SPARK Boot Camp – A Camper’s Retrospective

Sharpened focus, expanded network and accelerated execution.

Everyone with a business idea loves to talk about it.  They talk and talk!  Few actually take action.

At the beginning of 2008 Dylan Imre and I came up with the idea of creating a business around software for prediction markets.  One of the earliest actions we took  was to  attend the Ann Arbor SPARK Boot Camp in the spring of 2008.  And good thing we did! It set us on the path to the success we’ve seen this year. One of the key things you learn at the Boot Camp is to communicate with brevity.  Notice my first sentence.  Brevity forces focus, brevity forces deep thinking, brevity forces difficult choices.  These are the essentials to getting  your business off the ground.  By forcing you to do these things in an intense 2-day period, during which you have access to literally dozens of successful entrepreneurs, Boot Camp can save you several months.  Here’s what it did for us.

Focus – when we came to Boot Camp we had researched Prediction Markets and knew that they had many applications – from predicting election outcomes, to predicting box-office sales during the first weekend after a movie was released, to predicting terrorist attacks.  At Boot Camp, prodded by Anik Ganguly, one of our mentors, we picked Sales Forecasting for large, complex public companies as our initial point of market entry.  That one decision made a lots of subsequent decisions – what to build, who to call, and what to offer – much easier.
Network – in the early stages of building a business nothing is more valuable than talking directly to a potential customer.  Our problem, as 2nd year students at the University of Michigan, was that we did not know anyone at the companies we wanted to target who gave a hoot about sales forecasting.  Fortunately the people at the Boot Camp did. Their generous introductions gave us easy access to some key people whose insight was essential in shaping our product.  Most importantly, as a result of the connections we made at Boot Camp we were able to secure our first pilot project with a key customer.

Execution – the summer after Boot Camp we worked hard to finish the software.  We knew what it had to do; we had a potential customer who was willing to pilot it but we were struggling to finish it on time for the pilot.  Again, because of our Boot Camp connections we found Dylan Barrell, an entrepreneur with more than a decade of experience developing and launching enterprise software products.  He agreed to join our team as CEO and took the “bull by the horns”.  Anik, who had stayed connected to us after Boot Camp, was also very much a part of the team.  This was exactly what we needed because Dylan Imre and I were back in school full time again.  With our expanded team, we completed the software in September, and started the pilot in October.  Our software performed so well in predicting November sales that our pilot customer gave us our first order on Dec 29, 2008!

We went from literally “two guys and a PowerPoint” to completed software and paying customer in 8 months, a feat we could not have managed without the focus, network and execution that SPARK Boot Camp enabled.

Chuck Salley, Kurt Riegger, Ann Arbor SPARK and the dozens of volunteer mentors and drill instructors deserve tremendous credit for starting and continuing the Boot Camp.

By Jonathan Carender (Spring 2008 Boot Camper)

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