Elizabeth Parkinson

Elizabeth Parkinson
Managing Director of Marketing and Public Relations, SPARK
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 25 September 2008
Temperature: 68 F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: Liberty Plaza Pavers
Wind: SSE at 7mph

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TT with HD: Elizabeth Parkinson

Mulholland Front Porch
Totter 2.0 on location:
SPARK Central Liberty Plaza

[Ed. note: More background on what SPARK does is available on their website. Information on Boot Camp, discussed below, is also available online.]

HD: Let's get this thing going. Is this going to work?

EP: Yeah, yeah.

HD: Yeah you may need to scoot back to gain some leverage, but don't scoot too far, there is no safety stop. Welcome to the teeter totter!

EP: Well, thank you!

HD: Wow! Sorry! I let it hit the ground. Did that jostle you?

EP: No, well, this is my first question for you: Has anybody--I don't even know what it's called, I'm sure there is a term for it--where you bump someone like you just did?

HD: No, not in a violent, intentional way. It's happened accidentally a couple times.

EP: Has anyone jumped off on you?

HD: Jumped off? No.

EP: Because again I'm thinking that those are the things you truly do on a teeter totter.

HD: There have been no documentable incidents. [laugh]

EP: [laugh]

HD: Before we climbed on, we established that you have not read every single word of Teeter Talk. Not all--who knows, it's probably close to 1 million words at this point. But if you had read every word, you would have understood quite clearly that I can be a bit of a smart aleck. With respect, say, to the names that people give their organizations. Like, just for example, SPARK.

One of the very earliest riders on the teeter totter was Conan Smith, who is a county commissioner, and at that time he was the commission's representative on the Washtenaw Development Council, and at that time, the merger of the Washtenaw Development Council and SPARK was in full swing, had not been actually finalized, I think. So what I suggested to him was that as long as SPARK--the letters of SPARK--don't actually stand for anything, right, so there's no cost to changing a letter here and there, that it should be SPARQ with a "Q" at the end. Just to be a little different. Just to make people say, So what's up with that "Q"? And I have the answer the question as well, What is the "Q" for?. And that is quality.

EP: Right.

HD: So you're a marketing person, right? You're a hard-core from-Chicago marketer, right? So what do you think of that as a concept?

EP: Well, I like it. I do. Well. I have a problem with acronyms. So I'm not a fan of acronyms. I am delighted that SPARK is not shortened from something--Serve, Protect, or whatever.

HD: [laugh] [laugh]

EP: Really, I was not involved in the naming of SPARK ...

HD: ... oh, I'm not saying it's your fault. [laugh]

EP: Oh, no, no, no. I can't take any credit either! Credit or--I guess, complaints. But I'd have to say that just a third-party view, I think it's fine. It appeals. It sort of makes you think, even just the word "spark". A lot of times people will ask, Well, does it mean anything, or Does it stand for something, the letters? Or what was behind it? At least it's kind of energizing. To add a "Q" to it, would certainly add whole 'nother dimension.

HD: But we're not adding a "Q", we are just substituting a "Q" for the "K".

EP: Exactly. If you swapped in a "Q", it would make people wonder. But then at the same time you need to be careful. I have had nicknames in my past. With a name like Elizabeth everybody wants to nickname you. And I had a nickname for a very long time all through high school and college, and at some point you just say, Boy, there is so much emphasis on the nickname, it takes you five minutes to explain how you got the nickname and then people have moved on.

HD: [laugh] And you're not going to tell me what in the name was, are you?

EP: Oh, it wasn't a bad nickname, it was Biz, B-I-Z, was my nickname. Which isn't a bad nickname, but the first five minutes of meeting somebody you don't necessarily want to explain ...

HD: ... how you got that nickname ...

EP: ... why people call you that. So that would be my only reservation about adding a "Q". Do you really want to spend the first five minutes of people asking about your organization explaining what's with the "Q"! That would probably be my pushback. My understanding is that the people involved with the naming just wanted to come up with something fresh, something thought-provoking, or make people think this is different.

HD: Well, to me, I mean the obvious question is [SPARK] What's it stand for? And you don't want to phrase the answer as, "It doesn't stand for anything," right? You never want to say the phrase, "SPARK doesn't stand for anything." Because you guys do stand for something. So what's the phrase you use instead of, "It doesn't stand for anything?"

