Give First Wherever You Go: One Founder’s Journey from Mexico to Detroit

René Pons, co-founder of PPAP Manager, has founded a company in Mexico, run Techstars Startup Weekends across Central America, and gotten into Techstars Detroit. Everywhere he goes, René Gives First and strengthens the startup ecosystem. 

The Techstars Detroit 2019 class

In early July, a week before Techstars Detroit kicked off, TechCrunch ran an exclusive article announcing the new class of 10 companies that are, right now, enmeshed in their three month accelerator program. The article noted that the program name and focus have changed, from Techstars Mobility to Techstars Detroit: “Mobility is baked into Detroit, but Detroit is more than mobility.” The Detroit startup ecosystem is strengthening and expanding, and becoming ever more appealing to startup founders from around the world. 

Techstars has believed in Detroit through the hard times—we announced the first Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator program in Detroit the same day the city came out of bankruptcy. Ever since, Techstars has been a part of building better times for the Comeback City, helping to grow the startup ecosystem, making connections that benefit corporations and startups alike, and attracting new companies to the region.

If you’re a startup that does business with automotive or manufacturing, you need to get to Detroit.

We’re beyond excited about every one of the 10 companies in the 2019 Techstars Detroit class, but one in particular has not just a great business, but a founder who lives the Techstars value #GiveFirst, and who has been a force for startup ecosystem building for years in his native Chihuahua, Mexico: René Pons, co-founder of PPAP Manager

Safety First

First, the company: PPAP Manager is a platform to streamline the approval of packets of documents required in the automotive industry, known as PPAP (Production Part Approval Process), to validate production parts. 

There are 30,000 parts in your car, and every one of them journeyed a long distance, often passing through several sets of hands, before your vehicle arrived, shiny and new, in a dealer’s showroom. The global journey of each one of those 30,000 parts is documented by a PPAP. 

PPAPs are crucial to safe car production because they are the quality assurance for its parts. Yet today, most PPAPs are handled using spreadsheets or google docs, solutions cobbled together by individuals at different companies. They’re not fast, they’re not efficient, and worst of all, they’re not trustworthy enough for such important information. 

PPAP Manager aims to solve this problem for the global automotive industry by providing a single tool that documents parts as they go through all the many suppliers in the value chain, making these records both accessible and accurate, so that you know that the brakes on your car won’t fail. They’ve been checked. They’ve got a good PPAP tracing them back through production, assembly, and testing. 

René has started a few companies, and he got the idea for PPAP Manager from his co-founders, Vinnie Delgado and Jeefb Santos, who have worked in the auto industry for more than 24+ years altogether. They were looking for opportunities in manufacturing that would solve a defined and important problem, and had plenty of room to scale. PPAPs provided exactly the right kind of opportunity. 

“The land of opportunity for the automotive industry”

“PPAP Manager fits our investment thesis to a T,” said Ted Serbinski, Managing Director of Techstars Detroit. He saw the same opportunity that René did, loved the founding team, plus he knew what Techstars Detroit could do for the company. “PPAP Manager should be doing business in Detroit, and Techstars is the best way to make that connection,” Ted said. 

Ted’s on a mission to change entrepreneurs’ perception of doing business in Detroit, and one of his favorite techniques is to bring in entrepreneurs from all over the world—and then let the city, and the Techstars experience, speak for themselves. In five years, he’s brought 54 startups to Detroit from eight different countries—the 2019 class alone is 60% international, with founders hailing from five countries outside the U.S. 

“Detroit is the land of opportunity for the automotive industry.” —René Pons, Founder of PPAP Manager

For Ted, the message is clear: If you’re a startup that does business with automotive or manufacturing, you need to get to Detroit.

René agrees. “Detroit is the land of opportunity for the automotive industry,” he said. “There’s no better place for us to be.” René sees that more and more companies globally are trying to get standards working, and that Detroit is a great place to work with many of these global auto companies, to spread these standards quickly. René is hoping that Techstars Detroit will get PPAP Manager to a proof of concept in partnership with one or more of the program’s corporate partners—who he sees as hungry for the kind of quality assurance that his company can provide. 

