This post is from guest blogger Joe Gravante.
1 big idea pitched on Friday night attracted 6 developers, 4 business folks, and a designer to attempt building a product that could save lives (and make tons of money). We had a great plan in place, the technology was viable, and the team was ready to execute. By Saturday at 5pm, 6 of the team members had left the project and the rest of the team was too burnt out to pivot. A lot of things happened within that 36 hours that put us in this situation and the remaining 5 people banded together to discuss what went wrong. Here are our lessons learned:
Do thorough market research early! In any space with opportunity there are bound to be other teams trying to solve the problem. Don’t be discouraged by this, but make sure that you find out all of the players, what their solutions are, and how your solution can differentiate.
Once the project has started and the team is executing, don’t derail the team with unnecessary information. As a product manager, if you discover a product that just seems to kick your product’s ass, don’t stop the show. Take time to think through your product’s strategy and determine how to successfully alter it without grinding the team to a halt. There are bound to be ways to compete but not everyone on the team has to offer their input on how to do it. Focus on keeping the team working through the plan to meet the product goals and get creative on how to alter that plan with minimal churn.
Get an SME in the problem space on your team. Our team was lucky enough to have a person with 20+ years of experience in the health industry consult on our product. They provided more insight and guidance on our product than what we could research online. Even though our product didn’t make it out the door, this person was invaluable during the initial product design.
Build the right team to meet the goals. Even though people may be interested in working on your idea, not everyone’s individual motivations align. As a team lead, clearly communicate the goal of the team up front when selecting team members. Find out about their motivations for doing startup weekend. On our team, some people just wanted to play with new technology. Others wanted an opportunity to make an easy buck. Some wanted to build a lasting product. Some wanted to learn more about the problem space. On the surface, everyone said they wanted to help make the product a success but once the team started functioning it was clear these individual goals did not align well with delivering on the overall product goal. Make sure break down these individual motivations and use them as selection criteria for building the best team to achieve your goals.
Put decisions through the team lens. Make sure people are making decisions for team success.This may sound really obvious, but it is critical if you want the team to function at 100%. Our development team chose Python for code behind, when the only common language the team shared was .NET. We found out when problems started arising that the developer who pushed the decision was interested in learning Python that weekend and didn’t concern himself with the rest of the team. The team did not stand up against this decision and it stopped us from moving forward once that developer left the team.
Don’t duplicate roles.Each team members should have clear roles and responsibilities. More heads is not always better if the roles overlap. The energy that goes into coordination and interfacing between these roles takes away from overall team effectiveness.
Make sure that software is the right solution. Attempting a tech startup it’s easy to fall into the trap that technology is the right answer. In our case, our end users were not the most technical savvy and connected, which meant the problems we were trying to solve with software might have landed flat. Use technology for the right reasons, not because it’s cool.
Network, network, network. Even though our product didn’t make it to judging, our team fully realized the value of the people connections made during the weekend. The remaining team still meets bi–monthly as a startup group and we have frequently reached out to other teams who were at Seattle Startup Weekend for consultation. Since the remaining team had already gone through these lessons together, it has been easier for us to work together in the long run.
Failed is a harsh word – we only failed in getting our project to the pitch floor – these lessons will stick with our team and next startup weekend we will be a force to be reckoned with.
By Douglas Latimer, Director, Start Something.
Eight years ago, Facebook was a startup. Sixteen years ago Google was a research project by a couple of Stanford students. Thirty-six years ago, Apple didn’t exist.
Silicon Valley is just a little bit different than the rest of the world. Home to Adobe, Apple, eBay, Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and thousands of other high tech companies, no place on earth has quite the same environment or wealth of industry leaders. When you think of the Valley, those giants of tech and innovation come to mind quickly, and it’s hard to recall, that not long ago, they were all startups.
They all had their roots in a garage or computer lab, went through trials and tribulations and persevered. Clearly, not everyone is destined to become the next Steve Jobs, and yet, I think it’s important to remember that even the people who found their way to the top, had to start somewhere.
They started with an idea that they believed in. A passion that would not dissipate. And they never quit. They bent to the demands of the costumer and the whims of the world and gave us what we wanted. Things we ended up not knowing how we ever lived without. These leaders have helped us solve problems and enjoy life more completely.
