“Hello, my name is Brent Baumgartner and-“
What the heck am I doing? I thought to myself. There I was, an 18 year old wearing a clip-on tie that I had borrowed from a friend after a last minute epiphany that I had no ties in my dorm room. Across from me sat the CEO of Vonage and four other incredibly successful entrepreneurs, hands folded and leaning forward with expectation. I fumbled for words for a moment, feeling more and more like a deer in headlights.
At this point, I’d like to pause the story for a second and look back on where I was coming from.
Three months ago, I was a typical high school graduate. I did my fair share of bumming around while waiting for college to start. I was looking forward to the surprises and new experiences that college would bring, but never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be starting my own company in a little less than 3 months. I loved computers and developing software, sure, but I always envisioned the software entrepreneur as a super hero who won over the people of the world using only his superior intellect and black turtle neck sweater. I could never be one of the chosen ones, an ubermensch who rose above and became a businessman in his own right.
When I got to college, I heard about an intriguing event called Startup Weekend Charlottesville. Thinking it was a glorified hackathon, I paid the $99 and signed up. Upon entering the room, I felt very very small. It seemed like everyone had a plan, everyone had a winning pitch to give, everyone had more experience than I did. I had no plan, no pitch to give, and a little under four years of experience coding and designing applications under my belt.
The weekend kicked off with a talk on product design and strategy by a vibrant and exciting speaker named Stephanie Hay. At this point, I got very excited. Startup Weekend, it turns out, isn’t just a hackathon. It’s a call for a paradigm shift among tech startups. It’s the question, “So what?” Over the next 54 hours, I was hammered with a wave of frustrating “So whats?”
“So what if you have a cool product and a big feature set? What’s your plan of adoption, where’s your user validation, where are your revenue streams?”
Creating a successful startup isn’t about having a cool product loaded with the newest gadgets and gizmos. It’s about creating a product that people will use by eliminating the guesswork and theoretical claims. Instead of just saying, “I think users will love this feature,” we were challenged to go and find out if users would actually love that feature by asking the users themselves.
Instead of claiming that businesses would pay $50/month to use our product, we were challenged to go directly to the businesses and ask them what they would pay. In our case, we found out we could charge about 4 times what we had anticipated for our product. Not a bad return for a couple conversations with customers.
I could go on and on about everything that I learned at Startup Weekend. The art of the pitch, how to present an idea, lean, action-based product development… looking back I can’t help but wonder how I thought a product was developed before this weekend. All of the learning experiences aside, my favorite part about Startup Weekend was the personal growth that came out of it. I walked into Startup Weekend as an unfocused college kid who had some ideas but didn’t know what to do with them. I walked out of Startup Weekend as a budding entrepreneur with a few key shifts in attitude:
First, there is no door not worth opening. 80% of success is just showing up and working hard.
Second, there’s no sense in treating anyone as any more or less than an equal. The successful CEOs and managing partners who formed our coaching panel were older than me and had done well in life, but under all their accolades and achievements they were still humans. The moment I stopped being intimidated and started interacting with them, I found that they had some awesome insights that ultimately shaped where we went with our product.
Third, yes you can. My team ended up radically shifting our product focus on Saturday afternoon, 2 hours before I had to leave early for an engagement I had previously committed to. At that point, looking at where the other 9 teams were, I figured there was no way that we had a shot at even placing. It was tempting to just give up and walk away. I’m very happy I didn’t, as Sunday afternoon, after pitching our idea to the judges using a presentation we had created 30 minutes beforehand, my team’s concept, “Bocal,” was named the second place winner.
Fast forward a month, back to the Vonage presentation.
I took a sip of water, stood tall, and jumped confidently right into my pitch. One 15 minute presentation and 17 hours of nervous waiting later, I stood on the podium as the first place winner of the Vonage competition at OpenGrounds and the proud owner of a $15,000 check, courtesy of Vonage.
The concept that won the Vonage competition, Attendr, is an application which allows people who go to events to share content with other attendees and take part in discussions about the event. We want event attendees to be participants in the event, not merely observers. The intro to an article by UVA Today does a good job summing up our vision for Attendr:
“A visitor to a museum fires off a quick message asking for recommendations of the best exhibits to visit in under an hour. At a conference, dozens of audience members share reactions to a presentation. At a college football game, fans share video clips from the sidelines and tips on which bathrooms have the shortest lines.”
When I asked Vonage Chief Executive Officer Marc Lefar why the judges chose Attendr, he said that the concept as developed and presented “identified and evaluated a meaningful consumer need with a significant market opportunity. It exhibits a unique solution that not only solves the problem, but builds upon behaviors that people already demonstrate, which helps increase the chance of adoption.”
Attendr has a small but robust team, currently comprised of myself, a talented software engineer at RIT, and a graduate student at the Darden School of Business at UVA, with the guidance of an experienced mentor from Vonage. Our next steps are to build out Attendr and apply to the Microsoft Imagine Cup in April.
To follow Attendr’s progress, sign up for updates at our launch site and follow us on Twitter at @attendr.
I’m absolutely confident none of this would have happened without the valuable lessons that I learned at Startup Weekend. It was a life-changing experience that reshaped my career goals and redefined what I thought I was capable of doing. I’m determined to keep opening doors, keep confident, and rest in the knowledge that yes, I can. I’m excited to see what the future holds for my post-Startup Weekend self.