New Institute Runs Business Boot Camp For Entrepreneurs

Dec 20, 2013

We've all heard stories about businesses that start in a garage or on the back of a cocktail napkin. But it takes a lot more than a great idea and some elbow grease to build a business from scratch. So a new Jackson program, called the Start-Up Institute, is running a business boot camp for entrepreneurs. Wyoming Public Radio's Rebecca Huntington has more. 

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: This is what you might consider finals for sixteen students completing Jackson's first-ever Start-Up Institute.

KELLIE HOTEMA: I'm too tired to be nervous.

DAN ABROMSON: Yeah, I'm nervous. I'm more tense than nervous.

CELESTE MEYERS: I'm having an out-of-body experience...

HUNTINGTON: These students are getting ready to pitch their ideas to a room full of seasoned business leaders. In this class, it's not about getting an "A." It's about getting investors to write checks or join your board of advisors. The students are pitching everything from a sports arena to a Kombucha brewery to an upscale hotel for pets. And several are pitching high-tech apparel.

CELESTE MEYERS: Hi I'm Celeste Meyers, and I'm the founder of the Ideal Sports Bra company.

HUNTINGTON: When Meyers first signed up for the Start-Up Institute, she had a different idea in mind. But it fell through. So she came to class without a project. She latched onto a new idea when her instructor, Sandy Hessler, started using an example in class.

MEYERS: And I was walking by the whiteboard one day, and I said, I actually love that project. And she said, 'Take it, it's yours.' So I was set to go, and I didn't even realize how wonderful this project was going to be because it's so specific.

HUNTINGTON: Having a singular focus she says made it easier to tackle homework assignments. Assignments like interviewing your target audience to see whether they even want your product. To test her concept, she went to the Teton County Recreation Center where, as luck would have it, a group of moms were watching a swim meet.

MEYERS: I had women form focus groups for me in the little cafeterias. I had women raise their shirts to show me what they didn't like about their bras. I had young girls saying they wanted a bra that was easier to get in and out of. It was the most positive uplifting research I've ever done in my life. 

HUNTINGTON: But experts like Bill Klyn, who watched the students' pitches, still had some tough questions.

BILL KLYN: I worked with Patagonia, and for years, and we've done the battle on sports bras and fits and it's been a challenge. What is your fit block?

MEYERS: You know so much more than I do. What is a fit block?

KLYN: ... I'm sorry... I mean, how it fits overall...

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: The Start-Up Institute's founders are Sandy Hessler, a marketing expert and teacher, and Liza Millet, a financial consultant. They started the institute with Central Wyoming College and Silicon Couloir. Silicon Couloir is an ad-hoc group of business savvy volunteers working to build up Jackson's tech and start-up community. Millet says Jackson entrepreneurs have plenty of ideas, drive and passion. But what the institute offers is a structured environment to deliver expertise and focus.

LIZA MILLET: Some of them were very focused and very ready to start their business. And others came in saying, 'I know I want to be an entrepreneur but I have no idea what idea I'm going to go with I have about 17 of them. 

HUNTINGTON: Student Amy Hatch had the opposite problem. She had already launched Garage Grown Gear, an online marketplace for cutting-edge outdoor gear designed by and for elite athletes. But the institute made her rethink her sales pitch.

HATCH: Rather than talking so much about origins and supporting your neighbor and mom-and-pop companies, do I instead reframe it as one-of-kind, high-end, unique.

HUNTINGTON: The class was a major commitment. They met three days a week, seven hours a day for ten weeks. Not to mention homework. Hessler says their commitment showed.

HESSLER: I'm blown away that we had no outliers, we had almost a hundred percent attendance every day and they all came through. As a teacher for a long time that's fairly unusual to have that kind of commitment for something so significant in time.

HUNTINGTON: The institute will be offering another boot camp this spring. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Rebecca Huntington in Jackson.