the primary things that seems to characterize the business startup community—and
this should probably come as no surprise—is the generalized optimism of the
Immix and Keen Healthcare founder Jerry Carleton, in a speech to the assembled crowd at Startup Weekend on Sunday, told any would-be entrepreneurs that if they want to succeed, they can’t leave themselves an escape hatch: They have to be all in or their business won’t work.
Talking to WW, Cloudability founder (and Startup Weekend judge) Mat Ellis said much the same thing. “You have to burn all the boats,” he said.Of the quality of the companies presented at the judging ceremony, Ellis said, "They pose well for the city. I seem to have landed in a dot-com renaissance.”
Of course, a large number of new ventures do fail. The ebullient optimism and occasional wide-eyed, caffeine-fueled, mildly damaged glee surrounding the Startup Weekend event give people the notion that eventually—if possibly only on the fifth or sixth try, after 70-hour weeks and “spitballing” sessions and “strategic pivots”—lightning will strike. It is indeed a sort of faith, with all faith’s simple foolishness and resilience.
Day Three of Startup Weekend, with all its wind-ups:
12:00 pm: In the Shop My Pins war room, the mood is pretty good. Vanessa Van Petten, the incipient company’s founder, tells me, “We’ve got a product!” The developers had worked until four in the morning the night before, and by 9 am they had something that worked.
If users clicked on a little “bookmarklet”—an application button housed on a browser’s bookmark bar—they could click on any of the various pictures posted by users to Pinterest’s website and be re-directed to a page where they could buy the item featured in that picture.
Van Petten asked if she’d be able to ship this product for consumer validation. This gave the software developer pause.
“We don’t really want anybody installing this yet,” he said.2:00 pm: “That’s the future,” Van Petten is saying to a pair of mentors from the Startup Weekend crew who’ve stopped by to probe the team about how their (5-hour-old) product is doing.
“That’s the future,” Van Petten says.
3:00 pm: The Shop My Pins product is now version 2.0, or 1.1, or 1.1201b, or whatever numbering system one wants to choose. The developers have put forward a new screen that allows for easier comparison shopping among the products.
If what they’d had before was a “minimum viable product”, what do they have now, they wonder? A “refined viable product,” perhaps? The words file into the PowerPoint. Presentations to judges will be happening in a mere three hours.
The team sets the computer to record their actions and then goes through multiple run-throughs of a recorded product demonstration until they get what they want. Unsurprisingly, the internet at this place is taxed to its limit. “There’s too much lag,” Van Petten says. “Let’s do it again.
4:00 pm: Three young girls, aged somewhere in the range between twelve and fifteen, are prowling the halls. They seem clearly to know the turf.
"This is my favorite part,” says one, pointing to the vast coolers full of soda and Red Bull and fruity caffeine drinks. “If you get here early enough, you get the good stuff.”
Two of the girls are ensconced in the dramas of the moment. “If your mom’s project didn’t get picked,” one asks, “then why’s she still here?”
“She’s working on one of the other projects.”
“So she just missed it by one vote?”
“She needed nine.”
Ten minutes later, when I passed them again in the hallway, they were still discussing the logistics of getting start-up companies into the project stage.
4:45 pm: I peek at the Shop My Pins team’s “Wish List” for the website. It’s pretty long.
7:00 pm: Showtime. The 17 teams are lined up for what will be nearly three hours of presentations to the judges. Five minutes are allotted for the presentation, and three minutes for a brief question-and-answer session in which the judges will poke and prod their business model for softness.
Given that most of these startups were mere seed ideas precisely 48 hours before, in many cases it is surprising how mature the business concepts had become. Game It Up, a venture meant to start video game coding camps for kids 6-12, had already been on the horn with Nintendo, Electronic Arts and IBM. All of them had declared at least some degree of interest in the project.
The team from exBEERience (formerly BeerTuner or BeerHunter, depending on whom you talked to) handed out beers to the judges and crowd during their presentation. The team from Pink Grenade gave a demonstration involving a fake mugger. They had designed a panic-button phone app, complete with warning lights and siren, that would take and automatically offload a picture of would-be assailants in order to protect potential victims. They had already submitted it to Apple’s app store, they said.
The team from code chops, a group of software developers, had a simple business model. “We’re writing a bunch of apps for Microsoft phones.” They’d already completed two from start to finish, including a game app called Johnny’s Airship and an app for NASA images. “Did you do any customer validation?” one of the judges asked.
“We did not do any customer validation,” the presenter said, with a look of absolute triumph on his face.
The obvious crowd favorite was HashTraffic, a company and program developed by a fifteen-year-old high school student, Jackson Gariety, who with his exuberant, articulate showmanship, recalls more than anything the hustling Max Fischer from the film Rushmore. The company's program essentially uses Twitter’s hashtag (#hashtags, #twitter, #geekery) concept but expanded it to the web as a whole—allowing Wordpress blogs and presumably other websites—to link to sites with related topics. At the end of the young man’s presentation, he received an extended standing ovation from the crowd.
10:30 pm: The results are in. Various awards (iPads, trips to open-source software conferences) are handed out to various corners for general ass-kicking, for best bribe, or for individual excellence in business or software development.
But the big ones—the ones that come with money and a free month’s stay in the Portland Incubator building, and in some cases with $1000 worth of free business consulting—are as follows:
Outstanding Customer Validation: Game It Up (game coding camps for kids)
Outstanding Execution: HashTraffic (cross-platform hashtag maker, 15-year old wunderkind)
All-Around Winner: Shop My Pins (image-search shopping platform)
So some of these companies, perhaps, we’ll be seeing again. At the very least, they’re living rent-free for a while.