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Camp is over. Let the business building begin, continue or come to a quick stop

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2010 - Tearful moments at the end of camp are a rite of passage. Still, Brian Blanchard, chairman of a three-day conference known as the St. Louis Innovation Camp, didn’t expect emotions to run high toward the conclusion of his event last weekend at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

What brought some in this group of engineers, software developers, marketers and business executives to tears? A conversation about the personal toll that running a business can take that included tales of strained relationships.

“In one session we talked about how do you honor your spouse, save your marriage and follow your dreams for a business,” Blanchard said. “It was a moving conversation. I’ve never seen people at a technical camp have weepy eyes.”

The idea of the first-ever conference was to advance entrepreneurship in the region and help advance the careers of displaced technicians. Blanchard said total attendance over the three days was roughly 175 people, many of whom are entrepreneurs with at least one business idea and often many already in the works.

Among the topics discussed in classes and informal sessions were how to start a high-tech company, find funding for a business and use social networking to get the word out about a product or service. Speakers included business executives, college professors and angel investors who weighed in on the viability of various business ideas presented. (Blanchard said he plans to post more than 12 hours of video from these sessions on the conference's page.)

Companies that are at various stages of starting up took part in a competition called the Innovator's Cup, which asked conference attendees to evaluate businesses' innovation, as well as their potential to go viral and generate revenue. The company twAitter swept all three categories. Started by Ryan Bell in 2008, twAitter is a social media software tool aimed at business owners, government officials and frequent social networkers who want to control and organize the messages they send out.

Originally, the idea was simply to be a scheduling system for businesses that want to send out tweets at specific times without actually having to manually hit send. (Thus the “wait” in the company's name). But Bell said the company is expanding to also reach out to frequent users of Facebook and LinkedIn. The name is changing, too, to Gremln. The scheduling function will still exist, and Bell is focusing on tools that will allow business owners and other social media users to measure the return on investment for the time they spend posting to the various social networking platforms.

“The big question he’s trying to address is what value does a company get out of spending their time and money paying someone to post on Facebook and Twitter,” said Dave Blankenship, a lead organizer of the Innovation Camp.

TwAitter went live last year. Bell said that 35,000 people have used the tool, and as many as 22,000 are still using it at least once a month.

Bell and others involved in the project are working part time. The company is not yet generating revenue, and Bell came to the Innovation Camp in part to get advice on how to roll out a pay feature. He also wanted to learn how to position himself to find funding for his business.

"I'm here because I want to get the help of a mentor, but I don't know what I don't know," Bell said. "This convention will help me to work that out so I can seek the help of an appropriate mentor."

Bell will receive just that. As part of the winning package, Mata Tech, the nonprofit that Blanchard chairs, will assemble lawyers, businesses leaders and people in marketing who have offered to give him their services for free. 

Three other companies at various stages of existence also won some of these services, including Quartzy, a site that provides lab management tools for people in the life sciences. The company was a winner at the Olin Cup business competition run through Washington University.

Sitting in a mostly empty room just minutes after the conference came to an end, Blanchard told stories of people who met at the event vowing to work together and swapping business cards over a late-night beer. And there also were a few people, Blanchard said, who decided after the three days that their business ideas weren't ready for prime time.

"They realized that they have struggles that they aren’t going to overcome quickly,” he said. “People got stuff they wanted to hear, and stuff they didn’t want to hear. There's a benefit to it all."

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