Backpacking through Southeast Asia has its hassles and, usually, a broken flip-flop would barely deserve a mention in a traveler's Moleskine. But for Kyle Berner, one snapped strap was a life changer. He stopped in a market in Bangkok out of necessity and slipped on a flip-flop he would never forget.
"They were curiously comfortable," Berner says, "and a little light bulb went off in my head."
Today, he is the CEO of Feelgoodz, a company that sells flip-flops imported from Thailand. Last summer, his sales increased from about 500 to 3,500 pairs per month, Berner says. He sells them online and at 55 locations nationwide. Last year, he expanded his distribution, placing the shoes in 17 Whole Foods stores in the South. It has been a lofty project since its inception, but when Berner first went to the Idea Village, the group embraced his enthusiasm.
The Idea Village is a nonprofit, the mission of which is to incubate quixotic business ventures in New Orleans and help them gain footing. They provide strategic consultations, find investors for local entrepreneurs, and connect these business owners with talent from MBA schools around the country. This year, the group chose 14 business ventures for its Entrepreneur Challenge 2010. Entrepreneur Week (March 20-27) is a culmination of the challenge. The mini convention will be a chance for the idea-driven to do what successful businesspeople do best — network and expand.
The recent appointment of Tim Williamson, co-founder and CEO of Idea Village, to Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu's economic transition team speaks to the organization's influence in the city. "We're looking to attract and retain the best and the brightest to help move this city forward," Landrieu says.
Landrieu will speak during Entrepreneur Week, along with Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and former managing editor of Time magazine, and Tulane President Scott Cowen. Participation by such high-profile speakers reflects growing support for entrepreneurial ventures in New Orleans, Williamson says. (The speeches will be streamed live on the New Orleans Entrepreneur Week Web site, www.noew.org, for those who cannot attend.)
Since 2000, New Orleans businesses that have worked with the Idea Village have gone on to generate more than 978 jobs and $87 million in revenue, according to the group. The number of businesses for which it has provided assistance has increased in recent years. Before Katrina, Idea Village directly supported 69 entrepreneurs; since 2005, it has supported more than 270.
"The problem in the past was that the best and brightest would leave [New Orleans]," Williamson says.
He has seen this changing over the last few years. By hosting this week of events, Williamson intends to lay the groundwork for what he expects to become the Jazz Fest of entrepreneurship. "New Orleans has always had very strong networks," he says. "Katrina grew those networks globally. In effect, everyone became an entrepreneur after Katrina."
There are four separate tracks during Entrepreneur Week. One will open up instructional sessions to individuals who hope to put their businesses on a profitable path. Another connects MBA students from five national schools and three local universities with a local entrepreneur. These breakout sessions occur daily. A third track will put established, successful New Orleans entrepreneurs in closed sessions with members of the Aspen Institute. The fourth will provide a business with help from a 20-person team of Tulane University business students.
What was a more insular gathering of MBA students and small businesses last year has grown into a weeklong series of events that offers more for members of the public who have "a fire burning in their belly" to start their own businesses, says Kurt Weigle, CEO of the Downtown Development District (DDD).
"Entrepreneurial activity increases during times of economic downturn [when] the big, dominant companies in a field may not be so dominant," Weigle says.
The DDD partnered with the Idea Village, the New Orleans Saints, GNO Inc., Google and others for Entrepreneur Week. Google is sending 17 executives and will provide training sessions for idea-driven types. The "Google 101" classes will give entrepreneurs an overview of the free or almost-free services Google offers small businesses. There are no fees for these courses, but participants must register at www.noew.org.
Tara Connobio, program manager for Googler Social Responsibility, first worked with Idea Village the day after the Hurricane Gustav evacuation order was lifted. That day, Google sent a 32-person team to the city as part of a community outreach program. Connobio worked with the Idea Village, and New Orleans' entrepreneurial community has been on her mind ever since. At Entrepreneur Week, there will be 17 "Googlers," as she calls her cohorts, each representing a distinct Google department. They will conduct five-person classes each day with the leaders of local enterprises.
"This is definitely a unique experience for the Google team and for New Orleans to have a corporation such as ourselves really come down and entrench ourselves in various capacities across the city," Connobio says.
Google executives and other business people will sit down with 75 local entrepreneurs.
"Basically, Google is opening up shop in New Orleans for a week," says Lauren Baum, director of business development at the Idea Village.
Entrepreneur Week is the apex of a year-round program called the "Entrepreneurial Challenge." The challenge puts each business in contact with an MBA team and pushes them to formulate a working business plan in a limited amount of time.
Christopher Laibe has worked with Idea Village over the last year. His company, Schedulist, is part of the challenge.
"The curriculum within the entrepreneur challenge covers ... a lot of different things that a business owner needs to have," Laibe says. "How to handle your taxes, legal issues, how to market yourself, what type of business tools should you be thinking about. All the things that entrepreneurs aren't really focused on because they're focused on their idea."
Schedulist sells employee scheduling software to health care facilities. Laibe will be in sessions with students from Cornell during Entrepreneur Week. Ninety MBA students will be working with the 14 businesses over the course of the week.
Laibe says the Cornell team will make it easier for clients to request a demo of Schedulist's software. They also will assist him in compiling effective pitches for investors and marketing the Schedulist brand.
Schedulist never would have gotten off the ground had Laibe not been working in such close quarters with other entrepreneurs, he says. Its offices are based in the I.P. Building in the Central Business District, home to the Idea Village and a number of associated startups. The open spaces and whiteboard room encourage interaction.
"If you have a company where you sign everybody's checks and you come up with an idea, everyone is going to want to tell you, 'Hey, that's a great idea, boss," Laibe says. "But when you're in a group of entrepreneurs ... people will tell you, 'This isn't such a great idea.'"
On the Wednesday before Entrepreneur Week begins, the 14 New Orleans teams will vote on which two businesses should receive $100,000 each through First Light Ventures, an independent fund for "seed-stage" businesses provided through Gray Ghost Ventures, an investment firm based in Atlanta.
"They are trying this social funding concept and they're testing it to see whether entrepreneurs can run better than VCs or banks," Laibe says. "Our entrepreneurial colleagues — it's kind of like Survivor — are going to pick the two most promising companies, and they're going to get the $100,000 chunks," Laibe says.
Since 2003, Idea Village has allocated $2.4 million in capital to New Orleans entrepreneurs, of which more than $90,000 has been reinvested in Idea Village and the next generation of businesses, according to the group's statistics.
Recently, Kyle Berner got creative. Demand for his flagship product, the eco-friendly flip-flops, has increased and he also has purchase orders from 75 new Whole Foods locations around the United States, he says. The First Light Ventures fund is not officially available until a few days before Entrepreneur Week, so he asked his cohorts for a short-term loan. Berner took himself out of the running by asking for the funding early and promising to pay it back; he needed the money that fast. Assembling and shipping from Thailand is a timely process.
The other upstarts voted in Berner's favor. The order is in. Over the next three months, more than 17,000 flip-flops, all modeled after the pair he purchased in Bangkok in 2007, will arrive at Berner's doorstep.
During Entrepreneur Week, Berner — the man who found success in flip-flops — will be at the I.P. Building providing advice and tips to other entrepreneurs about how to expand your business. He says his role during the week will be as a "mentor for the new class" of entrepreneurs.