News Column


July 6, 2014

By Kevin Robinson-Avila, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

July 06--Anine-week crash course in software development and computer programming offered by Deep Dive Coders in Downtown Albuquerque has proven a smashing success barely nine months after launching.

The school, which opened last fall at Central Avenue and Broadway Boulevard, already has graduated 17 students, with five more now taking classes. At $5,000 per pupil, that's about $110,000 in revenue the startup has generated in less than a year.

In fact, the program has demonstrated such promise that Central New Mexico Community College now plans to incorporate it into its new "STEMulus Center," which will open at First Plaza Downtown next December to provide hands-on training programs that inspire people to either start their own businesses or develop the skills they need to get good-paying jobs in today's modern, tech-based economy.

Deep Dive Coders founder and CEO John Mierzwa said he saw a market niche and took the entrepreneurial plunge.

"I saw companies recruiting developers from out of town because there just aren't enough of them here," he said. "There was a clear need for this program with a lot of job opportunities for graduates, so I developed a curriculum, recruited instructors and started it up."

Startup activity boom

Mierzwa is at the forefront of a newfound groundswell in local startup activity in Albuquerque and other parts of New Mexico that's gaining momentum as new public and private sector initiatives help aspiring entrepreneurs gain the skills and access to resources needed to launch businesses.

That includes everything from CNM's planned STEMulus Center to new privately run networking and educational programs to bring potential entrepreneurs with great ideas together with veteran businesspeople, investors and professionals who can help them take those ideas to market.

Mierzwa himself is co-founder of one of the new networking initiatives, "Startup New Mexico," which launched last year to provide a forum for innovators to pitch new products and services to people skilled in the world of business. Since last fall, the organization has allowed nearly 30 aspiring entrepreneurs to present at two "Pitch Fiestas," with a third event planned for September.

"The fiesta offers opportunities for any kind of startup, whether it's just an idea to pitch, or if it's an existing business seeking assistance in any given industry," Mierzwa said. "They get two minutes for their pitch, followed by questions and answers with the audience, and judges who score their ideas with prizes."

The forum helps people gain experience in presenting ideas, refine them into short and succinct "elevator pitches" to gain investor attention, and receive feedback from skilled professionals in the business world.

And, perhaps most important, it provides broad networking opportunities to make critical connections to help move startups forward.

"A lot of great connections are made before, during and afterwards," Mierzwa said. "They meet people who they might not otherwise have the opportunity to connect with."

Mierzwa said that's key for any emerging business or market idea.

"It all starts with talking with people about your idea, fanning the flames to get feedback, and connecting with experienced individuals and resources," he said. "I must have had coffee with more than two dozen people to kick my idea around and network before launching Deep Dive Coders."

Startup ABQ/Startup Weekend

Like Startup New Mexico, two other privately run initiatives also have emerged since last year -- "Startup ABQ" and "Startup Weekend." They offer different types of educational programming and networking opportunities to help impart skills and connections for new and existing businesses, and for people who simply want to explore the market potential for an idea.

"We're shining a real spotlight on talent here to help entrepreneurs succeed," said Startup ABQ founder Micaela Brown, who mentors aspiring businesses and arranges for pitches to investors and others. "There's a real buzz growing throughout the entrepreneurial community."

Startup Weekend, meanwhile, offers a three-day boot camp for anyone with a startup idea to work with like-minded individuals to test and develop their proposed products and services over a weekend with mentoring and feedback from investors and experienced entrepreneurs.

About 250 people have participated in six weekend events around the state since March 2013, said Eric Renz-Whitmore, an event organizer and community manager for the New Mexico Technology Council.

"It's really useful, because it helps build connections among people who could end up forming the teams for new businesses," Renz-Whitmore said. "It allows potential cofounders of startups to work directly with one another to see their strengths and weaknesses and assess whether they can continue to work together."

ABQid/Creative Startups

Two more programs will launch this summer and fall. That includes the ABQid "venture accelerator" to help entrepreneurs with particularly promising products and services through intense training and mentorship over 90 days, and "Creative Startups," another venture accelerator that will help innovators who want to build businesses in things like film, music and design.

ABQid is backed by a $1.9 million grant from the city. The three-month training, which launches in August, is limited to 10 startups selected through a competitive application process.

But the program also offers short workshops free of charge for anybody with an interest in bringing something to market, said ABQid Managing Director Webb Johnson.

Nearly 140 people have participated since April in two workshops where they learned about "lean startup" strategies of mapping out one's idea for a product or service and then testing and evaluating it through feedback from potential customers and others.

That strategy, developed by experts from Stanford University, is gaining traction in the U.S. and elsewhere as an alternative to the old business model of first writing a business plan and then raising money before going to market.

By testing and revising things through continual customer feedback, startups can reduce risks and increase the likelihood of success, Johnson said.

"These methodologies are applicable to essentially any business, whether it's starting a food truck or launching a new technology," he said. "We hope to reach thousands of people to provide tools and affordable concepts that show the dream of being a business owner is possible, and there are assistance and resources available."

ABQid expects to offer the workshops once per month, plus five-day intensive training to further build on startup ideas.

Those involved in the initiatives say Albuquerque's emerging entrepreneurial spirit reflects a newfound emphasis on building homegrown companies as a motorforce for economic development. The new networking and educational programs can help build critical mass, Mierzwa said.

"It's much easier today to start a business," he said. "It's a viable option for many people. If you have an idea with market potential, talk to people and network about it, because we have a strong community here to reach out to and get involved."


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Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)

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