Williams Innovates works to revive Spring St.

Last weekend, Williams Innovates: Spring Street engaged 25 students in a 33-hour-long project to develop business plans aimed at invigorating Spring Street. Organized by leaders Jeffrey Thomas of Entrepreneurs@Williams and Charlie Rose, the event split students up into eight groups and tasked them with developing a proposal for how to revive Spring Street. “You just had this unbelievably energetic and focused group of people,” Stephen Klass, vice president of student life, said of student participants.

The students were guided by a number of local and alumni entrepreneurs, referred to as mentors, as well as a web of resources set up by Thomas and the other organizers. Mentors included venture investor and Trustee Laurie Thomsen ’79, founder of Designed Good Imran Khoja ’12, serial entrepreneur and founder of Jango Internet radio Dan Kaufman ’91 and Founder of Tripod, Inc. Bo Peabody ’94.

The weekend began with a brainstorming session, followed by the creation of teams and selection of top ideas. “Lots of us who think about life in Williamstown, and especially on Spring Street, are really excited to learn the details of what came out of the event,” Klass said. In the afternoon, teams met with Williamstown residents, referred to as “customers” in the program, to test the market’s reactions to students’ ideas and to get feedback. Spring Street merchants came in to discuss common concerns that arise in their own businesses. Mentors guided teams through their project development and suggested issues for consideration, including value propositions, key partners, customer relationships, cost structures and revenue streams.

Organizers and mentors were ready with resources for the teams. Thomas offered to connect one group working on a combination of a farmers’ market and a community kitchen with the Director of Dining Services Robert Volpi.

Speakers presented on a variety of concerns common among entrepreneurs. Kay Oehler, research coordinator at the Center for Creative Community Development, advised students to use census data and merchant surveys to develop an understanding of target markets. Kaufman described his experiences with the 15 different companies he has started since founding a delivery deli while a student at the College. “If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to embrace failure because the market never works the way you expect,” Kaufman said. “The key is to learn as quickly and cheaply as possible.”

Students returned early the next morning to work through the logistics of implementation. “In the six-and-a-half years I’ve been here, everyone has had a million ideas about the kinds of businesses would be most effective, but nothing like this has ever happened to work directly with students to produce fully-dimensioned proposals,” Klass said. One group, which had originally planned to have a “food truck with rotating international chefs,” altered their vision to bi-monthly international meals in the Log cooked by guest chefs. A second group debated two ideas,  deciding to pursue creating either a casual breakfast place or somewhere to go after the movies. Another group expanded their plan for a “connection between local artists and Williams studio majors” to include not only a store front and art supplies but potentially including art classes for children and Williamstown residents.

In the late afternoon, teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges made up of local real estate owners including Mark Paresky, a major Spring Street landlord. Chris Hikel ’13 and Katie Shao ’16 won first place for their idea to organize a system which they hope could “bring people together through the power of animals.” They planned to set up a service by which students could walk the dogs of community members. This would increase friendly interaction between Williamstown residents and students while allowing students to de-stress and get outside by spending time with household pets.

“This has been an amazing weekend, and a huge amount of energy and effort has gone into making it happen,” Hikel said, Other participants shared his sentiments. “This is the best (possible) use of my weekend,” said Emma Pingrine-Cannon ’15. “People are listening to us, and I wish that would happen more often,” Mariah Widman ’15 said. “I’ve learned a lot.”