Rene Pons, Founder of PPAP Manager

Power of the Network

René knows how important connections are—one aspect he values in the Techstars accelerator is its diverse corporate partners, including Lear Innovation Ventures, Ford X, AAA, Avanta Ventures, USAA, Nationwide, Honda Innovations, and PlanetM. 

He knows the importance of great connections—to other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors, as well as corporations—for helping startups grow because he’s seen this power, over and over again, as a Community Leader helping to run Techstars Startup Weekends across Central America. Since 2012, René has organized over a dozen Techstars Startup Weekends, most of them in Mexico, but also as a facilitator in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and one in Seville, Spain, when he was briefly living in Madrid and wanted to get involved in the local startup community. Two years ago, he organized six Techstar Startup Weekends at once, all in different cities, three in one weekend and three the next. He describes himself as “the crazy organizer who tries to do different stuff.” 

René loves Techstars Startup Weekends because they change how people think, and then give them the tools and connections to start putting that change into action. “The first thing we need in Latin America is to change the way we are thinking,” René said. “We don’t have enough people building or starting new companies. People need to realize that they can take control of their lives and start solving the problems that they see.”

He sees the first step as getting people to try new things—like attending a Techstars Startup Weekend—and from this experience, new entrepreneurs and new companies will grow. René is happiest when he sees the locals in a community step up and start working. As a Techstars Community Leader, he knows the formula for a Startup Weekend, and his goal is to get the event rolling in each new community, and then leave the team there to keep it going. This is how the events—and the entrepreneurial spirit they engender—spread. 

“You learn a lot by getting involved and Giving First.”— René Pons, Founder of PPAP Manager

To René, Detroit is a model for where he hopes to see Latin American cities get to, with an evolving startup ecosystem and lots of opportunity for making connections and building businesses. 

Give First Wherever You Go

And, of course, René plans to get involved in the Detroit startup ecosystem, above and beyond participating in the accelerator program. “Wherever we go, we need to get involved. I’m looking forward to knowing people and to start sharing with them and learning from them,” René said.

René lives the Techstars value Give First, and he practices it wherever he goes. “You learn a lot by getting involved and Giving First,” René said. “The connections you get from being there and sharing with the community—you cannot put a price on it.” 

How Startup Ecosystems Grow

At first glance, Chihuahua and Detroit may not seem to have much in common. But now they share René Pons, and that’s a bond that will show results, we suspect. Maybe one day soon, they’ll both be known as startup hubs—growing companies, attracting talent, and transforming their regional economies. Entrepreneurship is powerful.  

Detroit has become a place that startups want to move to. Five years ago, post-bankruptcy, Detroit was a hard sell for startups. Today the supportive startup ecosystem and the affordable cost of living make it a desirable—and smart—place to start a business. 

René and PPAP Manager have moved from Chihuahua to Detroit for the three months of the accelerator program, and René plans to get involved in the local ecosystem. It may even make good business sense to keep PPAP Manager in Detroit long term. 

But that doesn’t mean René has abandoned his home, or the Chihuahua startup ecosystem. Long term, his dream is to invest in small companies in small cities all over Mexico. “There’s lots of talent with great ideas in Mexico,” he said, “But they don’t have the money to build a prototype. At that early stage, these companies need more support.” René wants to give that support, and be an angel or seed investor who helps make this startup ecosystem go. 

Ask Chris Heivly, Techstars VP of Innovation, about how startup ecosystems develop, and he’ll tell you that “ecosystem development is all based on success through a thousand nudges.” Connectors and believers like Ted and René provide these nudges constantly, doing their part to grow their ecosystems. 

They believe that entrepreneurs create a better future, and they’re doing their part to make that better future—one PPAP, one Techstars Startup Weekend, one company, one accelerator, one city at a time.








Blockchain: Renewing Trust in Charities

By Matej Michalko, Founder and CEO of DECENT

We at DECENT are investing in educating communities about the different ways that blockchain can be leveraged to make the world a better place. For example, in 2018, we worked with Techstars to bring a Techstars Startup Weekend Decentralize to Boulder. At this 54-hour event, participants pitched ideas for how to put blockchain to use, from improving infrastructure to bringing more equity into the insurance industry. However, one area we didn’t see discussed was how blockchain can restore trust in charities. 

