Spark Boulder and “Hey man” funding

Our visit to Spark Boulder was an interesting comparison to the well-funded Boomtown Accelerator, and a stark contrast to Galvanize, most noticeably for its boot-strapping, “get shit done” startup culture.

Spark is a “finishing school for students to prepare for entrepreneurship”.  Or in other words, it is addressing the skills gap between University graduates and industry jobs.

It was founded after the merger of 3 student-led startup groups on campus.  After pitching the concept for the space to University faculty – and getting no positive responses – they went out on their own, secured a lease for the premises, and raised $150,000 from sponsors via “Hey man” funding.

What is “Hey man” funding???  We had never heard the expression either, so we asked.  The answer was golden.  “Hey man” funding is when you literally pick up the phone and call everyone you know and say “Hey man, will you give us some funding?”.  In other words, it means they went out and hustled the crap out of it.

Sadly they have no University funding, and instead students pay a membership of just $5 per month to use the space (interestingly, the busiest time in the space is 2am, a similar stat to Startup House in San Francisco).  They run paid classes (ranging from $1000 to $2500) on digital skills, including small 10 week evening programs with class sizes from 5 to 25 people, designed to “recalibrate students so they can get an internship within a startup within 3 months”.  All of that is delivered by a small volunteer team of 5 staff.

In true startup-hustle style, they started teaching courses without the required permits, until they received a cease and desist letter from their local Government, after which they then had to jump the hoops to become a registered training organisation.

Boulder has a very low unemployment rate (less than 2%), and so there is a strong demand for tech talent and interns.  Spark therefore solves the problem of a lack of talented employment-ready graduates entering the market.  As a result. graduates of the Spark programs are almost guaranteed a placement in a local tech startup.

Some key takeaways

Two key highlights stood out at Spark.

First, their culture of “get shit done”, combined with “no bullshit”. They deliberately have no ping-pong tables, no unnecessary perks, no fancy furniture, and no distractions.  The space is engineered to impart the culture of being frugal and taking action.  It’s an impressive emphasis on culture.

The second highlight was our host and Executive Director of Spark, Arieann DeFazio.  She committed to working at Spark for 5 years because “this town gave me my life, so I am giving back to the community” – an incredible example of the local culture of giving in Boulder.  Arieann is also co-founder and CEO of her own startup, Kitables, who produce maker-kits for DIY tech projects.

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