Going into the weekend, I had a couple of business ideas that I was hoping to develop and get feedback on. Unfortunately, that goal didn’t really get fulfilled. But I did get some great enlightenment about entrepreneurship and a few tips on how to succeed at a Startup Weekend competition.
The Pitches Friday Evening
The event kicked off Friday evening (February 17), with a cocktail hour, a brief introduction by the organizers, and then a 2-hour long rapid fire session of pitching ideas. Pitches were 60-seconds each, rapid fire. Everyone in the room with an idea lined up, and speakers took the mic in rapid succession. On the projector screen behind the speakers was a giant image of a cartoon bomb with a graphic of a quickly disintegrating fuse.
There were about 120 people attending the event and 62 ideas were pitched. So almost half of the crowd pitched ideas, and a few people pitched multiple ones. I pitched two ideas. A few ideas being pitched were serious business plans (some of which I considered even better than the ideas I had), but others just plain goofy. Here are some of the goofier ideas:
- Myapartmentsucks.com – a website where you can rate your landlord, but there’s a catch! You can only assign “negative” points to your landlord. In other words, imagine Facebook with only a Dislike button. The idea is to single out the worst slumlords of your city. IMO, it’s a funny idea, but supposing the company is able to dodge the fury of slander lawsuits, the LACK of GOOD things to post will certainly make the site lose credibility. Nobody is fully satisfied with their apartment and you no doubt will have some horror stories no matter where you live, so I can’t imagine the site making your apartment hunting decisions any easier.
- Shoot My Friends App – this one bloke started out his pitch by saying, “I really like to shoot things with my gun!” Uh oh. His idea was to make an app that lets you use your phone’s camera to lock in on your friends and “shoot” them with a virtual gun. Or shoot anything for that matter! Funny concept. Just don’t get shot by anyone named Jade Blue Afterglow.
- “Hot or Not” goes mobile – remember that website from the early 2000s where you post your picture and people would rate you as being “hot” or “not”? Well, one fellow wanted to bring back the concept. Except, he wanted to update it for the mobile age by allowing you to rate people in your immediate area! So, you would be able to open the app in a public place, and give that cute girl you see at the bus stop a “hot” rating (assuming she has the app as well). The concept was certainly fun, but I don’t think it could have a good outcome if the person you give a “not” just happens to have that gun app...
- ManCard – take pictures of your friend(s) and give or take away “Man-Points” from him. Do you have a picture of yourself wrestling a bear? That deserves some Man-Points! Sipping an appletini? Your friends will take away some Man-Points. It is similar to the Hot or Not concept but for MEN!
Some of the ideas left more questions than answers. A few of the pitches leave you wondering “why is this person even here?” One person pitched starting a company to produce water quality testing strips. Seriously? I guess he didn’t get the memo that this event was slated for web and mobile app developers, not chemists.
A self-proclaimed community activist pitched a community crime watch app. If you see a crime being committed – your neighbor’s house getting broken into, or a car jacking – you can open up this app and alert your community so that everyone could hide in their homes. It’s a good concept, but what happens if the criminals steal your iPhone first?
The pitches overall were quite entertaining, but it brings us to the first lesson to succeeding in Startup Weekend:
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Pitch an Idea
There were probably more unworkable business ideas than serious seeds for a sustainable enterprise. However, Startup Weekend is all about networking and having fun. So what if your idea is zany? The challenge of Startup Weekend is to develop something interesting and new from the seemingly impossible.
Now given that this was intended to be a high tech competition, I was surprised by the rather primitive system used for voting. Here’s how the voting works (at least by TechColumbus rules). Every idea pitcher is given a sheet of paper. Every person in the room is given three sticky notes. Pitchers accumulate votes for their ideas by collecting as many sticky notes as they can. The pitchers with the most sticky notes (or those who had a pad of sticky notes in their backpack) are deemed to have the most popular ideas and are highlighted as starting points for the formation of new teams.
Believe me, this voting session is over in the blink of an eye. You won’t accumulate many votes by standing around waiting for people to come to you (like I did). Which brings us to our second lesson of Startup Weekend:
2. To Gather a Team, You Have to Market Your Idea
Being hot looking, running around the room frantically trying to get team members, and having a funny idea helps generate a crowd. The people who are able to build teams are the ones who have an uncanny ability to market themselves. For example, the guy who proposed ManCard was overrun with people wanting to join and vote for his team just because the idea was fun.