We all want to #GiveFirst and know that what we give is going to the right place, and blockchain can make this happen

Charities Misuse Funds, Donors Become Mistrustful

In 2010, people gave half a billion dollars to the Red Cross to support victims after a terrible earthquake in Haiti. The Red Cross claimed to provide homes for more than 130,000 people with these funds, but in 2015, Propublica and NPR reported that most of that money did not go toward helping Haitians after this disaster, and only six permanent homes had been built. Also in 2015, the New York Times reported that four cancer charities—known collectively as the Reynolds Cancer Charities—took donations of nearly $200 million intended to support cancer patients and used these funds primarily for personal expenses.

These shameful examples left the public suspicious of charities. Trust in Charities 2018, a report from the Charity Commission for England and Wales, found an average level of trust in charities at 5.5 out of 10, with 45% of respondents self-reporting that their trust in charities has decreased—a dramatic increase of 12% compared to 2016. 

Security, Transparency, Reliability

Blockchain can add much-needed security, transparency, and reliability into processes where those elements are important, like charitable giving. Here’s how:

1. Eliminate Corruption

All transactions on blockchain are available to public audit. This allows for donations to be tracked transparently, granting the donors direct information on when, how, and who handles their contributions. Users can put their trust in the fact that transactions are executed precisely as the protocol commands, removing the need for a third party. Changes to public blockchains are publicly viewable by all parties, which creates transparency, and transactions are immutable, meaning they cannot be altered or deleted. Donors want to see where the money goes and how it is used, and with blockchain, they can do exactly that.

2. Diminish Unnecessary Costs

Third-party intermediaries often eat into donations in the form of transaction fees or fees for payments. Blockchain can help charities avoid intermediaries and aggregators, and keep more money for the intended use. This can maximize the impact of the funds raised, and incentivize donors to continue supporting good causes with confidence. 

In addition, charities will no longer need to depend on institutions like banks or various government agencies that may apply shady practices while handling the donated funds.

3. Turn One-Time Donors into Repeat Donors

The online fundraising platform Charity Checkout published a 2018 report on The Future of Online Giving, and found that nearly 90% of donors would rather donate through a charity’s website than a third-party fundraising platform. The report also found that “almost half of those donating directly via a charity’s website agreed or strongly agreed that they would be more likely to give again; this is compared to just 19 percent of donors saying they would give again after using third-party fundraising platforms.”

When charities use blockchain technology and accept donations on their own websites, they’re meeting donor preferences—and increasing repeat donations. 

4. No Geographic Limitations and Real-Time Transfers

Blockchain works on an entirely decentralized basis. This means that it poses no geographic limitations for donors or charities, making cross-border payments seamless and much less expensive. Contrast this with traditional systems, like banks, which require any transferred funds to go through a single SWIFT network. A peer-to-peer-enabled system, like blockchain, can make it easy for charities to break down borders, allowing blockchain-created cryptocurrencies to be utilized from any country around the world.

Donations also take place in real time, with some of the more technologically mature blockchains being able to process upwards of thousands of transactions per second, eliminating atrocious waiting periods. This makes giving much more appealing for people who want to see their funds being received and used right away.

Re-establishing Trust Through Transparency

These are all important benefits. But the most important element for re-establishing public trust in charities is the transparency of blockchain. 

For charities, this means that donations can be released quickly and transparently to those in need. Charitable donations can be tracked within the public ledger, making it visible for anyone to see exactly how the funds are distributed. Ultimately, this protects both the donor and the charitable institution accepting the donations from manipulated transaction records and any possible sanctions. 

By utilizing cryptography and nodes which are distributed and decentralized, blockchain can ensure that these transactions are secured and immutable. By following protocols which intrinsically govern blockchain, known as smart contracts, donors are left with a sense of assurance between the trusted parties (i.e., the charity and donors). In their essence, smart contracts are fundamentally blockchain-enabled security protocols that ensure that a contract is fulfilled as per agreement. This can ensure that such contracts don’t get breached.