EP: Well, we say it's really meant to "spark" ideas--the organization was formed with a focus on innovation. So it is really was meant to embody the idea of innovation. Innovation in technology, innovation in a new way of doing business, innovation in how you attract and retain companies. So that is what I tell people. SPARK is really supposed to make people think, Oh, something is starting here. Or we are going to innovate, or get something going.

HD: So, I am trying to remember what day it was last week--Thursday maybe, or maybe Friday--I was over at Dominick's over there--people were receiving a big giant check--and I was talking to some of the people in the crowd, and I met this young woman who had moved down from Flint, she's involved in a startup called RateYourStudentRental.com or some such thing ...

EP: ... oh, I think I heard about this.

HD: And she said Ann Arbor is great, and she said all of the things that people always say about Ann Arbor and its environment for tech startups. So I said to her, What's Ann Arbor's got that Flint doesn't have? And she said with pretty much no hesitation, "SPARK" and I thought, Hmm, did Elizabeth Parkinson put her up to this?

EP: [laugh] Like is that her sister?

HD: [laugh] And she said specifically that one of the things that she had taken advantage of was all these events that you guys host. That she felt like if you just go to these events you can very quickly find out who is who in this city. So you had an event last night at that restaurant that I don't know how to pronounce its name. Is it Melange?

EP: Melange.

HD: With with a soft "G"? Okay.

EP: I'm guessing [laugh]. I had two years of French in high school. [laugh]

HD: Woah. Check out that guy! He is more remarkable than we are. [Ed. note: Man walks by with flamboyant hat, floral-print shirt.]

EP: I like the hat. That was an intentional decision this morning, that was not an accident.

HD: Yeah he put himself together. He put together an ensemble. Where was I?

EP: The event at Melange.

HD: Yeah. So that was people who have jobs to offer, and people who are looking for a job. But it's free, right? And if you know about it, you can go there. Who pays for the food, I guess would be my question. You just buy your own, or how is that set up?

EP: Well, the event, Hot Shots ...

HD: ... that is the name of the event?

EP: The event is Hot Shots. It's the monthly networking talent event. Companies that have positions--innovation-based companies, so it's not a grocery store looking for a bagger. Oftentimes they are looking for programmers, office managers, and there is a real gap--even as lucky as we are to have the talent that we have--there is a real gap, there are positions going unfilled.

So we have a business development team that goes out and makes 200 calls a year on these companies and they ask them those questions, What are your growth plans? What do you need help with? This is our effort to retain companies so that we don't hear about a Pfizer on the morning that they're making the announcement that they're leaving. So that we have done some work in the mean time to do what we can to keep them here. So we go out on these retention calls and we hear that companies are having a hard time finding talent.

So Hot Shots was born out of those kind of visits. The event was put together so that companies that need talent have any easy way to connect with local talent without necessarily having to go on CraigsList, or Monster.com. It was really a way to get around that process, because a lot of people are coming to SPARK and saying, I have these skills and these talents, so how to I get connected with these companies? So we do that in lots of different ways, and one of them is Hot Shots.

HD: So the name Hot Shots is meant to refer to people who are looking for jobs like, I'm a hot shot, and here's what I can do for you?

EP: And the companies that are hiring: We are a hot company and we need talent. Who pays? The beer and wine, people pay for themselves, but the food, it's a nominal cost. I think that Vinology was doing it for a while, and Melange is doing it now.

HD: So they provide the food.

EP: They either provide it or it's a very nominal cost. We have a budget for that sort of thing--feed people some cheese cubes.

HD: Cheese cubes?? [laugh]

EP: Or whatever they have. Maybe it's a little more highbrow than that. [laugh] The good news is that we've had an amazing amount of success with that a lot of companies have signed up. A lot of people come ...

HD: ... so is that something that you actually track? Say, the number of positions filled as a result of a connection made at a Hot Shots event? Would you track that in aggregate, like all events, or is it specifically Hot Shots, and then may be broken down into specifically Hot Shots at Melange as opposed to the Vinology? I mean how detailed is it? .

EP: You know, we're a fairly lean organization. So we don't have tons of support and bandwidth to do that level of tracking.

HD: You don't have a full-time person making tick-marks in a grid? [laugh] I could do that, you know.

