A sold-out crowd at the Paramount Theater on Friday heard people’s stories of how they turned their ideas into major businesses.
“Symbolically, it speaks volumes that we are able to put on a conference like this and sell it out,” said Dan Willson, innovation coordinator for the Tom Tom Founders Festival, an annual event held to highlight art, music and innovation in Charlottesville and beyond.
This year’s festival featured a summit where founders of several companies offered their perspective on how to succeed.
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, told the crowd that being part of a startup company is like being in a band. However, he urged would-be entrepreneurs to concentrate on developing a product that people want.
“I’m glad that entrepreneurship is alive and well but I just want to make sure that whatever you do, you focus on the things that matter,” said Ohanian, a graduate of the University of Virginia.
Ohanian took the audience through a tour of the early days of Reddit’s website, which aggregates content from all over the Internet. He said they designed a logo before they had worked out what the website would actually be.
“There were so many things that we did that were superfluous,” Ohanian said.
One panel specifically discussed whether small cities like Charlottesville can play a big role on the national stage.
“We live in a time when you don’t have to live in New York or San Francisco to make a big idea happen,” Willson said.
Donna Harris, co-founder of a startup accelerator called 1776, said it’s crucial to make sure that a community has space for businesses to grow alongside each other.
“Spaces become important because it gets everyone convening and connecting and then it gives you a platform and the ability to bring in investors,” Harris said.
Speakers on the Small Empires panel also said UVa can play a big role.
“The best way for UVa to be helpful will be to graduate people who are talented,” said Tarek Pertew, co-founder of Uncubed, a firm that helps companies recruit employees.
Pertew also said UVa should encourage all of its students to think like entrepreneurs, not just those enrolled in the business schools.
Bob Mooney, a partner with New Richmond Ventures, said both UVa and Virginia Commonwealth University attract a lot of talented individuals to the region.
“One of the roles that we have as part of the ecosystem is to let them know what a great place this is to come and learn and start a business,” Mooney said.
And if new graduates do want to start a business, one founder said they should do it quickly.
“My advice to younger people is to do it while they’re just getting out of school,” said Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store, a Dallas-based chain with 60 locations across the country.
Tindell himself began his career working as a teenager at a paint store and came to love retail work. He and his partners founded the store in 1978 as a way to help people organize their living spaces.
Tindell said he believes in paying “great” people above-market value to reward their higher levels of productivity. However, only 2 percent of people who apply are hired.
“At The Container Store, we fiercely believe in paying 50 to 100 percent above average,” Tindell said. “But as CEO, I make way below the industry average. If you overpay the top, you have a harder time doing more for the people closest to the customer.”
Another speaker became an entrepreneur after seeing the potential of online news following the dot-com bust at the turn of the century.
“In 2002, people thought that web media was dead,” said Peter Rojas, founder of the website Gizmodo. However, the blog revolution was just beginning.
For Rojas, becoming an entrepreneur was a way to free him up to do what he wanted.
“I really loved what blogging was doing to be able to democratize self-publishing,” Rojas said. He left the world of print journalism behind to focus on writing about gadgets, and Gizmodo became part of the Gawker family of websites.
Dale Dougherty created Make, a magazine on do-it-yourself culture that has spawned a series of hands-on conferences known as Maker Faires.
“I somehow tapped into something that already existed,” Dougherty said. “Makers were already out there and they were unrecognized and uncelebrated. I wanted to change that.”
Today, “maker culture” is changing the way school students are taught about technology and physical science. Dougherty said he supports this evolution because it helps people be more comfortable with experimentation, which can sometimes fuel entrepreneurial activity.
“I call them ‘accidental entrepreneurs’ coming out of this movement because they may not have started with that intent,” he said.
The Founders Summit received a $50,000 grant from the Virginia Tourism Corporation to help market Charlottesville as a destination and an entrepreneurial hub.
“I moved to Charlottesville three years ago and I’ve always been interested in tech and startups,” Willson said. “I didn’t expect Charlottesville to have the scene and community that it does.”