There’s nothing quite as disheartening to me as someone uttering “someday I’m gonna ___”. Like love for Little Orphan Annie, it’s always a day away. The only way to accomplish anything in life is to simply begin. As a wise Jedi once said, “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Which leads me to what I love about Startup Weekend. Where dreams are hatched and prototypes honed. Where folks from all areas of expertise, not only tech, come together over ideas and take those first steps towards becoming companies. Where thoughts live out loud.
I love it because there are no boundaries or protocol. There is no magic formula. There are only those sparkling minds and explosive desires, these problems and problem solvers. This place where inklings are etched onto whiteboards, spun into code and leveled at the world. This garage, this lab, this room filled with people who are willing to “Start Something.”
Filming at Startup Weekend San Francisco hosted by Women 2.0, San Francisco State University’s Digital Video Intensive class put together a documentary featuring some of these dreamers and future history makers. We were inspired and amazed by the energy and passion we witnessed. We were left wide eyed in the middle of the Valley, surrounded by the Googles and Apples, and we couldn’t help but wonder: who’s next?
It just takes one idea…
* Katie Mitic (Director of Platform & Mobile Marketing, Facebook & Board Member, eBay)
* Robin Chase (Co-Founder, Zipcar)
* Leah Culver (Founder & CEO, Grove)
* Leah Busque (Founder & CPO, TaskRabbit)
* Julia Hu (Founder & CEO, LARK)
* Danielle Fong (Co-Founder & Chief Scientist, LightSail Energy)
* Cathy Edwards (Co-Founder & CTO, Chomp)
* Christina Brodbeck (Founder & CEO, TheIceBreak)
* Leslie Fine (Chief Scientist, Crowdcast)
* Shaherose Charania (Co-Founder & CEO, Women 2.0)
* More speakers to be announced!
Full speaker list and agenda at http://www.women2.org/
Who should attend?
Anyone working in technology, from corporate to mid-level startup to early-stage startups. Women 2.0 events welcome both men and women. You can even buy a conference ticket for a friend — more info below on gifting…
Key themes include:
* The fastest emerging markets – Women as technology innovators and consumers.
* Leading and launching – Managing ideas and people from concept to lift-off.
* Pitching for investment – The successes and challenges of seeking funding from investors.
* Future visions – The next generation of innovation and disruption.
* Networking – Meet the Women 2.0 community at our largest event of the year!
Buy your early bird ticket now at: http://www.women2.org/
Give someone the gift of Women 2.0 this giving season!
You can gift a conference ticket to a colleague or friend. When registering, simply put your name and info down as the ticket PURCHASER, and then fill out your lucky friend’s information as the ticket HOLDER.
You can send them a note to let them know you’re gifting them the opportunity of a lifetime to network with 800+ women in technology at Women 2.0’s biggest event of the year!
Or, forward a copy of your confirmation email along with a short note to firstname.lastname@example.org we’ll email the ticket-holder a nice note about the gifted conference ticket, and thank you for spreading the word about Women 2.0
Hope to see everyone on February 14!
— The Women 2.0 Team
Investing is never a sure thing according to those who have succeeded. If you can’t find a sure thing, the next best bet is to learn from the best practices of successful investors. Here are tips from active angel investors who have enjoyed success with some of today’s leading technology companies:
Investors Rely on Networks
Networking has always been a critical part for investing, especially for angels taking on high risk wagers in startup companies that are unknown quantities. Alan Deutschman writes in Fortune Magazine <http://money.cnn.com/
Since investors live all over the world, online networks are becoming increasingly important for investors to network together. A group such as LinkedIn’s Deal Flow Network < http://www.linkedin.com/
Look for a Strong Team
While it may be hard to figure out whether the public will catch on to a new product, investors have found that it’s much easier to evaluate the quality of the team in a company. In fact, the leadership is the only known quantity in a startup.
Ron Conway, who is most famous for investing in Google, shares <http://mashable.com/2011/10/
Investors Stay Involved
Investors know that they can’t get a good sense for the direction of a startup without becoming involved in the startup and asking hard questions. While some prefer to spread their funds in small amounts among a large number of startups, those who want to know which companies are worth additional investments will often become involved as a consultant or advisor.
