Serial entrepreneur Elton Rivas has joined the front lines of a battle Jacksonville has been waging for decades: revitalizing downtown.
The young triathlete has amassed a team of passionate young professionals, seasoned city veterans and powerful elites to create what Rivas termed a “culture of innovation” by hosting the contest One Spark, the likes of which the city, and perhaps the nation, has never seen.
Scheduled for April 17-21, One Spark 2013 (they’re working on a five-year model) will invite creators, artists, entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world to showcase their projects in Jacksonville. The incentive is a chance to score a piece of $250,000. In the “crowdfund” concept, attendees vote for their favorite projects, and creators receive a corresponding percentage of the fund (a contestant earning 10 percent of the vote would receive $25,000). Visitors can also contribute directly to contestants, allowing for unlimited funding opportunities.
It’s too early to predict specific numbers, but Rivas said he thinks the event will attract hundreds of entrants and tens of thousands of attendees.
One Spark hasn’t asked for city funding or sought a city endorsement, but Rivas said they have been in touch about permits and coordination. Mayor Alvin Brown is already on board; he even reads a line in One Spark’s promotional video.
“This is a great opportunity to show off Jacksonville and pay homage to the many, many talented people who work hard every day to make our city unique,” Brown said in an email statement. “Mr. Rivas and all of the One Spark organizers are to be commended for their efforts to refine Jacksonville’s identity as a hub of arts and culture.”
Katherine Hardwick, marketing director of Downtown Vision Inc., has been putting Rivas in touch with property owners and informing area retailers about the event. “I think the city is really excited about this. It’s a really good time downtown,” Hardwick said. “As an organization, we are so inspired when we see those entrepreneurs like Elton who get their hands dirty and jump in.”
One Spark is inspired by ArtPrize, a Grand Rapids, Mich., event billed as the world’s largest art contest. To get ArtPrize off the ground, event developer Bill Holsinger-Robinson said he and ArtPrize creator Rick DeVos studied the operations of other large events like Sundance Film Festival, distributed responsibilities to the community at large, trusted the voting process, relied heavily on technology, kept the community well-informed and made sure they knew where the money was coming from. Amid excitement and skepticism in its first year, ArtPrize attracted more than 1,200 entries and 200,000 people in 2009. More than 80,000 people visited the winning piece.
One Spark, like ArtPrize, will be held throughout the city core at dozens of venues such as The Jacksonville Landing, Burro Bar, Perdue Office Interiors, The Florida Theatre and 121 Atlantic Place (formerly Atlantic National Bank Building). Rivas said several other downtown property owners have indicated that they will sign up. Any location within the designated area can sign up to be included at beonespark.com.
After contest registration opens on Nov. 1, One Spark contestants will be able to contact the venues through a “dating” site on One Spark’s website. “We actually will be agnostic as it relates to the matchmaking,” Rivas said. “The venues will either curate themselves or have guest curators.”
Voting will take place through a mobile app, a web-based platform and text messaging, as well as at kiosks stationed around the event. Rivas is working with a local company to provide the equipment, and One Spark co-creator Dennis Eusebio, who works with the company Path.To, is designing the mobile app as a volunteer.
There is one key difference between ArtPrize and the Jacksonville event, however: One Spark is open to all. “Anyone. Creators, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs, technologists, musicians, gamers, chefs, visionaries, disruptors, designers,” the website states. “Whatever you call yourself — if you want to connect and conspire with like-minded builders — this event is for you.”
The idea for One Spark was hatched during a meal at a local sandwich shop in July 2011, when Rivas sat down with fellow up-and-coming businessmen and innovators Eusebio and Varick Rosete to discuss the future of the city. They voiced frustration with Jacksonville’s “brain drain,” a phrase that describes the case in which talented, creative young people flee for more favorable marketplaces like San Francisco, Madison, Wis., and Raleigh, N.C. Each wanted to know why the others hadn’t left.
“Rather than leaving, [we] wanted to make it better here,” said Rosete, a designer, illustrator and former president of AIGA Jacksonville.