Surprisingly, ideas that require a lot of industry skill probably won’t survive the voting round at Startup Weekend – even if they make for a more solid business plan. People want to spend their weekend on something fun! They didn’t come to labor on something that resembles weekday work.
Also, with 2 hours of pitches, it’s really hard to remember all of them and who pitched what. As an idea pitcher wanting to recruit team members, you have to spring to action the moment those voting tokens are handed out and convince people that being on your team and make this weekend one to remember.
However, the beauty of Startup Weekend is that in the end the voting doesn’t really matter. Teams aren’t limited to forming around the most popular idea pitches. As long as you have at least two people getting together, you can form a team. That’s what I did. I paired up with my newly made friend Josh Lusiak, and we decided to go against the current by forming a team to build on his idea – an iPad app for recording statistics during a high school basketball game. Our team’s name was to be called Statsquatch.
I also noticed that a few teams formed around people who came into the weekend with a pre-existing plan. During the cocktail hour, I met a group of four students who planned to form a team they were developing for a different entrepreneurship competition. Their team was already premeditated, and their idea was already planned out. You would think given that this is a “Startup” Weekend that such a team should be automatically disqualified. This does not seem to be the case, bringing us to lesson number three:
3. You Don’t Necessarily Have to “Start Up” to Participate in Startup Weekend
Statsquatch Squashed, the Game Goes On
Friday night, Josh and I sketched out the plans for our business plan. On Saturday morning, we began work. We felt that we really had a strong idea, but with only a two man team and limited technical experience, we were facing an uphill struggle. Fortunately, one of the organizers named Chris popped in to help give us some starting tips. He taught us one of the keys to succeeding in Startup Weekend:
4. If You Can’t Make the Product, Fake It!
The idea to surviving the weekend is not to have a fully working app developed by the end of the weekend. What’s more important is having a solid plan in place, which means figuring out the business model and being able to demonstrate the user interface. In a 52-hour event, you just don’t have the time to write out all the code you need to make a fully functional application. (And that doesn’t even include sleep, eating, and watching the other presentations going on.) Instead, you can demonstrate a user interface by building a series of clickable “dummy” screens. This can be done easily with PowerPoint (and enhanced a little Photoshop).
Josh and I working vehemently at our idea
Josh and I also came to another stark discovery on Saturday morning – our company name Statsquatch was already taken by another basketball stats app for the iPhone. What a million-to-one shot that was! So we brainstormed a little, and decided to name our program Game On.
Lessons from the VC Master
Intermittent between the company development, Startup Weekend has a few breakout sessions with guest speakers. One of the terrific speakers was Mark Suster, a former entrepreneur turned venture capitalist. He had some excellent advice about how to approach venture capitalists. I highly recommend that you read his blog, Both Sides of the Table.
I asked Mark a question related to a difficulty that I am encountering in forwarding my own ideas: “What’s the best way to get talent when you just have an idea and no cash?”
Mark reiterated that it’s a common problem faced by startups. About 24 out of 25 people who come to him for capital have the problem of finding talent. They all think they need money to get people hired. However, that 25th person he runs into has an uncanny ability to get people working for free. Mark can’t even put his finger on what that quality is – perhaps it’s some sort of charisma.
Mark also had a valuable tip for keeping your startup workers motivated on a budget. If you make someone work every evening for two weeks and pay then $500, they are going to complain about how that’s terrible pay. But you could take that same $500 and buy your worker two Madonna tickets, and that person will be forever appreciative of you. Even more important, you got that person two tickets. He could take out a wife or girlfriend and say, “I got this from work.”
The Final Pitches and Winners Declared
Sunday evening was reserved for presentations. Each of the teams had a 5 minute opportunity (five minutes presenting, two minutes Q&A) to pitch their idea to a panelist of judges. It’s a bit like the show Shark Tank on ABC, except these judges are considerably more courteous. This Startup Weekend had a larger number of teams than usual – 18 in total, so the presentations went for a fairly long time.