Chris Sacca, a former Google employee turned investor, places a high priority on remaining involved <http://mashable.com/2011/10/
Investors Look at Salaries
Launching a business often involves dips in revenue, and a startup will only survive if it can manage expenses during this fragile time. Salaries are one item on a company’s balance sheet that catches the attention of some investors.
Peter Thiel, an investor in Facebook and LinkedIn, suggests <http://mashable.com/2011/10/
Investors Seed Multiple Ventures
Risk and failure are inevitable aspects of investing in startup companies. While the rewards can be tremendous, there is no guarantee that an investor will see that money ever again. In light of this reality, many investors explore a wide range of opportunities rather than placing all of their capital on a few companies.
Bill Clark of MicroAngel Capital Partners suggests <http://mashable.com/2011/05/
Understand the Exit Strategy
Bill Clark suggests that investors should understand the possible scenarios that may unfold in the life of a company and how failure or success relate to your investment. For example, if the company is successful and is bought, make sure you have planned for that scenario. He writes <http://mashable.com/2011/05/
Investing in a startup will involve high stakes. Even experienced investors admit they sometimes miss opportunities or lose bets they’ve made. If you’re considering a venture that involves an unknown startup company, seasoned investors have many tips to share that can cut down the potential risks you’ll face.
By Diego Saez-Gil, inBed.me Co-founder.
On June 2011, at Startup Weekend New York, the project inBed.me was born, winning 2nd prize. Last week, less than 6 months later, after enlisting a talented team, completing the product, testing it with users, incorporating the company, establishing key partnerships, bringing on board top-notch advisors and raising a significant seed round from prestigious investors, inBed.me launched to the public, generating a good press buzz and getting a promising initial traction (+10,000 visits, +1000 users in one week).
We are extremely proud of having being born in SW and of being part of this fast-growing global community. Many projects born in SW have difficulty maintaining momentum after the event. We believed that it was possible took keep moving ahead and we did it. So the guys at SW asked us to think what we consider were the things we did right during SW, and after SW, that allowed us to actually build a real company after the event. That’s why we wrote this post. We hope that this can help others “Startup Weekenders” to keep going with their project. Hopefully this way we can increase the impact of SW around the world!
But first! what is inBed.me? > inBed.me is a social booking site for Hostel travelers that allows users to connect with other travelers going to the same destinations before the trip even starts. Users can see who else will stay in each accommodation and city, and connect with them to share tips or plan activities together, and based on that, book a hostel to stay. Here a little video that explains it better!
Top 5 things that we did right on Startup Weekend:
Here are the main things that we believe (in our humble opinion) that we did right on SW, that set the foundation of our company, and helped us to actually build a company afterwards. But first, here is our actual pitch on the Demo Day of Startup Weekend NY, back in June:
1. Enlist a diverse and skill-complementary team.
We managed to assemble a group of people with really different backgrounds, and complementary skills. The diversity was fundamental in the brainstorming process, and the complementarity of skills was extremely important to be able to build a product, analyze the market, and envision the challenges of the company. Most of the original team members are still involved with the project, directly or indirectly.
2. Think BIg.
We’ve seen many teams on SW thinking that because it’s such a short time to build and launch something, it makes more sense to build a small project. Then more than a potential company, they really build a product feature (e.g. “an app that gathers all your foursquare check-ins and shows them in a cool map”). As much as it can be fun and educational to build this cool small projects, the reality is that the chances of building a company afterwards, convincing others to support you along the way, etc, are… well, small. Rather, we choose to envision a big company, with the potential to disrupt multi-billion dollar market. It sounds like something too big to build in 2 days; but everything starts with a vision. It’s free to dream, so let’s dream big!
3. Build a Minimum Viable Product
Even the biggest companies started with a really minimum product. Dropbox with a video and Groupon with a WordPress blog. You don’t have to build a super featured product, but a minimum entity with which you can start validating hypothesis about your potential customers. (More about this on the great The Lean Startup book). We created a basic version on inBed.me and were able to show it to the world. Afterwards we needed to refine it, of course, but obtaining a working prototype was really really powerful.