Matej Michalko, Founder and CEO of DECENT
Matej Michalko, Founder and CEO of DECENT

The New Kid On The Block

Blockchain is still the new kid on the block, often compared to the Internet in 1995, but it offers benefits that are hard to dismiss. The technology has experienced significant growth over just the past few years. Some charities are already taking advantage of these benefits to do good in the world, such as Alice, Humanity Token, AidCoin, and many more.

The number of blockchain charity projects is growing, and this is good for everyone: good for donors, good for people in need, and good for the charities that want to lend a helping hand. We look forward to seeing where else blockchain will solve problems and gain wide public adoption. 

After all, the internet in 1995 may not have been too impressive—but the people and companies that saw its potential went on to change the world. 








Techstars Startup Weekend Goes Small Town: The Small Town Tech Advantage

Friendly neighbors, wide open spaces, fresh air—the benefits of rural living are real. And now, with the trend toward remote working and co-working spaces strong and growing, tech companies are realizing that they can work with talented people who live anywhere, including small towns.

At Techstars, we believe you can build a great company anywhere, and we are here to support this new workforce migration. To do so, we are working with community leaders from across the States to support the first ever Techstars Startup Weekend Small Town Advantage Initiative, and we are super excited about it.

Techstars Startup Weekend is a hyper-inclusive, 54-hour event that lets you experience the highs, lows, fun, and pressure that make up life at a startup. The program is centered on action, innovation, education, and discovery. Participants give 60 second pitches of their company ideas on Friday night, and then everyone forms teams around the top ideas. The rest of the weekend is devoted to mentorship, workshops—and getting out of the building to validate ideas, develop prototypes, and finally pitch the companies on Sunday night to a panel of judges. The experience is exhilarating, exhausting, and life changing!

June 21, 2019, is the kickoff, when small towns from around the United States begin coming together to raise awareness of the untapped tech talent pipelines in their communities and to break the stereotypes around what rural communities have to offer the global economy. These community leaders want people to realize that with high-speed connectivity in their communities, there are no barriers to working remote tech roles. They’ll also be celebrating the advantages that rural areas offer, like how easy it is to get things done and cut through red tape in small communities where everyone knows, and supports, one another.

We’d like to take this opportunity to highlight to these incredible community leaders bringing Techstars Startup Weekend Small Town Advantage Initiative to life in their communities!

For the events kicking off on June 21, check out these community pages for more information and tickets:

Techstars Startup Weekend Danville, Illinois

Techstars Startup Weekend Independence, Oregon








“Everyone Is an Entrepreneur at Heart:” Community Leader Spotlight with Sean Paul Shanor

“Techstars Startup Weekend saved my life, literally!” said Synergy Space Founder and Techstars Startup Weekend Facilitator Sean Paul Shanor. It would be difficult to find a more enthusiastic advocate for these events, and he’s always willing to do whatever it takes to make another happen: “As a thank you and to spark as many as possible, I have every single weekend open to facilitate any event, anywhere on the planet. I’m in. Just ask.”

It was his mother who got Sean Paul to his first Techstars Startup Weekend (“thanks, Mom!”). After over a decade working in event operations and management, running major pro golf events around the world, Sean lost his “passion for life,” as he put it, and went home to Norway to find himself. One Friday evening, his mother kicked him out of the house, telling him, “Go to this thing called Startup Weekend. Looks like something you might enjoy.”

Catching the Startup Bug

For Sean Paul, the experience was a revelation: “First time in my life exposed to a 60-second pitch. Building websites and products in hours, not months. Brainstorming ideas and thoughts on a whiteboard. Feeling the openness and curiosity flourish. Meeting others in the same boat. Becoming aware of an entire ecosystem full of people willing to help, guide, and teach. In short, I got the startup bug. I found a new piece of myself to explore, and to this day I have never looked back.”

Ever since that first Techstars Startup Weekend, entrepreneurship has been Sean Paul’s driving force. But for him, it’s less about starting companies himself than about helping others. “I’m passionate about entrepreneurship,” Sean Paul said. “But infinitely more passionate about sharing my experiences and teaching others how they can become entrepreneurs. How anyone can be the impact they wish to be. It’s just a matter of choice.”

