay $25 a month to participate in the program, but it costs the studio about $600 a week to train them. Current revenue is driven by workshops, corporate programs, field trips and private events but remains heavily dependent on fundraising. 

“We are on a tight budget all the time. I want to hear from you all, what do you think is the real product? What could and should it look like? What should the price be? Who will be the customer? How should we brand it? I want to see if this idea has anything to it. If we invest $30,000, will it give us the return we think it will? Will my numbers match up with Nathan’s numbers?” 

With that, the smaller teams break off to drill down. Bennett and Powell, who leads the Finance Team, hole up in a corner conference room with their volunteers and Byer, working late into the night to hammer out a viable business model.

Marsh’s Research and Validation Team, which includes students studying entrepreneurship at Wake Forest, takes to the streets. They spend the next few hours on Trade Street, in Winston-Salem’s arts district, interviewing potential customers about The Olio’s prototype product. 

“One of the critical premises of the lean startup method is that you have to validate your assumptions as quickly as possible,” Marsh says. “We are making a gazillion assumptions in that room, and a critical part of this weekend is testing those assumptions by talking to actual customers.

“Every year we host a Wake Forest team here as part of a curriculum-based project. This was a perfect fit.”

Bleary-eyed, but energized

Back inside Suite 210 early on Sunday morning, it’s time to pull everyone’s work together into a pitch Byer can use for potential investors. Dillehunt snaps a few product shots to illustrate packaging ideas; Marsh finishes creating a customer profile on a Google slide. 

“I spell entrepreneurship correctly about 1 in 10 times,” he mutters under his breath. “It’s so ironic.” 

One great nugget his research team dug up? “If you are going to do this, Winston-Salem is the place to do it,” he says. “We rank No. 1 for concentration of craft artists per capita of any urban metro in the U.S.” 

Powell feels confident about the numbers. “Finance-wise, it looks good and it’s great margins,” he says. “Her goal is achievable.” 

When the 3 p.m. deadline arrives, and the team leaders deliver their final presentation in the IQ Court, Byer takes it all in, a smile on her face. 

There’s much work still to be done, but she has a solid plan in her hands — revenue model, marketing analysis, customer research, price targets and capacity calculations, sales and growth projections for three years out. And the promise of continuing support as she executes the plan in the coming months. 

Someone in the audience asks how much such a business plan would cost if this were the real world — if Byer were a client paying today’s going rates for 200 or so hours of expert resources.

Upward of $20,000, Marsh estimates. 

But to Byer? 

“What we learned was priceless,” she says.

“I’m thrilled with what we’ve accomplished in the last 48 hours. What everyone did was help clarify, quantify and solidify what we had wanted to do, so we can go forward with conviction.”

February 26, 2016