4. Get feedback from your target users (not other geeks)
Instead of going around and asking other geeks like us what they thought about the concept and the basic product, we were out and walked our way to actual hostels in New York, and talked with real backpackers. A part of our team spent a big part of the weekend taking feedback from them, and processing the results in cool stat charts. This was of tremendous value for us. SW it’s a great opportunity to go and get real feedback in non-scalable ways.
5. Take the most of the mentors
Generally the mentors at SW are rockstars. And they are there, during 3 full-time days, just to help you out building your company. We took the most of them, and we took their feedback very seriously. They helped us to think bigger, to make more sense in small and big things, to craft our pitch, etc. We made them feel part of the creation of the company, and as such, they helped us out, even after SW.
Top 5 things we did right after Startup Weekend:
And here are the things that we did after SW, that we consider were key to keep going and building the company.
1. Believe it!
Whether you win or not the final pitch battle on SW, next Monday you wake up, and think something like “hey! that was cool! we could actually try to push it forward”. There, many “mind-monkeys” jump saying “yo! this was just a game, in the real world it won’t happen”. We decided to believe that we could. And there, is where everything starts. If you happen to find a good team in SW, and you feel that you can actually build something meaningful together, go for it! Believe that it can happen, and it will!
2. Take part in some accelerator program to continue building-learning
Few chances are that an investor will write you a check with the results of SW (even if you won the SW Global Battle). However, a new sort of really-early-stage investor came to scene: the accelerators. Accelerators are more focused in the team than in the product or the traction, so they will consider to invest in a team right after SW. So we did, we took part in 2 accelerator programs: Startup Chile and NXTP Labs (part of Techstars Network) [More on these great experiences coming soon]. This was the perfect following step for us, because it gave us an initial funding to keep going, and the ideal environment to keep building and learning. It also helped us to surround our self with amazing people (next point).
3. Surround yourself with great people
We learnt in SW the importance of mentoring and feedback from experts, that’s why we focused in enlisting advisors and mentors really early on. We managed to get on-board experienced entrepreneurs such as Rod Cuthbert (founder of Viator Travel), Fabrice Grinda (founder of OLX and Zingy), Alec Oxenford (founder of DeRemate, DineroMail and OLX), Facundo Garreton (founder of InvertirOnline), James Haft (mentor at Techstars), etc. We also partnered with great lawyers, Dan Green from Goodwin Procter, who advised us in all the legal matters of incorporating the company and raising investment.
4. Keep the momentum growing
SW is a great kick-off pad that can create some initial momentum for your project. However you need to keep this momentum growing by adding new value to the company every week. The value addition can come in the form of team members, advisors, investors, product features, users, or simply learning. We kept in mind that the first few months were essential to really take off, and that the opportunities are urgent, se we got obsessed with keeping the momentum.
5. Launch! (even with a lot of flaws)
As Reid Hoffman (founder of Linkedin) said “if you are not embarrassed with your product at launch; then you launched too late”. The oxygen for your product will come from real users in the real world. That’s why we decided to launch to the public, less than 6 months from our starting point. Our product still have some bugs, and is really far from being what we envision. However we are already out there, learning, and making our dream a tangible reality.
We still have a huge mountain in front of us, and have a big road to ride before being able to call ourselves successful. But, as Lao-tzu said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step“. Startup Weekend was this first step for us. We dared to believe that the spark that we fired on SW were a real possibility of creating high-impact value for world. And we are hands on, making it happen. We heartily wish that more startups born out of SW across the globe generate new real companies, that create jobs, innovation and hope for the world. Thus, all together, we can change the world.
So, go ahead and find when Startup Weekend is coming to you city!
This article was originally published on VentureBeat.
By Ahmed Siddiqui, Coordinator, Startup Weekend Bay Area.
As a self-proclaimed “startup junkie,” I’ve been to just about every major tech conference. Almost every one has its own version of a “startup competition.”
