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Become an Entrepreneur — No Idea Required

Christina DesMarais, INC
Friday, 27 Apr 2012 | 12:06 PM ET
Comstock Images | Getty Images

Want to start a company... but you're short on ideas? There's an incubator for that.

Well, actually, it's called a "foundry."

What is a foundry?

Chicago-based Sandbox Industries recently opened a new start-up foundry in San Francisco. Managing Director Millie Tadewaldt says unlike a traditional incubator that brings in early-stage start-ups already working on idea, Sandbox simply looks for talented people — often with no entrepreneurial experience. It gives them mentorship and capital and tasks them with identifying promising new start-up ideas through testing, market research, focus groups — whatever it takes to figure out which ideas have legs.

Its closest proxies, she says, are Santa Monica-based Science or New York-based Betaworks, although what makes Sandbox different is its venture capital arm. Projects are initially funded internally by the foundry, then when mature, the teams seek funding from outside VCs and angels, as well as from Sandbox's venture funds.

Shared resources are lean

Sandbox also works with entrepreneurs to build teams using shared resources within Sandbox.

"We have a team of designers, developers, social media people, writers, and PR that are already here so when a person comes in and wants to work on an idea they don't have to go hire a developer to build the prototype. We have one. They don't have to hire a designer to make the logo. We have one," Tadewaldt says.

In essence, Sandbox tries to turn any one business person into a ready-made startup team, at least in the early stages.

Entrepreneur ownership grows over time

And because Sandbox also has a venture capital arm it can also provide larger amounts of funding as a company grows — which brings up the question of ownership.

"So it's like a straddle between being an entrepreneur on your own where you get no salary but you get more equity versus being an employee at a company where you get a salary and probably very little equity, if any at all," -Managing Director, Sandbox Industries, Millie Tadewaldt

Tadewaldt says Sandbox owns a large percentage of the companies initially because it's proving all of the resources, salaries, and equity to the "founders-in-residence."

"Meanwhile as they work on businesses that start to succeed they receive equity grants to acknowledge the incentive that entrepreneurs need to stay up all night with a business and make it their own," she says. "So it's like a straddle between being an entrepreneur on your own where you get no salary but you get more equity versus being an employee at a company where you get a salary and probably very little equity, if any at all," she says.

It's an interesting idea and one that Tadewaldt says takes pressure off entrepreneurs and allows them to be more objective while at the same time giving them incentives for getting traction.

Killer questions purge the bad ideas

The notion behind Sandbox is that there are a number of things that can get in the way of building a business and by reducing mistakes and the time founders spend making them, entrepreneurs can spend more of their resources actually building out an idea.

One way Sandbox does that is by asking early on what it calls "killer questions."

For instance, one company born in the Sandbox foundry is the women's fashion company CakeStyle, which once a season sends a box of high-end clothing to customers along with a video that explains how to wear the items and why each was picked.

Sandbox mentors asked the company's founders two key questions: Would women want someone else shopping for them? And would brands sell to CakeStyle wholesale? As it turned out, answers were affirmative on both counts.

"Tackling these big questions early on rather than ignoring them allowed us to vet the idea more quickly rather than going to the trouble of building out all this inventory and a technology platform before we even knew if women wanted to buy what we were offering," Tadewaldt says.

A couple of other companies Sandbox says have benefitted from the foundry concept are Marbles: the Brain Store and DoggyLoot, both of which have experienced impressive growth of late.

Tadewaldt says the Sandbox foundry, which is located at 444 Townsend St. in San Francisco, will have nine to 10 entrepreneurs on staff by the middle of the summer.

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