The Business of Play
Written by Joe Longo
Tuesday, 05 May 2009 17:46
|The Business of Play|
On April 18, 504ward, in conjunction with the Idea Village, hosted a gathering at the Port of New Orleans to showcase the 5 finalists in their $200,000 business competition. The intent of the competition was to support businesses that would best help to retain the 23-25 year old demographic in New Orleans. NOLAFugees seldom cavorts among the city's young optimists, and the event was dizzying. Big ideas abounded. Among the 5 finalists were plans for a film studio, a dance institute, a business incubator, and two sports-themed social networks. In the end, after 2 hours of presentations and questioning, PlayNOLA, a sports/activity oriented social networking business, came away with the big prize. PlayNOLA was founded by Lavonzell Nicholson and Ishaneka Williams. A few days later Ms. Nicholson sat down with NOLAFugees Senior Editor Joe Longo to discuss PlayNOLA's plans.
NF: Has winning the competition accelerated your lives?
It has in the last few days, actually. Winning the competition was its own energy, with all the people converging on us. But the best part of it, beyond doing the media stuff, is that people have given us positive feedback. It’s one thing to have an idea and win, and people go “oh, that’s nice,” but it’s a whole other thing when they’re like, “oh, that’s great,” and have special requests for things that they want to happen. So everything, 110%, has been good.
NF: So you’re actually learning more about what you can do?
Yes. I had somebody stop me on the street the other day, and he was like, “can you make sure you do dodgeball, too?”
NF: Did you research the other sports organizations that already exist here?
There are two things. There are the sports leagues for people who have skill mastery. They’ve done this for years, and they’re sort of pros at it and they go out to really compete. And then there are these volunteer-driven things where they go out and play and it may not be a complete experience. So we did look at that. And of course there’s Coconut Beach, who does beach volleyball. We’re not necessarily saying we’re going to go out and compete with Coconut Beach, but think about all the other things you can do year-long, that are completely organized, where people can completely participate; you can find a team, or not have a team and still do it. And then the entertainment portion, those specialized things that I don’t see anybody doing here, unless it’s in that professional circle. So that’s the way we approached it. The market is there to do it.
NF: As an audience member I wasn’t privy to the specifics of everybody’s business plan, but what do you think was the distinguishing characteristic of your plan that might have made yours the one that was chosen?
One of the things that we did in our plan, that we were very thoughtful about, was actually surveying young professionals. A random survey. We sent it out to a bunch of email addresses we had, we posted on Craigslist and places where people actually go. So we tried to do some market research to validate our ideas before we did it. A lot of our assumptions that we had in our business plan weren’t anecdotal from Ishaneka and Lavonzell but from what people actually said to us. So I know that was a distinguishing factor. And I think that we were really intentional about knowing where our space is. There are young professional groups out here, and they’re all very civic-oriented, and those things are fine. But we tried to make a special niche for ourselves. And we like our video, too. We think that sort of sold everybody.
NF: What are the immediate challenges now that you’ve won? Now that you actually have the financial backing, are there more immediate pressures?
Part of it is, you know, we developed this business plan, and now it’s implementation, maximizing our exposure, but also creating realistic expectations. We didn’t have this in existence, so we’re going through the process of actually setting up our office and getting our phones and doing all that stuff.
NF: Did you have an office in mind?
Part of the in-kind that we receive is a year’s office space. That was part of the package. It’s in the IP village.
NF: With the fellows who got second place [Launch Pad]?
NF: How is that?
That’s just the way it turned out. I think they’re going to be across the hall from us.
NF: What do you envision the best-case dream scenario for PlayNOLA and its role the overall success of the city?
The advantages we have are that we combine two business model concepts into one, and both of them have been very successful in other parts of the country. The best-case scenario for us is that PlayNOLA has brand recognition, and people are participating from the 25-35 year old demographic. We have an opportunity to do a lot of different things here and test what works. The other thing is that because the business is not, for lack of a better word, brick-and-mortar, we can scale up or scale down easily. It’s not one of those things where you have to have a long window to do something different. We believe it’s going to be successful because of those things.
NF: One of the things you said during your presentation was that PlayNOLA was going to appeal to “natives and newcomers,” and that was the thing that struck me because, to me, that was the distinguishing characteristic of your presentation, that it actually acknowledged the existence of people who live here, whereas everybody else seemed to be trying to ensnare people who were just arriving.
One of the undercurrents for us is the whole notion of inclusiveness. Just because you’re an engineer here, or a teacher here, or because you’ve been here forever, it doesn’t mean you can’t participate in this. And I think [PlayNOLA] gives a sort of neutral social zone. When you put a T-shirt on and go out and have fun with people it doesn’t really matter.
NF: Do you think that’s going to be a challenge, though, trying to mesh the folks who have been here for several years, pre-Katrina people, with the newcomers?
It may present as a challenge, but I think if we started with the intention of drawing everyone in, and then we figure out who’s not coming in, and why they’re not coming in, I think we can overcome that.
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