TechCrunch has “Disrupt Winner,” while VentureBeat’s MobileBeat has the Tesla Award (no, you don’t win a car), and Web 2.0 has the “Startup Showcase” and “Launch Pad.” For many entrepreneurs, even being accepted to participate in one of these competitions is a dream come true. These optimists often arrive with hopes of winning the top prize, garnering media attention, and catching the eye of an investor who will swoop in and write them a 10 million dollar check.
Pinch me. Back to reality.
Having been invited to participate in many of these conferences over the past few years myself, I have come to the realization that certain types of startup concepts always do well, while others just don’t.
The key thing to consider is that these are tech conferences, so you should have something inherently “techie.” The majority of the audience members are engineers, or else marketing and sales professionals pretending to be engineers.
From my observations, stemming from the times I haven’t made a “splash,” here are three concepts that typically do well at tech conference startup competitions:
1. Programming made easy
Tools that simplify the development process are often crowd-pleasers. Last year’s Web 2.0 Launch Pad audience choice winner was RhoMobile. It is a platform where you code apps using the Rhodes framework, then deploy them as native apps to Blackberry, iPhone, and Android. Similarly, Roar Engine, won the top prize at MobileBeat 2011 in San Francisco, where its founders showcased how to build a social game in 4 minutes that could be deployed on the web and multiple mobile platforms. Many of these “build once, deploy many” tools do really well because most tech conferences attract engineers and “sales guys” looking for ways to cut down on programming time while getting on as many platforms as possible.
A mashup is something that brings a variety of different services together. For example, the audience choice winner at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York was Social Passport: a platform that combines your Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and other social media accounts. Another example of this is Shaker, the winner of TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. Shaker is part game, part Second Life, part Turntable.fm, all pulled together using your Facebook profile. These ideas do well because people can easily relate to them, and because the vast majority of people use one or more of these “mashed together” tools.
3. Fancy algorithms
People are impressed by mathematics. If your product uses statistical analysis and some logic to tell you something interesting based on simple inputs from your users, you may have a winner. Elect Next, one of the Web 2.0 Startup Showcase winners in New York, does just this. Based on information you provide about your location, stand on taxes, healthcare, foreign policy to the Elect Next website, it will help you choose the right the right political candidate. Similarly, the winner of the MobileBeat crowd favorite back in 2008 was AdMob (later acquired by Google for $750 Million), which uses an algorithm to determine the best ad placement in mobile apps. These ideas do really well because because they simplify the decision-making process.
Just for fun, here are a few concepts that are sure not to win, so avoid these if you’re truly hell-bent on snagging that coveted first prize:
- Anything related to health or education
- Concepts that claim to be the next Facebook
- Concepts that don’t have a social component: social media, social networking, social innovation, social good
Don’t be discouraged based on my “qualitative not quantitative” data analysis. If you don’t fall into the three categories above, you can still compete, and you may get selected to present, but your chances of winning the top prize will be much smaller.
Keep in mind, there are plenty of “startup success stories” that don’t revolve around winning a startup competition. For example, in 2008 VentureBeat held its first MobileBeat Startup Tesla Award. The audience choice was AdMob, but one of the “losers” was Greystripe, which also does in-app ads. Subsequently, Greystripe was acquired in April, 2011 for $75 Million.
In the end, these competitions don’t necessarily have anything to do with the future success of your company. They are merely one more opportunity to practice your pitch, build mindshare, and gain insights into how to make your concept even better. So don’t worry if you don’t win a prize — the real prize is in building a successful business.
This article was originally published on the Women2.0 blog.
By Douglas Latimer (Director, Women 2.0 Startup Weekend Documentary)
A year ago, I was in a Digital Video Intensive Class at SFSU and we wanted to do a group film project. Dave Kockbech pitched the idea of documenting Startup Weekend.
At the time, I had never heard of Startup Weekend. Dave proceeded to explain it was a bunch of hackers hunched over laptops writing code… This didn’t exactly inspire notions of a grand film in my mind.
Regardless, I decided to do some research. What I found amazed me and has continued to be a part of my life since that day.
As many of you know, Startup Weekend is a place where entrepreneurs come together to figure out ways to solve problems. It’s a place where strangers converge over like ideas and build prototypes that turn into companies. It’s a place where those with heaps of experience and those with little meet to discover if they have what it takes to leap off the proverbial cliff. In short, it’s a room filled with people who want to change the world.