Living Give First

Sean Paul lives the Techstars value Give First. He segments his time in order to balance his priorities, and make sure he makes time for everything he considers most important. “I am privileged in being able to design an 80/20 balance for work,” Sean Paul explained. “80% is spent coaching individuals and teams, facilitating workshops, pitch training, and giving keynotes to inspire action—and finally, relaunching my own startup, Synergy Space. This allows me to fully volunteer 20% to help student projects and Techstars Startup Weekends.”

This is simply a response to Sean Paul’s deep belief that “everyone is an entrepreneur at heart. It’s just a matter of giving everyone a chance, teaching, and providing guidance where it’s needed the most.”

In Sean Paul’s view of humanity, “We are all entrepreneurial inside.” He sees many different ways this can play out. As he explained: “This applies to yourself as a living and breathing human, as an intrapreneur shaking up corporates positively, as a game-changing leader and cofounder. All require you to be strong on the inside, understand yourself and those around you, to listen, to learn, to fail, to get up and try again.”

And in case you were wondering whether Sean Paul might want to come to your next Techstars Startup Weekend, he said again: “I am not kidding when I say I am here for penciling-in any Techstars Startup Weekend, anywhere!”








The Compare Game For Startup Community Leaders

by Chris Heivly, Entrepreneur in Residence at Techstars

My children are all adults now (that does not mean I am done being a parent) and I am reminded of one of my pet peeves that siblings seem to do all the time. That pet peeve is complaining about what they did not get as compared to what their sibling received. I used to call it the compare game and my kids all knew that was a hot button for me and thus to not use that in any of their arguments.

I find that that the same compare game is weaseling itself back into my soul as I work with startup communities around the world. We have all seen this in the rankings of various startup communities. I too am both a victim and purveyor of this. I am sorry, I am trying to rid myself of the ploy.

One of my mantras is this: Startup communities are like children—they should never be compared.

You see, on one hand, community leaders need a way to evaluate how well they are doing. On the other hand, the same leaders get caught up in using other communities’ attributes as a marker or milestone to set up goals for their community.

I feel like I am back listening to my children again. “If Jessie got a new pair of ice skates, then I should get a new pair, too!” Never mind that her sister did not ice skate or even care that much for ice skating.

In community speak, it might sound something like this, “Columbus, Ohio has a $100M new venture fund, I should get one, too,” says every Midwest city.

I firmly believe that the source of this thinking is rooted in a very simple motivation—we don’t know how to do this, and if something works for someone else, I need to do it too. By the way, we have no idea if that action on the part of the Columbus community will do anything to help inspire more entrepreneurs or help build better companies or result in more jobs.

Startup community building is a nuanced game with a thousand small actions that hopefully conspire to create an environment where great things can happen. It’s that simple—and that complex.

Passionate about building your community? Take a much closer look at the tools, the actions, the activities that community builders are deploying, and dig in deep as to their actual efficacy. Then experiment in your own community and see what helps move your community forward.

***

Building a startup community in your city? Try organizing a Techstars Startup Weekend. All the other startup communities are doing it.








Meet a Community Leader: Greg Monterrosa, Los Angeles, CA

Who are you?

I’m Greg Monterrosa, born and raised in South-Central LA. About 10 years ago I launched a startup that outgrew me. I hired my replacement and the business is still thriving. Since then, I’ve recognized my passion for helping others get their start. It all began at a Techstars Startup Weekend, when I saw the direct impact of supporting others. Four years ago some friends and I organized the first Techstars Startup Weekend event in our community, the Conejo Valley (North Los Angeles). It changed my life. Soon after the event I booked a one way flight to France, where I found myself mentoring at four different Techstars Startup Weekends. That cemented how important it was for me to maintain a global network.

While I was away, Cal Lutheran University Center for Entrepreneurship—where we hosted our Techstars Startup Weekend—contacted me to help them bring their space to life and open its doors to community members, and Hub101 was born. I picked up a copy of Brad Feld’s book “Startup Communities,” and it’s become required reading for all staff and community leaders—it’s become our bible. Over two years we’ve grown a community of about 150 people at Hub101, and we’re continuing to foster connections that tie early stage startups into economic development and beyond.

Why do you do what you do?

