MIX Santa Fe Feature: 10 Micro-stimulus Questions with Zane Fischer
Arianne Shaffer – Kindle Project
Today we’d like to introduce you to Zane Fischer, one of the brains behind MIX Santa Fe and one of our newest grantees. MIX is paving the way for local entrepreneurs, organizations, and individuals to collaborate in truly innovative ways. They have become the creative nexus point, both on and offline, for Santa Fe business-minded individuals and start-ups. One can get a real sense of both the people involved in MIX and its initiatives by watching this video:
In this small city of Santa Fe, the MIX social mission alone is an ambitious one. Touted more for its art, natural landscapes and plethora of yogis and healers, Santa Fe has not had a great rep as a social hub or for having a thriving nightlife, especially for young people.
MIX is changing all of that.
A couple weeks ago, the entire Kindle Project team was in Santa Fe, (a rare occurrence for us), and we were thrilled to attend one of MIX’s now popular social events. This particular MIX, “Royally MIXed”, had an extra special purpose—to be a pitching hub for the 11 finalists from the BizMIX competition that was launched this spring.
Upon arrival, all local guests were asked to fill out a survey of their spending habits, how they’d like to spend their money in support of local businesses/groups, and what they feel is missing in Santa Fe. Part of MIX’s mission, particularly with their business competition, is to help revitalize and shift the local economy and their game-ification of this process brings a certain buoyant spirit to entire event. After filling out my survey I was offered a drink ticket and a sticker that read “Pitch Me”, which would act as invitation for BixMIX finalists to approach me with their idea in hopes winning my vote at the end of the night.
Amongst the over 500 attendees (a record for MIX!), I mingled with guests as I nursed a watermelon margarita and listened to details about the projects being worked on. I got a real sense that MIX is, in fact, accomplishing their very ambitious goals.
Perpetually excited by interpretations and actions of microphilanthropy and small awards with sustainable impacts, we are keeping a watchful eye on how MIX and their BizMIX program will carry on in the coming weeks. Zane took the time to explain some of the behind-the-scenes thinking of MIX to us and how what they’re doing is not only something that can be replicated in other cities but an essential contribution to shifting economies and building communities.
This is an important read for any start-up organization looking to contribute to their community and their local economy in ways that add value and creativity.
Kindle Project: Why are micro-stimulus grants important?
Zane Fischer: The current economic landscape is positively Dr. Seuss-ian in terms of navigability for most ventures and projects getting off the ground. On the one hand you have multi-national corporations benefitting from subsidies, favorable tax structures and unprecedented lobbying access, and using that power to narrow the paths to small and independent innovation and success. On the other hand, you have the fantasy of being the next Instagram or overnight Kickstarter funding or a venture capitalist deciding to be your guardian angel investor. Rather than being confounded by barriers or dreaming of easy wealth, a lot of talented and motivated people just need someone to demonstrate some belief in their idea and their abilities. A small push toward freedom to develop some additional capacity—something to get them up to the next rung, both mentally and financially—can make all the difference in early and bridge stages of a project.
KP: How do you see them as being beneficial for a small community like Santa Fe?
ZF: The benefits are tangible for every line that passes through the micro-stimulus nexus. Projects that are supported not only receive money, but they receive it from within the community, which brings a kind of stewardship with it—a desire on the part of sponsoring businesses and community organizations to help pool resources and offer mentorship toward success and a desire to on the part of recipients to do the best they can with the resources they’ve been entrusted with. People who step forward to help sponsor our micro-stimulus initiatives not only increase their own visibility within the community, but gain access to a vibrant talent and idea pool that might not otherwise be visible to them. The City of Santa Fe economic development department sees a remarkable leveraging of their funding in the form of private matches and the cultivation of a soil ripe for creative entrepreneurialism. The MIX constituency and the city as a whole get the satisfaction of translating frustrations and challenges, identified through crowd-sourcing, into imaginative solutions, some of which will grow into successful businesses and organizations.
KP: Are there any other ways in which small business ideas and start-ups can get funding like this in Santa Fe?
ZF: Certainly. The city’s economic development department works hard to be accessible, to connect people with resources and, in some cases to help financially with ventures that offer significant potential for workforce development and increasing high-wage jobs. New Mexico in general also has a surprisingly vibrant ecosystem of venture capitalists, angel investors, peer groups and business development resources, but the street level collection of niche opportunities and the fast response, quick funding and game-ification of the process is something that only MIX is doing locally, as far as I know.
KP: Can MIX’s model be easily replicated in other cities and communities?
