In the heart of revitalizing Old Town Rock Hill, with the Historic Downtown, the Textile Corridor, Winthrop University, the old neighborhoods, and York Technical College – right in the center, on the corner of Main Street and Caldwell stands a 5 story, 100 year old building that is tall and narrow, and wonderful. And on the third floor, the entire floor open with colorful columns in its center and windows all the way around, a room warm with natural light, a room full of contemporary furniture and technology, large monitors and computers and surround sound, a room full of people busy and buzzing, is The Hive.

20 plus people gather in this space 3 days a week, with handfuls of folks in and out on the other days. These people include students from York Tech and Winthrop, a small staff from RevenFlo (an Internet Marketing company, my company), and a couple of lab techs from York Tech who manage the space. Also in and out of the space are clients, visitors, and attendees to student organized events that take place in the space.

In this space, we do work for paying clients. We do web work – designing and developing websites, as well as executing internet marketing programs. Our clients this semester are 5 local non-profits: Children’s Attention Home, Rock Hill Schools Foundation, Carolinas Student Travel Connection, Historic Rock Hill, and the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation. RevenFlo manages the students in teams working on real work for paying clients, thus generating the educational outcomes for the students while generating the professional marketing outcomes for the client.

Beyond the synergy of the win for students and clients, is the economic development component of the program. The city is invested in the revitalization of Old Town Rock Hill. Further integration with local colleges, student/talent retention, as well as new-urbanism and place-making economic development are all primary objectives stated by city leaders and adopted by city council. The city has 22% unemployment, and workforce development efforts that train people for what is one of the few growing industries is powerful work to combat such high rates of joblessness. Recruiting the knowledge worker and the web focused to Old Town is powerful economic development.

The Hive is doing all of this and is going great. The collaborative partners – which include RevenFlo, York Tech, Winthrop, Comporium, Harry Dalton, and the City of Rock Hill – are each pleased with bang for buck from this program. It’s a win in seemingly all directions.

So, how did it happen? Well, it took the investment of time, energy, creative capital, and financial capital from people, organizations, and institutions. But really, what it took most of all, was for individuals who were friends to put their asses on the line. It took passion, friendship, and risk.

It was Greg Rutherford of York Tech who took the first real significant risk, by engaging seriously and publicly with my ideas on doing a project like this. I was pushing this idea, but it was York Tech that invested the institutional component, which allowed the project to eventually launch at the scale it did. On paper, was it a good idea for York Tech to launch The Hive, especially at this scale? No. But Greg saw something different in what I was putting together, and he decided to amp up the risk.

My risk involved taking on the design; the curriculum; the execution of educational outcomes; the client recruitment, marketing, and sales; the client professional outcomes; and executive management of the program as a whole… all for the same amount of revenue we would charge just to do the projects themselves. Did this make sense on paper for RevenFlo? Can a rapidly growing small business afford to take on a project where our time invested is drastically disproportionate to the revenue generated? A project that’s basically upside down from the beginning. No, of course we can’t. But we did.

Did our institutions or organizations encourage us to do this? Or provide ready mechanisms by which to do this? No. We had to just decide to do it, and then turn back to our respective organizations and make it happen.

The project is still running with a very high level of risk for both of us, and now has risk invested from supportive city leaders and from the students and from the clients, and thus it has become even riskier for some of us at its center due to the amassing weight.

Will we reach sustainability? Will we generate a sustainable amount of revenue? Will we have clients for next semester? The questions are critical, and the answers are blurry at best. The implications are significant and the risk is high.

But, do we see success before us? Yes. We don’t know exactly what it looks like, but we see growth and success in our model, focus, and agility. We are still functioning as a small group of individuals. We are functioning like a start-up company. A couple of us at the organization’s center have a natural autonomy to guide the program as we see fit. It’s not an arbitrary autonomy. It’s not based on a decision, or an org chart, or a job description… none of that exists. It’s just based on friends at the center, controlling this project with good intentions and their asses on the line.

If entrepreneurism is what is needed for successful collaboration, then recognize that entrepreneurism is born out of the individual not the organization. It’s born out of friends working together, not out of procurement processes. All the great rock’n’roll bands came from friendships not professional contracts. All bold things come from people… and their emotions and their relationships and their holistic intelligence and their personalities and idiosyncrasies. It is people who do great things. And doing great things always involves great personal risk, real risk. You can’t fake this. You can’t kinda take a risk. You are either all in, or not.