I am living my purpose, which is to empower people. It’s refreshing to surround myself by inspiring doers. I can also see the impact we’re making. To date we’ve created over 50 high paying jobs. Historically, people have used funding as a metric, but our community is a bit different. We’re hyper-focused on empowering our members to seek the people they serve, their customers. It’s amazing to see the people we serve at Hub101 want to give back to the space that helped them get their start.

What’s new for greater Los Angeles?

We’re excited to bring Hub101 to other underserved communities and are working on a second location in Ventura, which was recently affected by the Thomas Fires, and we’re working on launching a third location at a major mall. We are committed to bringing startup communities to places where they don’t exist, utilizing programs like Techstars Startup Weekend and playbooks like “Startup Communities.” Recently one our community members, Beth Sidenberg, formerly a general partner at Kleiner Perkins, launched Westlake Bio Partners, a $320 million fund, to support early stage biotech companies in the area.

Any final remarks?

If you’re a Techstars Startup Weekend organizer in a rural town or a place that is struggling, please reach out to me. I’m happy to meet with you and your team to map out where you’re at, and let’s talk out how we can help your community grow. To that end, I’m also looking for a mentor myself. If you’re a community leader reading this and think you can add value to what we’re up to at Hub101 or to my personal journey I’d welcome a note. Feel free to connect with my on instagram at @GregMetro!








Beware of Building a Startup Community Fire

By Chris Heivly, Entrepreneur in Residence at Techstars

For a brief, shining moment, I was in the fire suppression business, so I know a little about fire. Fire needs three elements: spark, material, and oxygen. That is why you keep your door closed when there is a fire outside the room—don’t feed it more oxygen.

When I meet with startup community enthusiasts, we talk about the factors that seem to grow a community and the factors that seem to inhibit progress. If we could only do more of the right thing and less of the wrong things maybe we could build a little momentum.

Every community has its challenges. Some of the ones I hear are:

  • We do not have enough capital;
  • There are leaders who try and control everything;
  • I can’t find any good mentors;
  • The local corporations do not engage with startups;
  • We don’t have any breakout companies.

These are real challenges and each one plays a negative role. But here’s the thing—in itself, publicly and privately bitching about these issues also has a negative role to play. I know this is human nature. I also know we need to address the issue.

Those complaints just gave the challenges more oxygen. And now we have a bigger fire.

Negative community talk creates doubt and has a direct impact on each member of the community. At the very least we need to balance the challenge discussions with the positive milestone stories.

Are you an active member of your startup community? Find yourself spending just a little too much time whining about what you don’t have? Try and minimize those conversations, and try celebrating a few more of the advances you have made.

***

One great advance for any growing startup community is a Techstars Startup Weekend. Organize one in your city!








Community Building: More is Better—Or Is It?

By Chris Heivly, Entrepreneur in Residence at Techstars

There are many aspects of life where more is better, and as such there are many times we employ strategies to maximize the more. A few examples that many of us live by are:

  • Money
  • Customers
  • Employees
  • Priceless Art
  • Profound experiences
  • Time with loved ones
  • Goals in ice hockey (ok, maybe just me)

In terms of startup community building, there are a plethora of activities that local leaders utilize to create lift. (For clarity, I am using the word “activities” in a very broad sense.) These may include:

  • Hackathons
  • Coffee meetups (1 Million Cups)
  • Grant programs
  • Pitch competitions
  • Learn to code academies
  • Accelerators
  • Networking socials
  • Startup weekends
  • Recruitment events
  • Venture funds
  • Community blogs

The list literally goes on and on. Developing communities are first challenged to convene the various actors across the ecosystem. This has an immediate positive impact as the tribe begins to organize. Participate in this over a few months and some momentum begins to build.

As a community matures, activities naturally increase as newly motivated leaders step up and attempt to fill various voids. In many mature communities, there may be as many as two to three events every week.

I find the number, the diversity, and the cadence of these activities to be one of the critical signals as to the maturity of a community.

But beware. There is a trap that evolves in some minds that if the first handful of activities start to build some very visible momentum, then more activities would have an even larger effect. Unfortunately there is a ceiling to the number of activities and the subsequent impact.

In terms of startup community building, the more is better strategy has a very visible limit to its effectiveness. Once a critical mass of organizing these basic activities is achieved (and there are different trigger points for different communities), then the strategy should shift to building more meaningful activities.

