PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER J. HART
Entrepreneur Derek Neighbors during Funding Universe’s CrowdPitch event at Gangplank headquarters.
What makes companies like Facebook and Google so successful? There are many reasons, but at the core of their prosperity, you will find a culture that embraces ideas and nurtures innovation.
There are no bad ideas for employees of these tech giants. In fact, employees are actively encouraged to develop their own ideas.
Taking the lead in fostering creativity and innovation in Arizona is entrepreneur Derek Neighbors, co-founder and executive director of Gangplank, a nonprofit organization in Chandler where startups and other creative minds gather to share ideas and help each other get on the road to success.
“Gangplank has gone through this metamorphosis,” Neighbors explained. “It was really just about how we would help incubate some people and get them off the ground, but now we have Gangplank Jr., which is tackling K-12 education, in trying to restore creativity to schools.”
Neighbors and Jade Meskill started Gangplank in 2008. Both worked as software developers in the late ’90s. “We developed one of the first mortgage loan documents delivered over the Internet,” he shared proudly.
Soon after that, Neighbors and Meskill started their own consulting firm and took on several clients in the manufacturing and distribution sectors. Eventually the two decided to focus more on their growing families and went their separate ways.
Neighbors recalled how he later reconnected with Meskill. “One of the companies we developed software for ended up becoming an $80 million company, and they offered to help us build our business. So, we decided to make another run for it,” he said.
About every two weeks Neighbors and Meskill would get together for lunch with tech startups and other businesses. “We would meet with CEOs and CIOs,” he said. They would talk about issues in business. “What we started to hear, week after week, was that companies were starting to move their business out of Arizona. And most of the reasons were lack of capital funding, lack of quality people for the type of business they were running or lack of the right network.”
Neighbors said he was shocked to hear that companies were leaving the Valley at what he thought was an “alarming rate.” He had lived in Arizona for almost 35 years, and Meskill was an Arizona native. “I worked at Silicon Valley for a while. I used to commute there. I would fly up Mondays and fly back on Fridays. Both of us have a real love for the desert, the area, the environment of Arizona,” he confided.
Coincidentally, around the same time, Neighbors had a friend who was looking for financing for his business. “We had a large network of individuals that were looking to invest in technology,” he said.
Neighbors was able to help his friend by putting him in front of investors and presenting his business model to them. But after going through the process to raise capital, his friend realized he didn’t really need the funding after all. “What that really taught us,” Neighbors said, “was that we could probably raise funding fairly easily if we had good opportunities. And so we put it out there to go fund five companies. We funded five companies in the group and went through the whole process of doing small seed funding.”
One of the other companies in the group was working out of a garage in Tempe, Ariz. Neighbors said the city of Tempe found out about it and told the owners of the company they weren’t allowed to run their business in a garage because it was against zoning regulations. “So,” Neighbors said, “we told the company ‘instead of getting your own space, you should move into our space.’ We had an extra 10X10 office.” Another of the companies in the group kept getting hit with rent increases for the office space it was leasing in the Scottsdale Airpark, so Neighbors made a similar offer to that company. “And that’s how we started bringing people in,” he said.
When you visit Gangplank’s headquarters, you will notice rows of computer desks with several dozen people sitting there. You can hear the chatter and collaboration among them. There’s also a video game arcade next to the break room, and a podcasting studio in the back.
There are now 14 “anchor” companies at the facility, and most of them are run by Generation Xers or younger staff. You will find 3-D animators, photographers, Web developers, artists and musicians, just to name a few.
Neighbors revealed that the organization is also putting in a full music studio. Gangplank has a committee that finds local musicians and brings them in to do festival-style live shows. “We typically have hard rock groups, a cappella singers, DJs … a wide range of talent,” he said.
The new studio will help aspiring musicians practice and produce their albums. The performance space will also be used for CD release parties, according to Neighbors.
As might be expected, Neighbors said his biggest challenge is space. “We seem to be constantly outgrowing our space. We went from an 800-square-foot office to 1,000 square feet to 6,600 square feet in this building,” he explained. And now, Gangplank headquarters is going through another expansion. In March, the organization received a $400,000 grant from the city of Chandler. The grant funds were used to redevelop the historic downtown building where Gangplank is now. “We’ll be at about 15,000 square feet by the end of the year,” Neighbors said.
Gangplank also offers a brown bag lunch event every week. “When we first did them, we had a lot of technical brown bags. Very ‘Googlesque,’” Neighbors recalled. Now, the events bring in all sorts of entrepreneurs and feature success stories. “We’ve had everybody from the state treasurer, Dean Martin, to Beverly Kidd, TV 3 news anchor, and Joe Johnson, who owns four or five local restaurants.”
Neighbors hopes that by bringing such a variety of speakers, the lunch events will help new entrepreneurs gain knowledge about how businesses operate, from the hiring process to collecting payment from customers.
Another exciting event Gangplank hosts is Funding Universe’s CrowdPitch. The event allows startups to receive feedback on their ventures. Participants present their business model in less than four minutes in front of a panel of experts and a live audience. This is followed by a three-minute Q&A session with the panel. Last August, the event attracted more than 125 people. The next CrowdPitch at Gangplank will be held Nov. 18.
The state of our schools is another area of huge concern for Neighbors, and he is taking the challenge head on. “Especially schools of underprivileged kids,” he remarked. “It’s just a matter of opportunities that you are given, and we think we actually have a better chance in the lower-income schools … because they want change.”
Gangplank Jr. was created for the purpose of allowing students to learn from experienced professionals in the arts and sciences. Students are encouraged to use their imagination to solve problems, without the pressure of performance. There is a LEGO League robotics team to help children between the ages of 9 and 14 learn basic mechanics. The Gangplank Jr. book club reinforces the importance of reading; each month, the club chooses a unique title geared toward a different age range, from 7 to 15. There is also a music exploration program, which consists of one class a month that teaches kids about the elements of music. Participants in the program also have the opportunity to build instruments.
Neighbors is a visionary, and his programs are far-reaching and crucial, especially at a time when Americans are competing more than ever in the global arena. It was President Obama who said, “We can’t afford [for] our kids to be mediocre at a time when they’re competing against kids in China and kids in India.” Neighbors’ undertaking is admirable, and Gangplank Jr. is a brilliant example of what can be done to help our youth attain success.