I’m exhausted. Normally this feeling is reserved for a Friday afternoon around 4:30PM. But no, it’s Monday. The reason? Startup Weekend.
Startup Weekend is a 54-hour event where entrepreneurial minded people come together, form teams, and go from concept to company in the course of a weekend. Over 5000+ people have participated in one of the 450+ Startup Weekends around the world. This was my first time, so I thought I’d give a recap of the weekend and my thoughts on why everybody should attend at least once.
Every Startup Weekend begins with Friday pitches. Anybody with an idea has 60 seconds to persuade the crowd that their concept can turn into something awesome in just two days. Many people had fully-baked ideas and pre-rehearsed pitches. Others, well, did not. I was somewhere in between.
My idea was ScholarSeed, a platform that allows the general public to invest in college entrepreneurs. The idea had been brewing in my head for a little while but two recent developments made me decide to pitch it at TSW.
1. The JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act. This law, approved by Obama just a week before Startup Weekend, is going to allow early adopters to become early investors by making it legal for anybody to use up to 5% of their income to purchase actual equity in startups using sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and WeFunder. Proper incentive is huge for early user adoption and there is no bigger incentive than a financial one.
2. The Carolina Challenge. Put on every year at UNC, the Carolina Challenge is a business plan competition for student startups. I judged at this year’s finals and was blown away by the amount of brilliant students describing what they could do with just ten to fifteen thousand dollars. Without the credit history or collateral needed for a bank loan or the track record most VC’s look for, college students have limited options when it comes to seed funding.
I was one of 60 people that pitched to the crowd of 300 that night. 60 seconds isn’t much time, but I thought I did a decent job explaining the value a site like ScholarSeed could provide. After the hour of pitches, each person with an idea was given some time to walk around and give a few more details on their concept and expectations for the weekend. Ideas were then voted on using a smartphone app and then the Top 20 were revealed. ScholarSeed was included.
I had big plans for ScholarSeed. We would develop a simple to use platform over the weekend and then populate the site with ambitious college entrepreneurs needing a few thousand bucks to follow their dreams. However, things don’t work out as planned. I lacked the technical skills needed to build even the simplest crowdfunding platform and others that were interested were similarly lacking in programming knowledge. Without the ability to actually build a Minimum Viable Product, I figured I would gain more out of the weekend by joining up with another team.
Luckily, there were some awesome ideas that wanted all the help they could get. There was even one that aimed to tackle the problem I observed at the Carolina Challenge. Unfundable aimed to be a crowdsourced venture capital firm that allowed everyday people help fund and fuel big ideas. While I was unsure of the exact legality of the idea, the pitch was energetic and ambitious, the team was excited and talented, and they were walking away to get started.
Lesson #2: Be quick on your feet. Had I not realized I wasn’t going to build a “rockstar” team quickly, I wouldn’t have bumped into Team Unfundable as they were heading out the door to get started. “Fail Fast” and “pivot” are all-too-common phrases in entrepreneurship, but they apply in the Startup Weekend microcosm as well.
By the time teams got started working on their ideas, it was nearly Saturday. We had a team of roughly a dozen, which is larger than most, but included a good mix of developers, designers, students, and experienced entrepreneurs. Instead of building a robust pitch deck with unrealistic projections and detailed marketing plans, our team spent the next 36 hours building an actual product.
After a day that spanned 20 hours and numerous operating bases, we went to sleep with a site full of kitten image placeholders and no users.
We circled back up on Sunday, the developers hammered out some kinks, and we pitched our refined idea to a packed house. While our pitch was a bit off the cuff, it had more enthusiasm than some of the more prepared teams.
Lesson #4: The pitch is all about passion. If you are reading a set of notecards or a powerpoint presentation word-for-word, you are doing it wrong. Slide decks are great, but only if they act as an accompaniment, not the main course.
We didn’t win, but I was damn proud of what we accomplished.
While I might be in dire need of a solid hibernation, I already can’t wait until next year’s Startup Weekend. In the course of 54 hours, I saw hundreds of bright and friendly people give up a weekend of leisure (including Beerfest) to tackle big ideas and promote the Raleigh/Durham entrepreneurial scene. I experienced tons of firsts, including a plate full of spicy bulkogi served out of a food truck, pitching an idea to a crowd of 300 people, and “failing fast” when the taste of victory was still fresh. Maybe next weekend I’ll fly through some lessons on Codecademy or watch some of MIT’s Computer Science courses. Or maybe I’ll continue refining my idea of ScholarSeed. One thing is for sure though: after seeing what can be accomplished in just one weekend, I won’t be taking Saturday mornings for granted for a while.