It sounds trite, though it probably shouldn’t, I’m here because I want to change the world. Yet, in interview after interview, the participants, the leaders of Startup Weekend and Women 2.0, heck, even the vendors bringing coffee kept repeating the sentiment again and again. I’m here because I want to change the world.
And they are. Idea by idea, byte by byte, they are devoting their time to solving the problems that plague us all. And beyond that, they are creating a new model for survival in these strange economic times. Don’t have a job, create one.
At last year’s Women 2.0 Startup Weekend, we witnessed women figuring out how to use mobile technology to help improve the lives of women on the other side of the world whom they will probably never meet.
We saw bright young minds tackle issues as diverse as personal health to note taking. They discussed collaborative consumption, and how to reconnect people locally through social networks. They re-imagined travel and advertising and resumes and college funding and campaign contributions and on and on … and we attempted to capture it all and when it was all said and done we were left completely blown away.
Here was a world, a place, where folks came together honestly and participated with wide eyed enthusiasm, wondering what they could make better, and how. They occupied a spot inside us all, where passion can’t be contained and ideas must be vetted.
They challenged and inspired and like a lot of folks in the startup space, Dave and I were hooked. Here was where the hard work paid off, this place where everything seems possible.
This story is so much bigger than one team or one weekend, and yet, like every great idea, it must start somewhere. For us, as we continue to work with startups and tell a more complete tale, it started here with a crew of twenty and a budget that costs more to mention than it’s worth in dollars.
We began with a handful of students that had only recently learned how to set up lights. We drew on significant support from our community through Kickstarter, donated equipment and free labor. We arrived at Startup Weekend Silicon Valley hosted by Women 2.0 and pointed our cameras not sure what we expected to find. But what we found, changed my life. Simply knowing what was out there, what could happen, what was happening and knowing we could be a part of making it all more visible, has become my passion, my pain point.
We put together a documentary “Start Something“, shedding some light on a few teams that were at Startup Weekend last year, and we had some success. We hope you enjoy our work. And we encourage you to keep dreaming.
It just takes one idea…
Microsoft’s Kinect Accelerator, a program created to incubate startups building the next generation of innovative experiences for the Kinect, is accepting applications now through January 25, 2012. Companies selected will be notified and receive offers on or before February 17, 2012.
Xbox 360 and Kinect have changed the way we interact with games, TV, media and applications. And the “Kinect Effect” has been felt beyond the living room in industries from healthcare to retail, education to automotive and more. If you are a group of developers or an existing team/startup committed to build a business that takes advantage of the booming Kinect ecosystem, there is no better resource in the world than the Kinect Accelerator.
Following a competitive screening process, ten finalists will be chosen for this unique three month incubation program running from March to May, 2012 in Seattle, WA. Microsoft’s Kinect Accelerator is powered by Techstars, a leading accelerator program in the U.S., and will utilize the proven mentor-driven methodology pioneered by this group. Mentors include experts from Microsoft, industry influentials and investors who will be intensely focused on making the chosen companies successful moving forward.
Applications for the Kinect Accelerator are now being accepted at http://KinectAccelerator.com and any startup worldwide can apply, provided that they meet the requirements of the program. If accepted, each company will receive an equity investment of $20,000 from Techstars in exchange for six percent common equity. While Microsoft is putting significant effort into the accelerator program, Microsoft will not retain intellectual property or equity in any of the participating companies.