ZF: Absolutely. And it’s a priority of ours to have a better mechanism for delivering information in response to the many inquiries that we receive from other cities. We’ve also paid attention to a lot of compelling programs being created around the world. Personally, I think there are two key strengths at the core of what MIX excels at. The first is to adopt an ethos of doing something—don’t overthink it, don’t perfect it, just get something off the ground. The second is to take a cue from the Poet Rainer Maria Rilke and “resolve to always be changing.” Evolving our methodology and priorities in response to the needs identified by our constituency has been a really important part of staying relevant. Every community is a little different, but taking action and then adjusting course by really listening the response to that action is something that I think is going to be universally effective.
KP: Are there any examples of micro-stimulus grants in others cities that have inspired MIX’s approach?
ZF: There are really too many great projects to list. The whole micro-financing movement has been pretty inspiring. There are huge problems, whether you’re talking about relationship-based banking, funding cottage industries in impoverished and disempowered regions, or crowd-funding online, but even with the challenges, it’s a disruptive movement that opens a lot of possibility, that is establishing a financing framework that makes sense for the 99 percent, and that holds the potential for investment to gravitate away from abstract, centralized systems like national stock exchanges and back toward a more localized structure.
KP: What advice do you have for community groups that are interested in starting their own micro-stimulus projects?
ZF: Take “micro” seriously and start small. The first time you pass a hat or crowd-fund or approach sponsors or funders, you’re probably not going to have a lot of credibility. The first “stimulus” checks that we delivered were fifty dollars or so. A couple of years later, we’re giving away $10,000…but we had to earn some credibility. If people see strong results with a small amount of money, they’re compelled by what you might achieve with more. To do that, you’ve got to listen and respond. There’s a perception that effective programs that attain broad engagement are built from the top down by “experts in the field” but it’s really audience, it’s really constituency, that tells you how they want to be engaged. Listen to where people want to see change—collect hard data on it, in fact—and then find a way to put game theory into play in terms of drawing out people who will take charge of manifesting that change. Look for ways to have a good time during the process of shifting challenge toward opportunity and frustration toward action.
KP: With BizMix, how do you decide which projects will make it to the second round?
ZF: Our business plan competition had 75 entries and, in a city the size of Santa Fe, we feel proud of that. Thousands of people took a look at the application and we know it takes a real commitment to fill out the entry form and articulate a vision. So, it was really difficult. We used a group comprised of MIX coordinators and professionals in business, economic development and exactly these kinds of competitions to select 11 finalists. Every application was gone over multiple times and it was a real challenge for that body to whittle down the finalists. A panel of local entrepreneurs and professionals—none of whom are associated with MIX operations—will choose the winner or winners. Applicants who didn’t go on to the final round in this case, will be among the first to know about any additional opportunities MIX is able to bring to the table. There’s a real sense of responsibility toward supporting everyone who has participated.
KP: What is your hope for the people involved in the mentorship program?
ZF: All of the BizMIX finalists will experience a mentor night where they’ll be able to meet a spectrum of established professionals who have skills germane to getting a business off the ground. Whether a particular finalists need is constructing a cash flow or designing a marketing plan, we’ll have someone there to round out that aspect of a final business plan entry. The goal is not only to up everyone’s game but give tangible support to all of the finalists, so that even if they don’t hit grand prize territory, we give them a valuable take-away.
KP: As start-up businesses are on the rise, what do you think larger cities can do to help encourage and facilitate this?
ZF: Population density has its built-in advantages. So, honestly, we’re more interested in how smaller and mid-sized cities can translate quality of life and, hopefully, a nimble policy-making body into vibrant, talent-rich communities. We know what a New York, New York can do and we even know what a Portland, Oregon can achieve, but what about a Buffalo, New York or a Santa Fe, New Mexico or…? The current influx of population into large city centers has a corresponding (if less statistically noticeable) exodus of talented individuals looking for a more intimate experience and a more tractable sense of community. Often it’s about understanding the environment beyond the municipal lines. We could spend all day worrying about Santa Fe alone, or we can take the watershed concept and apply it to a “talent shed.” In our case, Taos, Española, Los Alamos, Rio Rancho, Albuquerque, etc—how do we leverage that entire ecosystem and the different attributes within it to strengthen all of the different components?
KP: MIX seems to operate its micro-stimulus grants in similar ways that the Awesome Foundation does. I know you don’t get your funding from individual trustees, but from other sources. Would MIX ever consider crowd-sourcing their funding from the community?
ZF: We’re big fans of the Awesome Foundation at MIX and have considered having MIX represent a Santa Fe chapter. We have an event slated for later this year that will be all about crowd-funding, a MIXstarter if you will. As I mentioned previously, we’d love to move toward a local investment mechanism; a local exchange where people can invest in small businesses operating on the ground in and around Santa Fe. We think the time is right as some recent changes to federal law are helping to make micro-investing more feasible. There’s also a lot of disillusionment with traditional investment mechanisms right now, making it a good time to give people who are skittish of investing in the stock market an opportunity to make solid investments locally.
To read more about Zane Fischer check out his bio on the Kindle Project website. He’s also a member of our Steering Committee.