Startup Weekend, Day 2: Fashion Bloggers and Bomb Threats

A mild hiccup Saturday at Startup Weekend: A man who'd apparently arrived to heckle the aspirant entrepreneurs had sent a bomb threat via Twitter after being quietly ejected from the building earlier in the day.

Amid brief protective police presence—six officers, three cars—the 17 teams doggedly kept building their products in the various rooms, cubbies and cubes of the Portland State Business Accelerator building, but only after multiple attendees asked whether they could carry handguns in the building. (Note: They couldn't.)

The day, after opening night, as it unfolded:

12:30 pm: The startup Shop My Pins is a little bit worried. They don't know whether what they want to do is legal.

The concept for the startup, as presented by Vanessa Van Petten is a fairly simple one: she wants to be able to link the sumptuous, aspirational pictures of shoes, dresses and couches that countless women post on Pinterest to actual products that can be bought  from webstores. This concept apparently stemmed from her own frustration. Repeatedly, when she tried a picture of a pair of shoes or dress, the picture tended to link only to itself, or to a dead site. This meant she had to go through considerable hoops to find the actual shoes in question.

So the team of marketers, software developers and designers knows what it wants: an object-recognition search engine that could ferret out these products on the pages of websites (whether Amazon, Target or maybe even craigslist) that are actually selling them. What they don't know is whether the tool they want to build is strictly kosher with the Pinterest people's terms of service.

Specifically, they didn't know whether using the pictures on Pinterest to link people to commercial sites would constitute a forbidden "commercial use" of the materials on the site. Christine Uri, a Startup Weekend mentor from sponsor law firm TonkonTorp, was on hand with legal advice.

"This is more about the reproduction of visual images," she says, pointing to one clause.

Pointing to another, she says, "User is the person pinning. You're not the user here."

"This," she says, pointing to another clause, "is wiggle room legal staff always likes to put in, but I wouldn't call it a stop block."

The upshot? As long as users are entering the pictures onto Shop My Pins' site themselves, and as long as Shop My Pins isn't aggressively pushing users from the Pinterest site to their own, what they want to do is pretty much fair play.


1:30 pm: Checking in with the Shop My Pins software developers. "Any significant roadblocks?" I ask.

"Oh, Just having problems using the API to get results." In layperson's terms, this means the search engine doesn't work.

"Nothing serious," says the developer.


2:30 pm: Game it Up, another group looking to start video game coding classes for local kids, has asked for help figuring out how to get a press release together. Somehow I have become the expert on this, and so I am brought in for questioning.

When I'm done explaining, the group's leader says, "So we're probably not going to want to send a press release anytime soon."

"Probably not," I tell her.


3:00 pm: Van Petten and the Shop My Pins team is looking to enlist fashion bloggers—opinion leaders in the world of shopaholics and Pinterest fans—in their marketing efforts, so a phone call is made to "Becki S." of local fashion blog Shopping is My Cardio.

"Would they be irritated," Van Petten asks, "If we sent them messages to their Pinterest, Facebook, and e-mail, would that annoy them?

"Yes," says Becki.

She then adds, "Pick two of those, and reference the other message when you e-mail them so they know you're not spam."


3:30 pm: Checking in with the software developers: "Does it work yet?"

"Not really."


"But we've got a lot done on the back end."


4:30 pm: The problem, as Van Petten sees it, is how to seem human. She wants to write the fashion bloggers without her message appearing to be the spit-out byproduct of a bot mass mailer. But of course, this is the difficulty: in a world of bots and sold e-mail lists, anything that sells anything is spam to its recipient, even if it feels to the business like a personal plea.

"If it weren't for the spammers," says Van Petten.

"Which," she adds, smiling, "is not at all what we're doing."


5:00 pm: The bomb scare that wasn't. 

The night previous, during the budding entrepreneurs' 60-second pitches, a shambling man in a suit had—rather than pitch a business—issued a strange manifesto involving a copy of Don Quixote that he had uploaded to his website. "Think about what you're leaving behind for your grandchildren," he said. "How many of these products you're making will be here in a hundred years? I want you to think about that."

Earlier this morning, the man was quietly escorted out by police after previously refusing to leave; he had been asked to leave in part because he didn't want to take part in any of the teams' activities.

Later in the day, the man allegedly  sent multiple threatening messages via Twitter, tagged to the Startup Weekend Twitter account, referencing guns and explosions (these posts have since all been removed.) So at 5 pm, the police cars. The policemen. The emergency meeting informing everyone that if they felt unsafe, their money would be refunded, and that the organization would look into private security if necessary and that the doors would all be kept locked.

The man, of course, never surfaced, and his Twitter posts descended harmlessly into vague threats that he would blog negatively about the event.  

5:30 pm: Everybody's back at work. It never happened.

6:00 pm: Checking in with the software developers: "Any luck?"

"We found some work-arounds."

The product will not be ready today, however, because one of the developers is departing to play in a rock band before returning to work late in the night. But by noon tomorrow, they expect a search engine, a mere 27 hours after the developers started their work.

8:30 pm: The teams are still working, beer-fueled, but they have worn me out. Shop My Pins, in a slight holding pattern on the business side as the software developers iron out the kinks, prepares its presentation for the judging ceremony to be held tomorrow evening. They will likely be here until the organizers kick them out at 11:30 pm. But as for me, I shuffle gently home. To be continued, tomorrow.


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