The companies will also interact with and have access to mentors during the course of the program including Microsoft executives, entrepreneurs, industry influencers and researchers. The goal is to help new startups develop both the technology around their Kinect experience as well as the business model so the resulting company can prosper as an independent entity after the program. Just some of the mentors are:
- David Cohen, Founder/CEO, Techstars
- Jeff Powers, Founder, Occipital
- Andrew Tschesnok, Founder, Organic Motion
- Manu Kumar, Investor, K-9 Ventures
- Eran Egozy, Founder and CTO, Harmonix
- Eric Norlin, Organizer, Blur, Defrag, and Glue conferences
- Jason Mendelson, Managing Director, Foundry Group,
- Brad Feld, Managing Director, Foundry Group
And from Microsoft:
- Dan’l Lewin, Corporate VP, Strategic and Emerging Business Development
- Craig Eisler, General Manager, Kinect for Windows
- Anoop Gupta, Distinguished Scientist, Microsoft Research
- Michael Mott, General Manager, Microsoft Games Studios
- Rick Martinez, Executive Producer, Microsoft Studios
- Dave Drach, Managing Director, Emerging Business Team
- Adam Isgreen, Creative Director, Microsoft Studios
- Jeff Matsushita, Executive Producer, Microsoft Studios,
- Rhys Dekle, Director, Business Development, Microsoft Studios
David Malcolm, former Microsoft executive and current Techstars mentor, will be the Managing Director of the Kinect Accelerator.
This article was written by Katie Fehrenbacher and published on GigaOM.
There are far more cell phones in India than there is access to sanitary toilets — about 600 million out of 1.2 billion Indians have ready access to a clean bathroom, while 800 million Indianshave cell phones. That rather shocking stat, was an a-ha moment for Swapnil Chaturvedi, an entrepreneur who has been working on sanitation projects in India’s slums and who was looking for an idea to help him reach many more millions of Indians with clean toilets.
Chaturvedi’s idea is the awesomely-named Poop Rewards, a startup that creates an incentive program using cell phone talk minutes and other prizes to convince Indians that don’t have easy access to toilets to use designated public toilets in their area. These cell phone users are extremely price sensitive, explained Chaturvedi to me in an interview after winning first prize at the business competition Startup Weekend Delhi, and he thinks this demographic will be willing to change their behavior (or use a public toilet) to save a little bit of money or earn free cell phone talk time.
How it works
With a phone company as a partner, more public toilets could be built in the necessary areas — the U.N. estimates it only costs $300 for a low-cost toilet — and cell phone companies can use the rewards program to retain low-price conscious customers and provide a public service, which can also help with loyalty.
The Indian cell phone market is becoming increasingly commoditized and Indian cell phone companies are struggling to find ways to end churn (customers hopping to the next cheaper cell phone carrier offering a deal). Chaturvedi says carriers like Airtel spend a significant amount of money just trying to keep its customers from leaving for a competitor. In the same way that the airline industry was saved by rewards programs that gave free miles to loyal users, cell phone companies can create rewards programs around sanitation that can also give back to the community, says Chaturvedi.
Down the road, Chaturvedi envisions the program could be an open source tool that local entrepreneurs in developing areas can use to create their own Poop Rewards programs with carriers. But Chaturvedi is still just figuring out his business model, he tells me.
Development of an idea
Like all good entrepreneurs, Chaturvedi has pivoted a bit on his original ideas. He had been working on a type of toilet that could convert human waste into electricity, and he’d received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work on that. But after going over the math, he kept realizing he was only going to be able to reach a very small population relative to the problem because the project required funding and lacked incentives. His new idea, Poop Rewards, could potentially work with the waste-to-fuel toilet, but it is more focused overall on just boosting a sanitation network.
Chaturvedi hopes to start a pilot project with a test toilet and user group in the coming months (Airtel is really interested, he says). Make way for the Poop franchise. Though, yes, there are a bunch of hurdles ahead, like convincing a carrier for a deal, and launching a program that does actually produce a behavior change.
Along the way no doubt he’ll need some funding, and most of the startups at Startup Weekend Delhi were looking for funds. At the end of Chaturvedi’s pitch, angel investor Dave McClure (see disclosure below) told Chaturvedi that his pitch was the best of the day and that he is interested in potentially funding the project.
If you’re still not getting the problem he’s trying to solve, think on these two things: poor sanitation leads to increased sickness and death from water borne diseases. It’s also time consuming to have to go search for a somewhat private place for a bathroom break, and this is particularly burdensome for women.
Poop Rewards’ cute/weird/funny name also stood out from the beginning of the Startup Weekend event compared to many of the other teams that went with confusing or boring names. While sometimes funny names can be gimmicky, they’ll always at least gain attention and turn heads, and a little attention is usually a good thing in an elevator pitch session.