EP: You could be our chalk mark guy?

HD: Yeah, totally. I could put it all on a white board, it would be very organized and color-coded, even.

EP: And then at the end of the day you ask yourself, so what do you do with this information? So what we try to do is we try to do is through our gut feeling about being at these things, as well as follow-up calls--Amy [Cell] goes back to all of the companies who participated in our talent activities, such she surveys all of the companies, and then she asks all of them what is working and what's not. We're a community resource, we're a nonprofit, we're there to service these companies and these people, and based on their self-reporting we use that information--it's not scientific--to develop programs moving forward and to refine the things we're doing.

Amy's got like a fan club that will e-mail her or call her and say, Oh my gosh, I hired this person specifically after meeting them at one of these events. Or people come back to her and say, I got a job specifically because of the talent connection at these events . You know it's working when people come up to you and tell you it's working, and also people benefit from it who you never hear about.

HD: You mentioned before you make these retention calls on established businesses to make sure they stay here. So young companies that are just trying to get themselves started--this RateMyStudentRental.com--they're surely on somebody's connection list or spreadsheet maintained by someone at SPARK, but they're going to show up, right? So is that a category of organization that you also track, where are you say, Right, okay that's a start-up, is that something that you track as well?

EP: Sure, absolutely. SPARK is different probably than other economic development organizations. So a lot of the things we do, Dave, we're honestly just making them up as we go along, because we're sort of into uncharted Economic Development version 2.0 or 3.0.

HD: So is that a function of the fact that the economy in general is not so great and specifically Michigan is really awful? And I guess in the last week, I haven't been paying that close attention, but for the first time in a long time I decided I was going a treat myself to some television, and there's George Bush telling me that ...

EP: ... can you say 700 billion?

HD: Yeah, so I mean I guess it was last Monday when Carsten Hohnke said, Today is Black Monday! And I had no idea what he was talking about and he explained to me what he meant. But a generally poor economic climate that is leading up to complete and utter disaster--I mean, why not stick to our knitting? I mean why not stick to the stuff that we know is going to work?

EP: That's a complex question. The economy in Michigan, we can't sugarcoat it, it's bad. When you're pretty much 50th on any ranking of anything ...

HD: ... 50th??! Are we really 50th??!

EP: On a lot of things. Unless we annex Puerto Rico.

HD: Can you give me an example of something that we are 50th in?

EP: Unemployment, jobs growth. We're tops on people moving out of state.

HD: Great.

EP: Detroit and Flint, were number one and two on the Misery Index.

HD: There's a Misery Index?

EP: Fortune or Forbes did it. I mean, how visceral is that? Misery Index. I would almost make hay of that, Misery loves Company!

HD: You mean like, Hey come here to join us? [laugh]

EP: [laugh] Or, there is only upside! There's only one way to go! So the state is broken and there's a lot that needs to be fixed, but I do have to say that Ann Arbor is a jewel in the state. So Ann Arbor is not broken. I mean there are so many good things to do--unfortunately, we just can't move ourselves out of the state. So I think the reason that we are doing economic development differently--to your point, we have to do things differently in order to really stand out.

At the same time, Mike Finney our director, he staffed SPARK with non-economic development people. So Donna [Shirilla] and Tim [Robinson] came over from the Washtenaw Development Council, they are truly our only economic development people on staff. Everyone else came from business.

So Mike ran ran a successful manufacturing company for 20 years doing aerospace manufacturing in Saginaw before he got into economic development. Amy was an executive at Ford, U of M, doing HR and accounting. Scott Olson, who runs our business incubator, ran a slew of startups before he joined SPARK. Skip Simms, who manages our pre-seed fund, is a venture capitalist. I came from the consumer marketing--KFC, Kraft, Microsoft, were my clients.

HD: Did you have anything to do with the transition from Kentucky Fried Chicken to ...

EP: ... KFC?

HD: Yeah, Kitchen For Chicken or whatever it is now?

EP: Well, you know, they've gone back now. So it used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken. And then they transitioned to KFC and basically took the Colonel's image off of everything in the 80s. When I was working on that account everything told you and intuitively, you knew everybody loves that Colonel. People loved that Colonel, I mean they love that Colonel. And so we did a whole turnaround where they were still calling themselves KFC because they want to get away from the fried chicken even though that's their product ...

