Rough Rise to National Recognition

Published on The Daily Progress
Published on The Daily Progress

If the upcoming Tom Tom Founders Festival had a theme song, it might well be, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

As the festival enters its fifth year, some people still are puzzled about by the name. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the brand of a navigational system — or the piper’s son, for that matter.

“Everyone usually thinks at some point that it’s connected to TomTom navigation,” said Lucas Czarnecki, marketing director for the festival, which will run from April 11 to 17.

“There’s also Toms Shoes, so I’ve heard people ask if that’s the connection. Of course, it’s neither. The name is locally homegrown and based on Thomas Jefferson.

“What’s difficult about an event like Tom Tom is that there [are] dozens of events within it. The hardest part, honestly, is distinguishing internally and externally the differences among all our events.”

The festival’s events are split into several different categories, including art, food, music and innovation. With a few exceptions, the talks, panels, concerts, parties and workshops are free.

If the aim of the festival had to be broken down into two words, fun and learning would work well. But because of the wide scope of the offerings, it can take some doing to get a handle on what the festival is all about.

* * *

So, let’s start at the beginning. It’s the fall of 2011, and the festival’s founder, Paul Beyer, is in his loft apartment in the iconic Pink Warehouse on West South Street in Charlottesville when a big idea comes to him.

“I just thought it would be neat to have an event that would bring Charlottesville together and foster more collaboration with the University of Virginia, the city, investors, entrepreneurs and the people of the town,” Beyer said.

“I also like fun events, and doing things that are outside the norm and unexpected. The initial aim was to make the city an interesting, cultural place and highlight that regionally and, hopefully, nationally.

“I’m a young person [33], and I wanted to see the city be vibrant. I think fun is actually an underappreciated virtue. Oftentimes, it’s not even seen as a virtue, but I think it is.”

Beyer’s apartment became festival central, with a near-constant flow of people dropping by to brainstorm ideas about what the festival should be and how to make it reflect Charlottesville. It wasn’t going to be just a street party, but something grand and encompassing.

The realization soon emerged that the festival could be a vehicle to carry useful knowledge into receptive minds. It could tell the stories of new technologies and the latest innovations in health care, showcase local artists and their work, provide a stage for area musical talent and celebrate local foods and their producers.

It quickly became such an ambitious endeavor, with so many moving parts, that it became increasingly difficult to define exactly what it was. By January 2012, the festival was still in the concept stage, but roiling with life.

That month, Beyer distributed a brochure to let people know about the new festival that would open on April 13, 2012, and run for an entire month. There would be 50 bands, art exhibits and lectures related to manufacturing, new technologies and food-related topics.

“When we published the brochure, we had no bands booked and nothing planned,” said Beyer, who is a Charlottesville native. “I remember some of the journalists in town got the brochure and thought it was funny because it was so ridiculous.

“I look back and it was just insane and completely crazy to try to contemplate doing something like that. But I think it speaks to the fact that if you have a good idea, and it’s inclusive, and people feel ownership of it and it’s a vision that’s noble, people are going to rally behind it and make it happen.

“In the brochure, we predicted that 4,500 people would turn out, and we had 6,700 that year. And we ended up having 60 bands.”

The 2012 brochure unfolds into a poster with Jefferson’s quote, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Beyer soon would learn that dreams can be emotionally and financially costly, and there would have to be changes made if the festival was going to have a future.

* * *

The first-year effort was a mix of jubilant success and faith-flattening loss. Although it was considered a success overall, the hard lessons it taught the organizers were probably its most valuable contributions.

Beyer launched the inaugural event as a for-profit, limited-liability business. There was a ticketed music festival to make money, and everything else was free.

It took that first run to convince Beyer that the festival was never going to be a money-maker and that the nonprofit, civic nature of it needed to come to the forefront. By the second year, the festival had been reduced into a more manageable timeframe and it had become a nonprofit.

“The first year, we learned our lesson — don’t do a ticketed music festival,” Beyer said. “That’s crazy, and you set yourself up for a huge financial obligation when you do that.