After almost 3 hours of presenting, the judges made their votes fairly quickly. Here were the winning teams:
- Bandwidth – a Pandora-like app for listening to local bands
- ParkSmart – a parking application that helps you find available parking meters in downtown Columbus
- ManCard – whaddya know? They did have a terrific presentation, and I like how they built a marketing platform off of it based on the “Manalytics” they can collection. But the success of the idea is contingent upon it catching mainstream. It’s a matter of luck whether it catches on well enough for them to reach the scale necessary to reach a profit.
- Tokens of Kindness – this is a non-profit idea based on the movie Pay It Forward. You get these tokens from the company (they wasn’t clear whether you pay for them or not), and you pass them on to another person when you do a good deed. Then you could enter the token’s number on the website and see how your good deed circulates around a map. I was disappointed in this selection by the judges because although it is a unique and altruistic idea, it doesn’t fit with the core of what Startup Weekend is about. Plus, I’m a pessimist – I don’t think the tokes will get passed around as easily as the founders expect. Didn’t the kid in the movie get stabbed at the end?
One thing that all of the presenters had in common were dazzling presentations. The speakers themselves weren’t necessarily spectacular orators, but they did have some powerful PowerPoints behind them. The winners had colorful themes rich with graphics, eye catching transitions, and even incorporated video. This brings us to a final lesson on Startup Weekend:
5. To Win, You Have to Put on a Show!
Those Tokens of Kindness guys really had a tear jerker of a presentation. It showed a map with a red line being drawn Indiana Jones style, with a voiceover explaining how the system works. It’s a novel concept with a terrific presentation. Will it catch on? We’ll see.
A screenshot of Token of Kindness' captivating video
Analysis of Game On
Josh and I were not victorious in this competition, but we are by no means disenchanted with the idea and still plan on advancing it. However, here’s where I think we could have done better. Our presentation was weak. Our business model was heavy on details, and therefore we had to cram a lot into five minutes. In particular, we had to rush the demo of the application itself because there were a lot of business details to discuss. Overall, I think we produced a lot considering other teams had a few more team members who could make contributions. Had we had a designer on our team, we may have had the advantage of a flashier PowerPoint.
I really have no idea how some of the other teams made such great presentations. Josh and I struggled to stretch Powerpoint to its limits in giving our presentation some pizzazz. Being on a Windows computer, I really felt limited compared to other teams who had much better presentation software and were able to develop iPad apps. This brings me to the sixth lesson I learned this weekend:
6. I really need to get me a Mac!
Game On is going to live beyond this weekend and hopefully we can turn it into a killer app. For now, check out our 30-second pitch video. Also, check in for web updates later on in the year.
Some of the Other Ideas
Just to give you a better idea of the kinds of teams formed during Startup Weekend, here are a few other ideas that were presented:
- BarterQue – a mobile app that allows you to find other people willing to trade something of theirs for an item that you may have.
- Purge – an app similar to BarterQue. The idea’s founder described it to me as having the “elegance of Instagram with the simplicity of Craigslist.” It’s an app that mimics eBay, allowing you to sell things you no longer want to people within your network of friends.
- BandMate – a Bluetooth-based metronome that helps all of the members of a band receive timing signals through an earpiece. I really think this concept was one of the better ideas. It’s simple to create, and has great utility to members of a band. According to the founders, it could replace equipment that typically costs thousands of dollars to purchase.
- Nanny Limo – a service that lets you find a pre-screened driver for your kids so you don’t have to bus them yourself to after-school activities. I think it solves a significant problem, but the revenue model needed work. Charging a 10% fee for a $12/hr driver, they’re only making $1.20 of profit.
- Webcam Wedding – a consulting service that sets up video cameras at your wedding and allows you to stream to people who were unable to attend. The team creators were thinking about expanding the concept to other types of events.
Startup Weekends was one of my most well-spend weekends ever. I really had a great time. However, I was disappointed with the quality of the ideas that took hold. Many of the end presentations felt like student work – not the type of stuff I would bet my bottom dollar on. It’s possible that this Startup Weekend was affected by the fact that it did take place in a college town on a college campus.
Although I didn’t see the industry-shattering innovations that I hoped to witness, I did leave much more enlightened about entrepreneurship. The breakout sessions were informative, and I had the opportunity to meet a ton of people whom I would have never known otherwise.
Don’t go to a Startup Weekend hoping to sell your enterprise for a large sum of cash on Monday. Treat it as a learning and networking experience. And no matter what the judges say, believe in your idea.