***

Looking for a great startup community building event? Find—or organize!—a Techstars Startup Weekend in your community.








Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Interview with a Techstars Startup Weekend Winner

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.”








Life After Techstars Startup Weekend

By Margaux Joly, Techstars Customer Experience Coordinator

You’ve just finished your Techstars Startup Weekend, now it’s Monday and you’re back at work. Your backpack is still filled with post-it notes, a lean canvas template, seemingly infinite pens, and wrappers from all  the energy bars you ate last weekend to sustain yourself.

Your head is still spinning with ideas for the project you worked on from the weekend. In between your morning emails, you stand up to make a cup of coffee, and you suddenly realize that maybe you need to pivot again because the market research you did was actually pointing toward another target audience this whole time! Those people would have the purchase power to buy your product, meaning you wouldn’t need to forgo that really cool feature of the app (as you thought you might before, because it was too costly). You immediately text your Techstars Startup Weekend group the idea, they all love it, and then you realize that you’re standing up in the middle your office, completely forgetting what you were doing in the first place (you were getting coffee).

Welcome to the community! This is why we love these events so much. It takes a certain type of person to do just what you did, but the good news is at Techstars, we are those types of people and you are not alone.

Here are some tips to help you collect your thoughts and help find the next logical steps for you:

  1. Take a step back and let your mind rest

During the weekend, there is a lot going on. Your brain has just been flooded with information, criticism, and advice from the mentors and judges. You’re feeling the momentum and excitement to get started, but this can lead you to go around in circles chasing your own tail. Give yourself a couple of nights to sleep on your idea and absorb all of this feedback.

  1. Assess where you are at

If, after you’ve given it some thought, you’re still super excited to work on this, then it’s time to assess where you’re at.

Find a morning or afternoon where you can take some time by yourself, bring your favorite pens, post-it, whiteboard… and lay everything flat on the table. Where is your idea at right now? Categorize your thoughts in four ways:

  • What is your core purpose? Why are you doing this? It could be as simple as: I want to be my own boss and be in charge of the decision-making of my company. I want to create a company where parents can have a healthy work-life balance. I want to make healthcare accessible to everyone. I want to be the first company to make virtual candies… Don’t ask yourself how you are going to do this; that will come with time. If early on you can understand why you want to do this, you will always be able to hold on to that and it will guide you.
  • What makes sense? List the things you think are really strong about your idea and the things that give your stomach excited butterflies…
  • What doesn’t make sense? This can either be the things that you don’t personally understand about the idea, or the things that just don’t feel right.
  • What needs work? The ideas that have potential but have not yet been addressed.
  1. Touch base with your team

Before you come into another conversation with your team, assess what role you want to take in this project. Do you want to drive the whole thing? Do you want to focus on one area and need others to take ownership of the rest? Do you want to work with a team or would you rather do this alone?

It’s very common for a team to break up after a Techstars Startup Weekend. Sometimes it’s the whole team, sometimes it’s just one person. Whatever happens with your team, it’s okay. People come into this event with their own life story and perhaps they cannot commit to adding more work to their plate afterwards. If you have a good chat with your team, and set the right expectations, you’ll be surprised by how generous people can be with their time and how willing they are to lend a hand.

What you don’t want is to keep working on an idea, thinking you have people you can count on—when in fact you don’t.

  1. Figure out the next steps

Determine a plan of action and start building your business plan. You will constantly be revising some aspects until it is right.

Set yourself big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs), but also small achievable ones, because there is nothing more satisfying than crossing things off your list. Set different timeframes for your different goals.

Don’t be afraid to start asking yourself the hard questions: “What are your finances going to be like? What are the next legal steps you need to take to protect your idea?”

  1. Surround yourself with people who will help you

Know that you are not in this alone. It doesn’t cost anything to sit down over a coffee with someone to ask them some questions about law or money or marketing or anything else.

This is the very beginning: the moment when your startup starts. It’s exciting, scary, and absolutely wonderful. Enjoy it. And ask for lots and lots of help: no one succeeds alone.

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Find a Techstars Startup Weekend near you, and experience the highs, lows, fun, and pressure that make up life at a startup—in 54 hours.