HD: ... fried chicken is good.

EP: It's chicken on the bone. That's how they distinguish their products: chicken on the bone and then there is chicken off the bone--if you are interested in the nuances of the chicken business. They actually turned around and embraced the Colonel again. We did some phenomenal events, where we had skydiving Colonels and Harley-riding Colonels ...

HD: ... so it was like Elvis Fest but with Colonel Sanders?

EP: Yeah, we had 200 Colonels at the Union Station doing the chicken dance. And these Colonels were really heavyset Colonels, women Colonels, Asian Colonels, anybody who would dress up like a Colonel.

So Mike staffed SPARK with business people. So in looking at how to market a region or how did you go after a company, instead of modeling ourselves after an economic development agency, we have modeled ourselves after successful businesses. So we look around and we say, Who does really good development? Who does a really good marketing and sales? Who does start-up or entrepreneurial business? It could be Apple or it could be BoomDash, it could be RateMyStudentRental.com.

HD: As long as you brought them up, BoomDash, what the heck are they? Because that name to me gives me no idea to what kind of work they do.

EP: I don't actually know what BoomDash stands for, but ...

HD: ... there is no way to sneak a "Q" in there, that's for sure.

EP: [laugh] You could maybe do a "C" and make it sort of German if you wanted to?

HD: A "C"??

EP: BoomDasch--D-A-S-C-H.

HD: Oh I see!!

EP: To do something a little European. Anyway it's Cesar's company, he put together just group of really sharp folks, and what they do is ...

HD: Cesar?

EP: Cesar. His last name is N-E-R-Y-S. He's an executive from MCI or AT&T, one of the telephone companies. He left them at some point and he formed this startup--he received our business accelerator services, he went through our Boot Camp, was engaged with our accelerator and is now an incubator tenant. What they do is use a Google-like Ad Words model signing up local directories. You know how there is a Yellow Pages, AT&T, has a book--there's all these directories. Some of them have become sophisticated in their online advertising.

If the Chronicle is an advertiser in the Yellow Pages, then there is an online component. Well a lot of these directories don't have an online component. So there is no way for an advertiser advertising in this hard book that's delivered to your door to also have an online presence. So BoomDash has come up with a business model to do that for people. So your directory listing, you go to BoomDash and they take over all of that back end, where they will actually place the ads online and do an online directory for you. To supplement your hard directory.

HD: So for a publication that is looking for people to buy ads, or sell advertising space in their publication, they are not the folks BoomDash talks to?

EP: Correct. Directories already have sales built into their business model. So what BoomDash is doing is basically, their clients are directory publishers themselves. If you are directory publisher and you haven't made the investment to go online, ...

HD: ... oh, I see, so Yellow Pages would be a potential client for them?

EP: Exactly.

HD: Got it.

EP: So they are a more business-to-business application. And the nice thing about that is they don't need a sales staff to sell to the individual retailers or advertisers, because the directory has already done that. What they are doing is, they are saving the time and cost and research that a directory publisher would have to do to have an online presence. They're saying, we have put together this tool.

HD: [Ed. note: EP checks phone.] You can take that if you want.

EP: Well, let's see, I'll see if he calls back. It's a reporter. We had a great piece of news yesterday, I don't know if you ...

HD: ... is this the battery company story?

EP: It is!

HD: It's the one with a name that ends with the number 3.

EP: It is.

HD: I wanted to ask you about that.

EP: And I might be the only one in Ann Arbor that knows what that company stands for.

HD: How you pronounce it?

EP: Sakti3 /sakti three/

HD: Sakti3, okay.

HD: Well to me, it's just a complete disaster for a name there you know, because you don't even know how to say it.

EP: Ann Marie Sastry was the founder of Sakti3 ...

HD: ... this is the UM scientist.

EP: Right. She has got the whole package, Dave. She's brilliant, she's beautiful, she's hard-working ...

HD: ... see, now if I had said--putting myself in my wife's shoes--if somebody talked about her saying that she is smart and that she is beautiful, that would be a good way to get a punch in the nose from her. I mean when people talk about Michael Finney they don't talk about how handsome he is, right? But he is a sharp looking guy!

