15-year-old Nathan Eyal recently attended Tampa Startup Weekend. Despite being the youngest at the event, Nathan surprised everyone – including some who had doubted him initially – with the most successful startup at the end of the weekend. He shares his story below.
I came out of Startup Weekend standing up taller and knowing now that just because I am 15 doesn’t mean I can’t have a kick butt idea and a real business!
Sweat dripping from my forehead, I made a split-second decision to push forward toward my opponent. With my finger on the trigger, I quickly kept shooting as I dove through the air, landing behind the next bunker. The referee rushed in to check my opponent and as I watched, he signaled that I had hit my opponent and he was out. My team had won the paintball competition!
As we drove home, I sat in pure exhaustion thinking about how much I loved paintball; the tactics, the physical challenges, and the pure rush of the game. I sat there wishing there was another way to experience the same things that make me love paintball but without the long distance commutes and expensive costs of the sport . My brother and I had laser tag guns, but they didn’t register hits properly and the easy cheating took the fun out of the game (and would nearly cause WWIII between my brother and me). Airsoft had similar problems with no way to verify hits and the expense.
The search was on for a paintball style mobile application. I searched, but virtually no apps existed in this field, and the few that I found were inaccurate and impractical for real play. They used inaccurate hit detection such as shirt color which caused many false hits and wouldn’t pick up head shots or other body hits outside of the torso area.
So I went to my dad and we started brainstorming about various ways to make a practical paintball-style app. This evolved into app ideas for a real-life FPS game with many functions and game styles. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I said, “to be able to play games like Call Of Duty and Battlefield with friends in real life instead of sitting around playing video games for hours (like my friends and I often got yelled at for doing). “Go outside and play and get some exercise,” my parents would say. How could my dad resist helping me with my idea now if it would get me to do exactly what my parents always yell at me to do?!
I became obsessed with this idea and spent every waking moment outside of school working on it, except for some food and breaks and when nature called. I was lucky enough to attend a forward thinking school called the Ampersand school where the teaching method enabled me to weave my interests into my curriculum. Eventually, I had an opportunity to enter a school entrepreneurship competition set up much like the popular TV show, Shark Tank. I ended up winning my division which inspired me more to continue my pursuit of the idea. My dad was helping me when he had time outside of work, but I now needed a team that could help create a minimum viable product to test the idea further. My dad and I believed in it so much that we signed up for Startup Weekend Tampa with the goal to find a team to help us.
Friday afternoon, we reached the USF campus and started feeling the hussle and bussle of the competition with a line of cars being directed by pink-shirted college students. As we entered the hall to sign in, the atmosphere was electric. I was nervous, but very excited. Everyone is a college student or a business professional. I was by far the youngest person in the room. The fact that I have a baby face just exacerbated the problem.
As we waited for the event to kick off, I chatted with the people around me, hoping to find an app developer who may be interested in helping our cause. Wouldn’t you know it, the person to my left is a developer who graduated from Harvard, “you know, the one in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said. Luckily he wasn’t extending his bottom chin as he said it and left out the “dear boy” from his sentence. He placated me with a few words after hearing my idea, then engaged in a discussion with a competing team in the row behind us. “Guess I’m too young or too green for him,” I thought.
In the front of the room sat a poster-sized paper pad with a list numbered 1 through 30. People were signing up to present their competition ideas. We had never seen these types of presenters so we signed up for position number 25 thinking it would give me more time to fine tune the pitch by watching the others. Position 29 was open, but we were afraid they might flip the list and make the higher-numbered positions go first. That concern evaporated as the list kept growing longer. As more people signed up, the list grew to 40, then 45, before it finally wrapped up in the low 50’s.
“Welcome to Startup Weekend,” a vivacious college student announced. “This is it, we’re starting,” I said to dad. Then they put up a slide with a few bullets about what the pitch should include. This isn’t the way I rehearsed it. Watching the other presentations was like riding a roller coaster. It was entertaining, exciting, and scary. “We should change the pitch,” I told dad.” “It’s a slightly different format, but the same basic information,” he said.
As our position grew nearer, my excitement turned into nervousness. With the new format, the pitch got muddy in my head. They called our number to the line where we’d have a few more minutes before the pitch. My excitement from before now started turning into anxiety. “You know your stuff,” said dad. “Just tell them about you and your idea.”
We took the stage and the iPad timer started counting down. “I’m Nathan Eyal, and I love playing paintball,” I started. The crowd responded with some reassuring cheers and “Woohoos!” That took some of the tension off, and helped me crank through the rest of the pitch. The clock ticked down to zero and we were done. As we walked off the stage, the crowd’s cheers and applause made it sound like people really liked it. I didn’t know if it was just a nice group of people being supportive of the “little kid” or if they really liked the idea, but either way, it made me feel great.
After the initial round of cuts, we were still in! Now came the time for the various people there donating their time and talents to choose which business idea they were going to work on. Obviously, being that our idea was an app, programmers were critical to its continued development. As we sat at the table, just my dad and I, waiting and hoping a programmer would choose us, my dad said, “You know, Nathan, if we don’t get any programmers on our team, it will be impossible to make any real progress and win Startup Weekend.” I looked at him and said, “I’ll be right back.”
As he tells people, “out of only a handful of app programmers at the event, that little stinker came back with not one, but two programmers he had convinced to work on his business idea!” Once we got two programmers, three more support people ended up joining. It was a grueling weekend of hardcore work from morning till night. Seven of us brainstormed and worked on the app in the same room all weekend, only stopping for bathroom breaks and a few hours of sleep. Even meals were brought in to us so we could continue working. We only had until Sunday evening to get the Live Warfare prototype app and business model developed and tested enough for the final presentation.
Sunday evening came quickly and the team pushed for me to be the primary presenter. Matt, one of the developers, presented the two slides on the backend structure, dad presented a couple of slides on our pivots, and I presented the rest. At the third or fourth slide, I tripped up a bit, leading to a mini internal panic. I turned toward the slide pretending to address one of the points, but really trying to gather myself quickly. Soon I was back in stride and pushed through the rest of the presentation relatively comfortably.
Then came the question and answer period. I could tell my dad was eager to answer the judges questions, but I made sure to jump in since I definitely knew the answers to their questions. After the last question, we got a huge round of applause and walked off the stage to a line of high-fives from audience members sitting by the isle. What an amazing feeling of support and camaraderie!
Like most teenagers, the money and prizes were initially exciting, but the connections we made, the quality feedback we received to improve the idea, and the validation I received were worth far more than any money or prizes.
The presentations wrapped up and we waited impatiently for the results. Luckily my team members had a great sense of humor that helped ease the tension of the moment. The judges returned and started announcing the winners. When we didn’t get 3rd or 2nd place I thought, on one hand, “who would really pick a 15 year old kid’s idea over all these adults, including Harvard graduates’ ideas?” But then I thought, who wouldn’t?! Everyone in this room would want to be playing this game right now if they could. “And in first place,” the man announced…my heart pounding hoping to hear my company’s name…”Live Warfare!” We did it! We had won first place! We won some money and prizes, but mostly we won validation! Like most teenagers, the money and prizes were initially exciting, but the connections we made, the quality feedback we received to improve the idea, and the validation I received were worth far more than any money or prizes. I came out of Startup Weekend standing up taller and knowing now that just because I am 15 doesn’t mean I can’t have a kick butt idea and a real business!