“But the first event of the festival was at the McGuffey Art Center, and there were 3,500 people who came to this giant block festival. The studios inside the center had 15 bands playing everything from rap to bluegrass.

“On the front steps, there [was] all kinds of diverse world music, and it was just incredible to see a civic institution used in that way. That was a runaway success that people still talk about. A month later, there was the ticketed music festival that was a bomb and a complete dud.”

Beyer spent months trying to digest the bitter morsels that came with sweet success. He ultimately came to the realization that he needed to carry the high points forward and leave the low points behind.

“The high points were these free community events that really activated the city in new ways,” Beyer said. “And all these nascent, start-up entrepreneurial-type communities that were really excited about Charlottesville becoming known for that kind of activity.

“That really solidified the vision. To have a fun, unique experience and then also have engaging thought, leadership around entrepreneurship and all of its various ramifications.

“It’s called a founders festival because that’s the essence of the whole thing. It’s about celebrating founding things in all their creative and entrepreneurial facets.”

* * *

City officials and leaders, as well as UVa, were quick to pick up on Beyer’s vision. This year, more than 400 organizations will participate in the festival, and 55 student clubs and organizations at the university are involved.

Five days of events will be held in the Paramount Theater, and each event will have a different sponsor from UVa. A total of 16 different departments and business initiatives at UVa will be participating.

The biggest one-day event will be the Founders Summit, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 15 at the Paramount. Some of the country’s top innovators will take the stage to share their stories and talk about how to launch an idea, build a company and impact home communities in beneficial ways.

“The idea is to have national-level artists, entrepreneurs and civic leaders share the founding stories of their projects or business,” Beyer said. “We’ll have Bill Crutchfield, who started in his mom’s basement with a thousand dollars of savings.

“Forty years later, he has a $250-million-a-year business, 500 employees, has never taken an outside investment, never had a layoff and has zero debt. How did he do it, and what did it mean for Charlottesville that he did do it?

“Then there’s other folks like Rodney Mullen, who, 10 years in a row, was the world-champion skateboarder and went on to found World Industries. Doug Stoup, the world-leading polar explorer and founder of Ice Axe Expeditions, will be telling his story.

“Sukhinder Singh Cassidy was a Google executive, and was just in Forbes as the most powerful woman in Silicon Valley. She has started a new online shopping platform called Joyus.”

Also in the lineup are Ace Callwood, a young entrepreneur who founded Coffitivity and Painless 1099, and Craig Dubitsky, a branding expert and founder of eos Lip Balm and Hello Products.

These folks will receive travel stipends but no speaking fees or honoraria. The inclusion in the festival of these dynamic entrepreneurs is a testament to how far it has come and the reputation it’s building nationwide.

* * *

Beyer said the festival started with a budget of about $150,000, and this year, it will be around $500,000. It’s bankrolled by beer and ticket sales, corporate sponsorship and philanthropic patronage.

Critical to the festival’s success have been dedicated volunteers. About 35 volunteers work week in and week out with the three fulltime staff members and four part-time employees. The volunteer force grows to more than 350 people during the festival.

For the first years of the festival, Beyer split his time between it and working with his parents, Rick and Diana Beyer, in their company R.L. Beyer Construction and Custom Homes. He recently turned all his energy and attention to working on the festival and started taking a salary for the first time.

The success of the festival has started Beyer thinking about the possibility of having similar satellite festivals in other small cities. The towns would have to fall within a certain Goldilocks zone of feasibility, such as having a research university, dynamic cultures and acceptability.

“Without the community embrace, this festival doesn’t exist,” Beyer said. “This is a very scrappy festival, with a very lean budget that relies on tremendous amounts of volunteerism.

“In the second year, we made a five-year plan. The thought was that, by this year, we would be a nationally relevant festival with thought leaders flying in from across the country to share their stories with the community.

“That’s happening, and the single thing I most enjoy is meeting entrepreneurs. It’s an interesting thing when your job is to learn interesting facts about people, and then figure out how to tell their story.”

The 2016 Tom Tom Founders Festival will be held April 11-17. For more information and a schedule of events, visit 2016.tomtomfest.com.

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