EP: Yeah, yeah. I see it as a compliment, because you meet somebody and you're like, Wow! I don't mean it as a sexist statement. She's just got it together. She's doing battery development at a time when this could really be in our future. She is really in the right position at the right time.

HD: If we can ever get the Chevy Volt into production.

EP: Well that is one wagon to hitch your star to, but the battery development that she is doing isn't necessarily single purpose. Just like Adaptive Materials ...

HD: ... they do fuel cells, right?

EP: Fuel cells, exactly. So their batteries have multiple uses. And they are looking at getting into applications for camping, recreational vehicles. Right now the applications are military. But with Adaptive Materials, anytime you have portable power there are other applications. Ann Marie's company, right after she named it, we helped her with an incentive from the state, where they received a tax incentive for the formation of the company.

HD: You know that's something that I've heard people talk about in terms of, We can be like the battery technology state! You know, that battery technology would be something that we [Michigan] could corner the market on or develop a reputation for--specifically within the whole portfolio of alternative energy.

EP: Right, so in July, the governor announced that she was going to put about $47 million into creating these Centers of Excellence. And what they do, is they say, Okay we're going to identify the areas of state that have the potential to be a critical mass for certain forms of alternative energy. And it will require that each center has an anchor tenant who is going to anchor this and that is going to attract other companies and support research in this area. And the announcement came that the first center of excellence was going to be up in the UP in Kinross with Mascoma. And just this last week and half they announced that Flint was going to be partnering with--I don't know if it's an entity or the country of Sweden--to do a biogas project.

So yesterday, they announced that Ann Arbor was going to be the third and it's going to be advanced battery technology. And Sackti3 is going to be the anchor tenant. $3 million is going to come to Sakti3 to build out this center of excellence and put together the infrastructure to facilitate research and get the center a jumpstart.

HD: You said that was a reporter on the phone that was trying to call?

EP: [affirmative]

HD: So do you figure that's about the battery story, or there was a piece of not exactly happy news yesterday, too--the audit that the Local District Financing Authority did?

EP: Right.

HD: Are you betting that it's about one or the other of those?

EP: Well, this is a reporter I've talked to multiple times and so it could be either! And he was actually at the meeting, so he had the "pleasure" of sitting through the 3 and a half hour meeting as well!

HD: So you're talking about a meeting with the LDFA?

EP: The LDFA meeting, yeah.

HD: So the headline to me, sounded a lot worse than maybe any of the details that were provided.

EP: Headlines will do that.

HD: So we had a 10 hour versus 12 hour issue. I would have to say that I guess on the one hand you would think--you know SPARK is a sophisticated organization, we expect you guys get that right. On the other hand if I were to apply that standard to my own business, I would say, Man that's pretty close, 10 versus 12 hours, you know round up to an even dozen. But I'm just a guy with a teeter totter. And you guys are like the local economic development engine, so I think I guess it's fair to expect you guys to ...

EP: ... to get it right. And Dave, honestly that should be the expectation. And that's what we should do. And the reality is we don't have it all together all the time. Not by way of making excuses, but we are an entrepreneurial startup organization ourselves. Up until recently we didn't even have a CFO. We had a part time book keeper. And again not by way of making excuses but that is the reality. We've just had Greg Fronizer on staff for the last six months. And there have been a lot of things that were brought up in the audit that were things we were already aware of, and that we had put already corrective actions in place. We saw the audit in advance--we received a copy of it--so when the audit committee came back and the original eight things that they were putting forward to the board as recommendations, was so overly punitive based on the results of our programs--the fact that we just had a financial audit and come out squeaky clean, that was ...

HD: ... so that financial audit, that was like an in-house financial audit that you did?

EP: No, we hired a professional audit firm, and auditor that comes in as a part of that annual audit, they also audited the LDFA portion of the finances. It was a financial audit.

HD: So they did the whole thing, but the LDFA they didn't go over the entire books, they just did their part.

EP: Well, the LDFA was not a financial audit, it was a contract audit. So what they did is they took the contract and they said, This is our 15-page contract of what you said that you were going to do in terms of reporting to us what you were going to supply. And then the auditors dug through and said, Okay these are the discrepancies. We saw some discrepancies in timesheets not matching invoices ...

HD: ... people at the Boot Camp weren't charged appropriate tuition?

EP: Exactly, the contract states ...

HB: Hey homeboy! HEY!

