Starting a Fire at AC4D

5 weeks in at Austin Center For Design they’ve given us the notorious “$1000 Assignment”.  The assignment is for each of us to earn one thousand dollars through entrepreneurship.  The intent of the assignment is to force us to deal an ambiguous and open ended problem.  Ideally, we identify a problem, come up with a solution, bring the solution to life, and watch the money roll in.   Rather than go it alone, Bhavini Patel, Scott Gerlach, and Jacob Rader decided to work together and that means that collectively we need to rake in $3000 in three weeks.

The day this assignment was dropped on us we were, admittedly, feeling very lost.   We knew that we wanted to work as a team but we were having trouble grappling with the scope and frame of the project.  Part of the difficulty of this assignment is the context in which it has been assigned.  We are in a school that champions Social Entrepreneurship and a nuanced Design Process that values people first and develops thoughtful ideas in an inclusive process.  All of us are here because that’s the sort of work we want to do but we are decidedly new to a lot of this… certainly we are not professionals in this arena yet.  At the same time, all of us definitely have professional backgrounds and careers (which we have consciously decided to take time and energy away from) that are easily marketable and there’s no doubt that we could leverage them to satisfy the demands of the assignment.  In parallel, these factors along with the time constraints of the project present a very unsatisfying dilemma: take a risk and engage in the traditional type of prescriptive problem solving that we have been studying the ills of in our other classes or leverage the skills we already have and re-frame how we present them in order to complete the assignment.  The former is in opposition to many of the factors that led us to AC4D in the first place, the latter seems to offer very little in the way of the new knowledge and experience that we all crave from this program.

It took a sleep deprived, late night work session for an idea to emerge that re-framed this assignment, felt right to all of us, and seems to offer all of us relevant, new experiences.  We’re going to try our hands at Firestarting.


A Firestarter is a one-day, rapid production session.  It’s an ad-hoc idea that has developed in parallel with the Austin Center for Design’s 1-Year program.  At the end of this program we will emerge with a brand new startup business that has been designed for social impact.  About three years ago, Ruby Ku and Alex Pappas were recent graduates of ac4d’s debut class and were working on HourSchool around the clock (many of their fellow alumni were in similar situations).  They had a seemingly endless list of to-do’s that were stacking up on them.  They were surrounded by talented people who were willing to help but also didn’t want to monopolize people’s time.  The Firestarter sessions emerged as a properly constrained way of leveraging the energy, creative problem solving, and diverse skillsets around ac4d.

Each Firestarter focuses on a single business.  The first 15-45 mins the owners of the business help everyone gain context with the current set of problems / to-dos that they want to address.  This is followed by a rapid brainstorming session where everyone writes down potential solutions on stickies and adds them to a central pool of ideas.  A key rule is that any solution suggested has to be something that can be accomplished by the end of the day.  At the conclusion of brainstorming, everyone picks tasks to work on and breaks off into smaller groups to bring solutions to life.  At the end of the day everyone presents their work.

Typically the amount of work accomplished in a single session is collectively more valuable than if everyone had just focused on their own projects.  Through several consecutive Firestarters everyone involved is able to make significant progress on their own problems and also contribute their skills to helping the people around them: co-working at its finest.  Since those initial sessions, many businesses directly and indirectly associated with ac4d have contributed to and benefitted from Firestarters including: GirlsGuild, Feast For Days, Purse and Clutch, Oh! Fox Vintage, Trevor Boehm Consulting, and Peloton U.

Our Project
As a group we’ve decided to co-op this idea and apply it to businesses outside the ac4d community.  We’ve reached out to our network and found our first client:  a Kung-Fu studio here in Austin.  Some ac4d alumni and friends have been gracious enough to offer their advice, ideas, and expertise this Saturday.

For this first session our team will include:

Designer – Cheyenne Weaver
Designer – Diana Griffin
Marketing – Sarah Weinstein
Content Strategy – Bhavini Patel
Photographer/Content Generation – Jacob Rader
Developer/Beard Enthusiast – Scott Gerlach

Our goal is to learn what this model looks like in a broader context and gauge whether this will be a viable way for ac4d students and alumni to apply their skills in short bursts to earn money, build portfolios, and gain valuable experience while offering small businesses an opportunity to address overwhelming or persistent issues that would be difficult or time consuming for them to address linearly on their own.

We’re really excited to see what our team is capable of in one day and proud to be working on something that overlaps our existing talents with the skills we are currently developing in a context that will push us to grow and learn.  Huge thanks to the ac4d alumni who inspired this project and are actively helping us bring it to life!

Thoughts?  Advice?
– Bhavini, Jacob, & Scott