Rivas, who has lived in Jacksonville for 11 years, said the biggest challenge for local innovators has been finding resources.
“Going from an idea into execution … was the biggest void locally,” Rivas said.
Meanwhile, Riverside Arts Market founders Doug Coleman and Wayne Wood were working with artist Dolf James on the Epoch Project, which had similar ambitions.
“The goal was to do an event in Jacksonville that celebrated creativity and innovation and to do an event that would be big enough and make enough impact that at the end of it, Jacksonville would be changed,” Wood said.
Rather than working on competing events, Rivas, Eusebio and Rosete endorsed Epoch. But when Epoch organizers had problems raising $1.5 million (an amount which Wood admitted was perhaps “too grandiose”), they contacted Rivas. Together, they all decided to shelve Epoch and allow Rivas, Eusebio and Rosete to pursue One Spark instead. Wood said they happily handed the reins to Rivas and his group.
“He is brilliant and well-connected with the people necessary to pull off an event like this,” Wood said. “I think it will be a tremendous economic stimulus to the city.”
Within three months, Rivas secured more than $300,000 from several anonymous donors, enough to pay three full-time staff members — but Rivas is not being compensated — from the group of volunteers working on the project (the website lists nine team members). But the fundraising is far from finished. The contest’s Kickstarter campaign began Sept. 4, with the goal of securing another $90,000 by Oct. 4. Kickstarter (kickstarter.com) is a fundraising website that allows ordinary people to make microinvestments in creative projects.
One paid staff member, Laura Phillips (formerly Laura Courtney Sanders), pled guilty to grand theft in 2010 and was ordered to pay more than $25,000 in restitution to Little Star Center Inc., a nonprofit school for autistic and disabled children where she was executive director. Rivas says he’s aware of her past and firmly defends her contribution to the team. As director of event planning and field operations, Phillips coordinates and operates events and has no fiduciary responsibilities. “She’s doing what she needs to do to get on with her life,” Rivas says.
There is much to accomplish: the Kickstarter campaign and other fundraising, securing sponsors to fill the schwag-bags provided by local company Burro Bags, tweaking the branding, aggressively marketing the event on both a local and a national level, creating print and radio advertisements and designing guerrilla marketing tactics — look for life-sized and small, hand-crafted, wooden One Sparks popping up around the city.
Although there is a lot to be done and not a lot of time to do it, Rivas said neither he nor his team is worried so much as focused. Abel Harding, a vice president at First Citizens Bank and political blogger, is managing public relations for the event. “I have no doubt in my mind this event will put Jacksonville on the map, and at the same time, it will blow a lot of people’s minds locally,” Harding said.
Confidence comes easily when you have faith in your leader. Those who know Rivas said they are impressed by his drive, passion and humility. “Just watching him when we do presentations to investors — he’s a quiet guy, kind of reserved, but he is always in absolute command of the facts,” Harding said.
One Spark’s director of marketing, Inka Joensuu, who worked with Rivas at the direct marketing company Interline Brands, agreed. “Elton has a key way of focusing on priorities and turning into an arrow and executing,” Joensuu said. “Less talk, more action — he is the epitome of that.”
“He has such strengths in so many different disciplines,” Rivas’ friend David Sypniewski said. “You don’t meet people that talented very often.”
Rivas isn’t infallible, but at times he can seem superhuman, juggling co-ownership of two successful businesses (CoWork Jax and Zero Confines), working on a stealth start-up with a partner in San Francisco, organizing One Spark, participating in a half-dozen local organizations, competing in triathlons and maintaining a relationship with fellow triathlete Jessica Grant, a copywriter with Burdette-Ketchum (and a consultant for Zero Confines), whom Rivas called “an amazing woman.”
“Honestly, I find the more I have going on, the more efficient I am.”
Rivas still makes time to help others — even people he doesn’t know. Cari Sanchez-Potter, creator of the guerrilla dining experience known as the Legend Series by Intuition Ale Works (the company is designing a One Spark beer for the event), sent him questions about a potential business decision with downtown implications. She said Rivas quickly responded with both advice and helpful suggestions. Former Jacksonville resident Sypniewski said that over the past five years, Rivas has routinely served as a sounding board for ideas about his Portland-based footwear company, Skora.