HD: I thought he was talking to me.

EP: The LDFA provides $10,000 worth of funding for us to put Boot Camp on and we charge tuition to the campers, and then for the campers who come it's matched up to $10,000. So what happened in that instance was we had billed the campers and had invoices outstanding to collect, and we went ahead and submitted that reimbursement to the LDFA ...

HD: ... so for matching funds from the LDFA, they wanted to match just what was already collected in your books.

EP: Check in hand, exactly. So what that will require us to do going forward is if you show up for Boot Camp, Dave, and you don't have a check in hand, then we have to turn you away. And as an organization I don't even know that we are willing to do that. We would probably just eat that ourselves, and take the risk. Because we are all about trying to support as many people as we can. So we are going to have to make some of those decisions.

HD: So when is the next Boot Camp?

EP: End of October, the 29th through the 30th.

HD: Is it too late to change the name of it from Boot Camp to something else? Because, you know [laugh]

EP: It might cause Chuck Salley some consternation, but I'm open to changing the name. [laugh]

HD: I mean there's an explanation for why it's that name on the website that, you know, the military imagery is very intentional, it's a wild and woolly world out there, right?

EP: There's Cesar [Nerys]! [Ed. note: Waves are exchanged through window]

HD: That it's like a war. But I mean given that there is a war that we are fighting right now that is fairly unpopular maybe that's not...

EP: ... do you have a suggestion?

HD: Well I was thinking maybe, yeah actually you could call it the Entrepreneur Finishing School.

EP: [laugh]

HD: I'm sure it's not restricted to just this, but for example, learning how to sum up what you're doing in a very brief statement, the so-called elevator speech--that's like basic manners, really. By saying that, I don't mean to diminish the importance of it, because I know that I have blown it on exactly that score. I typically want to tell somebody the entire history of my teeter totter instead of saying simply "I have an interview website. All the interviews take place on a teeter totter"--that's what I've since boiled it down to. But when I was standing in front of Governor Granholm talking to her about what I was doing, thinking back, I'm amazed that she didn't just walk away five minutes into it. Because you know you don't have a chance to actually talk to the Governor about what you're doing every day and I totally blew it because I didn't have an elevator speech.

So yeah, Finishing School. [laugh]

EP: I like it. Now is there a term that would sum up--some of these guys they aren't at that point. They're just trying to figure out if they have a viable business idea. So I wonder if there is a term that's like before finishing school?

HD: Oh, you mean they need more than just polishing?

EP: Yeah! [laugh] They maybe need like a business makeover. Some need to refine themselves, they just need polishing, but others, it's almost like it's like, Oh my gosh I have an idea, is there something there, is it something that's possible and viable?

HD: I'm trying to think. For colleges they have freshman orientation but that's not really what you want, either. You know I'm not coming up with anything, I'll work on it.

EP: I have been struggling with it, too. We've stuck with Boot Camp because I can't come up with anything else, so.

HD: Maybe just call it "training". Entrepreneur training. That's plain-vanilla generic, it is, what it is.

EP: The tough thing is, you're really not training them to be an entrepreneur--what you're doing is, it's almost like business formation. You're taking something to try to form it so that they can go out into the world and get funding for it or grants or ...

HD: ... so it's more not just like teaching someone to have whatever it takes to be an entrepreneur--you've either got that or you don't, I guess--it's you've got the idea and basically you need to know what the nuts and bolts are for how to be a company.

EP: It's like Start Up 101, you know, or ...

HD: ... yeah, Start Up 101, I think, is better than Boot Camp. I mean the name Start Up Weekend seemed to work out pretty well for Start Up Weekend for that whole project.

EP: It did.

HD: I mean, Start Up 101 the only thing it's missing is that I don't really see any place we could put a "Q" in there anywhere. So listen do you have anything else going on today? There's a Sonic Lunch [at Liberty Plaza], last one of the season, that happens ...

EP: ... is today the last one?

HD: Yeah, today is the last one, and it's Dave Sharp, who is an alum of the teeter totter, he'll be playing. I know you said you had something at 11:00, but I think it's that's at 1:00 [Ed. note: It was actually at noon].

EP: I've come over for a lot of them.

HD: Anything else you want to make sure we cover while were here on the teeter totter?

EP: No, it's been great.

HD: It's squeaking really good right now.