Last month, Techstars partnered with Levi Strauss & Co. to create a Techstars Startup Weekend exploring the Future of Retail in San Francisco where Levi Strauss is headquartered.
By bringing the fashion and tech world together, entrepreneurs explored a range of ideas from the consumer checkout experience to how retailers manage new pressure to become sustainable. Melissa Moore, one of the organizers of the event, recently sat down with the leader of the winning team from Techstars Startup Weekend Future of Retail to hear about her experience. Pam Belen, co-founder of Second Opinion, hails from a small town in the Philippines and graduated with an accounting degree. She worked as an accountant at Ernst and Young before becoming a consultant for a digital transformation agency. But she’s always had an entrepreneurial mindset.
Always an Entrepreneur
In college, Pam was inspired by meeting other students whose parents were entrepreneurs. Pam started a massage and wellness business with a classmate’s father and then a hot dog eatery when her first company failed. The hot dog business had an untimely end when Pam got scammed by a supposed landlord. She was looking for the next opportunity.
Techstars Startup Weekend
Visiting San Francisco—a.k.a. the land of entrepreneurship and innovation—Pam wanted to maximize her time and get real startup experience, so she decided to sign up for a Techstars Startup Weekend.
Every Techstars Startup Weekend follows the same pattern: participants pitch their ideas on Friday night, and then everyone volunteers to work on the most popular ideas. In just 54 hours (spread over three days), teams experience the highs, lows, fun, and pressure that make up life at a startup: learning from local mentors, finding customers, building the product, and finally presenting their brand new companies and a full-blown MVP to a panel of local startup leaders who select the Techstars Startup Weekend winner.
Pam didn’t have any ideas in mind to pitch when she arrived on Friday night. But as she was lining up, Pam thought about her own recent challenges and needs, and these provided the foundation for her pitch: when she goes out shopping, Pam often can’t decide on which outfits to buy. She’s ready to spend the money and buy clothes, but she wants a second opinion from a trusted source. Hence, the birth of Second Opinion, an app that engages micro-influencers to give real-time feedback and recommendations to customers while they’re shopping.
Success is About Team, Team, and Team
Pam credits her success at Techstars Startup Weekend to finding the right team: Maripily Alvarado, Visooda Kumar, Jeanette Jordan, and Alex Fernandez.
On Friday night, the facilitators emphasized how important it was to find the right team, but Pam didn’t realize how key the team really was until the end of the weekend—when they won first place.
“I can’t emphasize enough how well our team worked together. We each brought our individual talents to the table, and we recognized and respected each other for our different skills.” Pam says. “The high for the weekend was seeing the strengths of each team member, and working together to let each other shine.”
Pam attributes her success for recruiting such a terrific team to keeping an open mind. After everyone pitched their ideas and teams started to form, some participants came up to her and asked if she would be open to changing one or two things about the original idea she pitched. She was—and that flexibility helped her rapidly-forming team realize that this group was the right fit for them.
Challenges and Validation
To validate their product, Second Opinion took to the streets of downtown San Francisco and interviewed people on Powell Street, had them fill out surveys, and collected their emails.
They also used a key resource that’s integral to every Techstars Startup Weekend experience: mentors with tremendous startup and industry expertise. “The mentors were very helpful. They challenged our ideas,” Pam says. “They’re the domain expertise, and really helped us hone our plans: Julia Mehra [of Levi’s] was the one who tipped us off to reach influencers. Hudson Liao [of Social Marketing Science] coached us and let us know that micro-influencers have a challenging time making money.”
Not that everything went smoothly for Second Opinion: that wouldn’t be startup life. ”The low point was scrambling to hit the deadline on Sunday.” Pam says. “We were scared we wouldn’t be able to send our pitch deck in time. We pivoted on Sunday morning from focusing solely on the shopper to focusing on both the shopper and influencer.”
Quit Your Day Job
Pam quit her job the day after Techstars Startup Weekend, and four of the five original team members have committed to continue working on Second Opinion.
“Winning the new Levi’s smart jacket [first prize for the weekend] was a nice incentive. But we’re really proud that our idea got validated by industry experts, by Levi’s, and the customers,” Pam says. “We’re serious about solving this problem for customers who can’t decide when they’re shopping. We think real-time crowdsourcing is the future.”
Levi Strauss & Co., which partnered with Techstars on the Techstars Startup Weekend Future of Retail event, has reached out to schedule a meeting with Second Opinion, and the new cofounders are eager to leverage that potential partnership. Their goal is to have a product in the market in just three months.
“I’m proud of how everything came together because of teamwork,” Pam says. “There’s a saying that you attract people like you. Our team gravitated to each other because we have the same attitude and values. Ten years from now, I’ll look back to this and say: that was such a great experience.”