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Sept. 7, 2010, 2 p.m.

Entrepreneur summer school reveals startups aren’t easy

Fall’s just around the corner, so we thought it would be a good time to check in on how the pupils of Elizabeth Spiers’ summer school for entrepreneurs fared.

We mentioned back in June that ten small companies would get to participate in a 90-day program designed to get their startups off the ground. They’d get free advice, instruction and homework assignments from Spiers, a media consultant in New York whose had a hand in founding a number of successful sites, including Gawker and Mediabistro Fishbowl sites. The class hosted guest speakers from companies like LearnVest, Guest of a Guest, the Barbarian Group and Conde Nast.

Did the students all pass with flying colors? Of the ten companies, one dropped out, a few didn’t make much progress, but about half made a serious dent in meeting their summer goals.

“Some people think they want to run a business,” Spiers told me, “then you go do the actual work and you realize you don’t. It’s better to learn that in the classroom setting.”

Spiers says she thought the program was successful enough that she’s planning on another course in the spring. She expects the structure to largely stay the same. This time around, the class met for 12 weeks, along with individual meetings with each founders. Once a week she brought in an interesting speaker. The multiple perspectives helped round out the curriculum.

“If it had just been me hammering away, it wouldn’t have been as good,” Spiers says. “I think most of the questions were answered one way or another.”

Before the spring, Spiers says she plans to incorporate the class as a nonprofit to cover its costs. This summer she handled supply costs and found some space in a client’s office.

I spoke with the founders of two of the startups Spiers said made good progress this summer. Fashism, a site where you can get unbiased feedback on questions like “does this dress look frumpy,” has been live for about a year. Its owner, Brooke Mooreland, quit her job recently to make the social fashion site her full-time focus. Her goal for the summer was to launch an iPhone app (which is live in the iTunes Store) and to get ready to meet with investors, which she says she did.

Mooreland says the key to the class was access to Spiers, who’s been through the startup process many times. She ran her business plan and her investor pitch by Spiers, looking for input. “Does this sound good to you?” was one of her frequent questions — “[Spiers] was able to give me good advice,” Mooreland says.

The founders of Of a Kind were not so far along. Their goal is to launch the site November, which they say they’re on track to do. For them, the summer was about getting all the details in order to actually launch. The site will offer stories about up-and-coming fashion designers, who will sell an exclusive item on the site. (It’s inspired by the art site 20×200, where artists sell original prints for as little as $20. The founder, Jen Bekman, was one of the speakers in class this summer.)

“One of the things we really took away from the speakers in the class was flexibility,” cofounder Erica Cerulo told me. “Our original business plan was very much ‘this has to be this way.’ We learned that this business has to grow and change. We had an inherent sense of that, but hearing people say it really makes it sink in.”

As far as changes to their original plan, the course helped them realize that editorial should get equal weight with selling. They need an invested, engaged audience to sell the products — plus, it opens up the opportunity for advertising revenue.

I asked the two founders, Cerulo and Claire Mazur, what they’re working on in the final days before launch. Their answer in unison: “Everything.”

Photo by Robert S. Donovan used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 7, 2010, 2 p.m.
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