But before he was president of a company or organizing a ground-breaking event, Rivas was just another kid selling fruit on a street corner in Miami. He remembers his first short-lived business venture fondly. He and a childhood friend picked mangoes from a neighbor’s tree branches that were hanging over a fence, failing to realize that fruit belongs to the owner of the tree until it hits the ground. The boys apologized to the neighbor after a police officer told them their act was illegal. Then Rivas’ father took them to a plant nursery. The 7-year-old entrepreneur was already looking to reinvest his profits.
Years later, after graduating from UNF with degrees in management and marketing, Rivas went to work for Interline Brands. After three years with Interline, he made the difficult decision to leave. “I loved the people I was working with, but it was just time for me personally to do something different.”
Six months later in 2010, he started Zero Confines, a consulting company that helps launch products, businesses and initiatives using research, analysis, marketing strategies and sales process mapping.
“I’d been through corporate. I went through six months of absolute chaos. It was, like, now it’s time to build something from nothing,” Rivas said. “It was probably 90 days from the ‘oh shit’ moment, I need to do something, to going [from] zero to first client.” Impressively, that client was a Fortune 100 company, Johnson Controls Inc., a building and automotive company.
It wasn’t long before Rivas set his sights on another project, CoWork Jax, which rents office space in a communal setting. In the nine short months since CoWork Jax opened, the company has achieved its occupancy goals and currently has a wait list for dedicated desks and private office space. Rivas still credits Zero Confines with his subsequent successes. “If I hadn’t gotten involved with that, I wouldn’t have been involved in Skora, CoWork Jax, One Spark; it all came from Zero,” he said. Since selling his first mango, Rivas estimated he’s been involved in about a dozen start-up ventures as either a consultant or a co-owner.
There have been some disappointments. While he was studying at UNF, he helped start a drywall company with family in San Diego. Within 18 months, it employed 24 people. This caused growing pains typical of any business that experiences such rapid expansion, further complicated by family relationships. Rivas — still living in Jacksonville — decided to leave the company. Less than a year later, it folded. Rivas said he learned a lot and came away from it with closer relationships to his West Coast family and a greater understanding of what it takes to soundly scale a business during periods of rapid buildup.
The entrepreneur has been tempted to return to the corporate world. According to Sypniewski, during the fundraising process for CoWork Jax, a West Coast company approached him with a lucrative offer. Sypniewski said it was difficult for Rivas to turn it down, but he followed his heart. “He chose the harder path, the rewarding path, not taking the well-paying job and instead put all his effort into making CoWork a reality.”
Over the next seven months until the April contest, Rivas said he’ll be focusing his passion on One Spark, an event he likens to “Kickstarter live meets South by Southwest meets something like an ArtPrize atmosphere with the entrants and the venues piled together.” He said he believes One Spark is a firm step toward revitalizing downtown and renewing a culture of creation, innovation and opportunity in Jacksonville.
Rivas said he and his team don’t want to remake Jacksonville in the image of another city. There are things to learn from other places like Chattanooga or even Detroit, which has begun making great strides toward recovery. The trick is to maintain what Vince Cavin, co-founder of Party, Benefit & Jam (a charity series better known as PB&J), called an “organic, home-brewed element.”
In the One Spark plan, Jacksonville must not only keep people who have new ideas and daring dreams, but also attract others to a city with a hip, urban culture where it’s possible for great ideas to flourish outside the typical corporate environment. “Nothing against any insurance companies or banks, but how many more insurance companies or banks does the city need?” Cavin asked.
Maybe One Spark is just the thing to make that shift.
“I think there are just a lot of people in Jacksonville who want to see something amazing happen here,” Rivas said. “At the end of the day to pull something like this off, you can have the best team, you can have a good amount of capital behind you, but you also need participation from local stakeholders and businesses and the public.”