This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It’s an experience Gabe Lozano knows well.
“You and I have probably met tons of guys who have the billion-dollar idea,” said Lozano, a local entrepreneur and founder of LockerDome, a sports-oriented social media platform. “Most people never get past an idea to an actual product. That’s the part of the ecosystem we want to impact.”
Lozano hopes the vehicle for accomplishing that will arrive in January when GlobalHack makes its debut in St. Louis. The newly launched nonprofit is designed to promote the conversion of concepts into working prototypes through a 48-hour competition in which teams vie to invent a product that solves a technology problem for a St. Louis company. The winning team will receive a $50,000 prize.
In addition to the quarterly hackathons is an annual technology conference in which global competitors can compete to secure a $1 million prize to open an office in the Gateway City.
In many ways, the concept was a result of experiences that Lozano himself had at LockerDome, which he founded in 2008.
“We’ve spun our wheels in the past, spending way too much time in theoryland,” said Lozano. “The progress we are making today as a company is because we have a product in the market that people actually use. The fact that I can start a conversation and say that 19 million people use our product, that means somebody cares.”
Creating something people care about is an ethos Lozano hopes to impart to others. While business plans and marketing strategies are a part of many successful companies, Lozano feels the heart of any enterprise is the product. The rest can coalesce around that centerpiece.
“Every city has an enormous amount of business plan competitions,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that early on you have no idea what your business is going to look like. What you should be focused on is how to get a product out that somebody actually uses.”
Lozano describes the project’s backers as “a bucket of people who just want to see St. Louis work.”
“I’ve asked 15 people for 15 things and I have 15 yeses,” he said. “I don’t expect too many no’s on this initiative.”
And Lozano does feel the project has potential to help push the area’s entrepreneurial culture forward. He notes that LockerDome’s own expansion to Series A funding came with doubts from others.
“When we were working on it, the question always was, ‘Is there enough capital? Is there enough capital?’” he recalled. “Our response always was, ‘I don’t know, but we believe that if you build something of value, people will fund it.’”
And so they did. Lozano thinks the same can be accomplished with other companies as well and if it starts happening often enough, the Gateway City could become a gateway for capital following good ideas.
“You need to give people things they can get behind and it all starts with great deal flow,” he said. “If you build an enormous pool of quality deals, a lot of those deals are going to fail but what happens is when a guy’s company fails, it rolls up into another company which is why you need high density. If they know each other they’ll work together.”
But for that to happen you have to get to a “market-centered” culture. While LockerDome’s success is impressive, he said it’s not because the company has a magic formula.
“It’s because all we focus on is getting stuff into market and seeing if somebody cares,” he said. “The more people you get to stop talking about their ideas and just build it, the better off the ecosystem should be in terms of deal flow.”
He feels the situation has improved but also thinks that there is more left to do. St. Louis, he said, can have billion-dollar companies in the future. It depends on what the city does today.
“There’s way more than there was a couple of years ago but for the level of deal flow that we need, we’re not even close,” he said. “That is a piece that we are trying to positively impact.”
The key is to get designers and entrepreneurs out of the conversation stage and into the product pipeline. That’s what Lozano hopes GlobalHack will do. He expects 250-500 people to participate, breaking up into dozens of teams seeking the $50,000 prize with a great prototype with a preselected application.
A location for the January event has yet to be determined. Lozano said the million-dollar prize is set for late 2014.
The January competition will also allow for a degree of social networking and building connections, maybe even folks getting hired. The idea isn’t so much to create a company as it is to create a product.
“Can companies come out of this? Sure. Maybe,” said Lozano. “But what you know for a fact is that you are going to get people to build something.”
He’s also sure of one other thing.
“If you do not build anything,” Lozano said, “you will never have a company.”