The concept behind Uptima Business Bootcamp is so novel it is hard to give it a snappy tagline that can be swallowed in one go. Uptima is a cooperative, or member-owned business accelerator. Most accelerators have a business model oriented around maximizing short-term lucrativeness– which means they depend on their cohort to also maximize short-term lucrativeness. Uptima, on the other hand, has built sustainability for the sake of a sustainable community into its organizational structure and curriculum, enabling their cohort to do the same.
“With any business venture you have to establish first what are the conditions we want to promote in the long-term? What do we want the impact and the legacy of this to be? And then you work backwards to determine a legal structure that aligns incentives according to those intentions,” says Seyed Amiry, cofounder of Uptima. “So many people have these dreams for their business but the system forces them to compromise here and there, sell out this ideal, they have no choice but to neglect everything but the bottom line.”
The Uptima team plans to help their cohort structure businesses that are sturdy enough to preserve their missions. Amiry is the former president of Presidio Graduate School. Rani Croager is a former venture capitalist. They are a dream team of business savvy and big-heartedness.
The nine-month boot camp program is broken up into three modules. The first takes businesses from the ‘idea stage’ to launch. The second guides them through funding and marketing. The last, called Scaling and Thriving, is about employing a data-driven decision making process to sustain a dynamic enterprise.
Members can jump in at any of the three modules depending on the stage of development they are at. They can also take time in between each module and spread the duration out. “So many of these incubators are inflexible about their time line: you have to launch in three months, you have to have a sale or IPO exit strategy and hit it big in five to seven years,” said Croager. “Our focus is on seeing it through.”
The curriculum, but also the ownership structure, promotes that sustained investment. Because Uptima is member-owned, participants will have 100% of their tuition fees returned to them eventually. In fact, member-entrepreneurs can expect to make back more than the cost of their fees because, in addition to tuition, they will contribute a stake to an equity pool to be redistributed to members in regular intervals as profit is achieved.
The equity stake (scaled according to the size of the business) is a one time contribution made at the time the member-entrepreneur forms its legal entity. If a member does not form a legal entity and contribute their equity stake within a certain amount of time they lose their membership in the coop.
“We do it this way to be equitable to the entrepreneurs that have contributed to the pool,” said Rani, “as entrepreneurs in our program are essentially investing in each other’s businesses by being members of the cooperative.”
The financing of the bootcamp is structured so that members share in risk and in reward. That relationship takes a very real shape in the curriculum as well – members collaborate in small groups from the very beginning, and remain associated through a rich alumni network long after. “Collaboration and community-mindedness is in the DNA of this curriculum throughout,” said Amiry.
Uptima Business Bootcamp is accepting applications through August and the first session will begin in September. They’ve already begun to hear from budding ventures in the fields of advanced manufacturing, tech, health care and artisanal food – a lot of the proposals are for worker-owned coops.
“We want people who have developed a viable idea—we can’t start from nothing—and we want people who have demonstrated a consideration for their social impact,” said Amiry.
Rani and Seyed are not self-aggrandizing enough to put it this way but their bootcamp is not just a seed incubator of business, it’s a seed incubator of the new economy.
Oakland is more than ready to put its money where its mouth is and buy into the new post-recession, post-Occupy economic ideals. The new economy sees profit not as an end but as a means to an end. It recognizes stakeholders for what they are across the long term, rather than dismissing them as externalities to exploit for short-term gain. The new economy is scaled to be local. Yes, the market is smaller and therefore so are the profits. But the alternative has proven disastrous.
The business of the new economy doesn’t merely require us to follow our hearts and not be bullies. It requires entrepreneurs to unlearn the old mores and study a new strategy. That’s where Uptima comes in.