Last Friday, more than a hundred would-be entrepreneurs got together for an annual event called Startup Weekend. The fast paced, company building workshop brings big ideas down to earth in just 54 hours. 125 participants with laptop and smartphones gather to build small, lean companies that might grow into something much bigger.
It all starts with an idea.
“I mean, this is super rough. Just how it could kind of look,” says Nick Trabue from his home office in Columbia just two days before Startup Weekend.
On a laptop, he clicks through designs for what looks like a sophisticated piece of software. It’s kind of like an online calendar, but there’s a newsfeed like Facebook. But for Trabue, it’s not just an app, it’s three months of work over nights and weekends. It’s a visual for a business pitch he’s crafted and refined. And it might be the beginning of a company that might one day allow him to leave his day job as an insurance claims processor.
“I work 9 to 5:30 and I actually have kids. So I go home and take care of them until 8. And I have to hang out with my wife every now and again, too.”
He calls the idea Same Page. It’s an application that that syncs online calendars and helps you schedule meetings. Trabue never needed an online calendar until about a year ago when he had his second child. Suddenly his life was a lot busier, and even matching up schedules with his wife was a hassle. Same Page, he says, is something that he would actually use in his daily life.
Trabue’s a graphic designer by training, so his mockups look great. They’re slick and simple, and they almost look real. Except they’re not. They’re wireframes.
“Every time someone says it looks good, I don’t see that,” Trabue says. “Even though I see it as wireframing, a lot of people see it as a polished product.”
To make it real, he’s going to needs code. Nick’s trying to learn programming right now, but it will be some time before he can build something like Same Page. He’s hoping that Startup Weekend can connect him with the software developers, designers and marketers he needs to take his idea into the real world.
And that means making a pitch.
“The pitch is the biggest part,” says Trabue. “You have about 60 seconds to paint an extremely clear picture of what it is you want to do. And at the same time, you have to get people excited because you have to get votes in order to be one of the however many projects they decide to take on.”
It’s a lot to get done in just 60 seconds, and it’s kind of the point. At it’s heart, Startup Weekend is a tournament. There’s 125 people this year, and there are two ways to get eliminated. Those who get cut at the pitch round join teams that made it.
Then, everyone works together over the weekend to build a product, usually a piece of software or an online service. Finally, on Sunday night, each team gets 5 minutes in front of the judges, most of them experienced entrepreneurs. Only three walk away with prizes.
Trabue’s not even sure what the prize is, but he badly wants to win.
“That’s something that excites me all the time,” he says. “You know, thinking about having my idea selected. Most of the teams that win they usually stick around, stick together and actually put the site out there. that's really the prize.”
The winner gets $2,000 in prizes but it’s what happens after the weekend that gets participants like Trabue excited. It’s the possibility of continuing on with the idea, of building a company, of getting funding. In short, it’s the possibility of “making it.”
This year there’s a lot of buzz about last year’s winner, a small, young company called Zapier. After the weekend, their company was accepted into the the Y-Combinator, a prestigious mentorship program that’s launched some of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley.
Only a year has passed, but this year they’ve returned as veterans of the startup process. They’re acting as one of several mentors that help the teams they approach the Sunday night deadline for presentations. But before those teams are even made, they have to pitch.
Taking the Stage
The event is held in Museao, Columbia’s main hub for tech and entrepreneurship. There’s a stage, and an eating area with enough food, drinks and caffeine to keep the participants sustained all weekend.
When Trabue takes the stage to deliver his pitch, he’s nervous, but he gets his idea out clearly and quickly.
When he steps off the stage, I ask him how it felt up there:
“It was scary,” he says. “And I changed my idea at the last minute.”
After chatting with developers before the pitch, Trabue tossed out the calendar-syncing feature in favor of message syncing. He wants to build software that can route messages from email, facebook, text messages, and everything else into a single contact method.
This stage is determined by audience vote. The crowd eliminates over half the pitches and Nick is astounded that he’s one of the few left.
“I was convinced I wasn’t going to be.” he says. “But there were a few more groups that they allowed than I expected.”
From here, things things move quickly. It’s time to form a team. The process is crude, but it works. People wander around the large room yelling things like “Looking for a team!” and “I need developers!” Somehow, the chaos settles in less than an hour. The teams start to claim space around the building, pull out their laptops, and get to work.
The Right Mix
A good tech company wants a marketer, a designer, and a software developer. But developers are in the minority and competition is tough.
“But it’s all about proportions, right?” says Royce Haynes, official facilitator for Startup Weekend. Startup Weekend is a national franchise of sorts, with similar events happening in hundreds of cities and towns around the country. The Kauffman Foundation supported non-profit sent Haynes to ensure the event goes smoothly and to provide mentorship to less experienced entrepreneurs.
“It’s always a disproportionate amount of developers, designers and non technical people. We always want to make sure we have a good balance of non technical people, designers and developers. Because if we do, it makes it a more effective startup weekend and we see more ideas that go beyond a proof of concept on demo day.”
This year’s group is over twice the size of last year’s. That means more teams, but it also means more talent, more programmers, and better products.
The Final Pitch
By time Sunday rolls around, Trabue’s come a long way. When I catch up with him, he’s pushed his chair aside and is standing over his computer like he’s unsure whether to sit or leave. He and his partner, Dave Sill, have been working up until the very last minute.
“I didn’t go to sleep last night,” he says. Museao supplied him with plenty of fuel for his all-night work sprint.
“As you can see, three monster energy drinks, a couple red bulls, some mountain dew and one meal. I actually feel pretty good all things considered. It’s adrenaline right now. I’m stoked. It’s getting really close. So I’m really excited.”
A few minutes later, Nick takes the stage by himself. He pulls up a website on the projector and delivers his pitch. There are a few stumbles, but he goes through the proof of concept and it actually works. He shows how an email can be automatically routed to a Gchat conversation live on the projector.
After the judges deliberate, Trabue and his team don’t place. The winner is Fundrunner, an app that connects runners with charity runs in their area.
“I don’t have any excuse” says Trabue. “I don’t know what happened. I got really nervous and I freaked out. And I just didn’t work very well.”
But for Trabue, winning or losing the competition might have been irrelevant. He’s proven that his idea works, and he’s got a programming partner that can help him build it out. He and his partner both have day jobs and families, but they plan to stay with the project over nights and weekends to make his idea real.
“We’re really excited to keep working on it.” says Trabue, but adds, with a laugh: “Next time, he’ll pitch.”