The following is a guest post by Laura Winger. She attended Startup Weekend in Orange County and has written one of the most complete recaps of her time that we have ever seen. Great read!
I arrived in Orange after a grueling 6 hour drive from Phoenix. I found one of the parking garages indicated on the map I had printed out, along with my parking pass, and quickly found my way to the business school building. I was on time, although I would have been here a few minutes earlier had I not missed those two turns where my GPS told me the wrong direction. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going once I was in the building, but soon spotted a sign saying, “Startup Weekend 4th Floor”. I took the elevator to the top floor and made my way towards the noise. I signed in and started looking around; these are all my potential partners, in whatever project I end up working on. I introduced myself to half a dozen people, getting to know them a bit before moving on. There was some dinner provided, but who could eat at a time like this? While the networking was going on, people were also signing up to do the 60-second pitches. I signed up pretty early on, not knowing if they were going to cut it off or not.
Before the pitches started, we had an ice-breaker activity called half-baked. It was actually quite fun, you know, for being an ice breaker and all. We started by forming random groups, then shouting out random words, mostly adjectives and nouns, as two of the organizers frantically tried to write all those words down on a whiteboard. A couple of my words got up there, including “shirtless”. Then each of 14 teams sent a representative up to the board to claim three of the words, and brought those back to the team. I was elected to choose the words for team 14, and they encouraged me to choose my own “shirtless”. So I ended up with that and “ironic” and “unicorn”. I thought they were great, until I heard the next step – develop a company idea and pitch it to the rest of the event, using those words. We started brainstorming and quickly got to a costuming company for niche conventions, Halloween and other fantasy dress-up occasions. “Be shirtless today, be fabulous tomorrow.” Then, just to keep us on our toes, the moderator asked our team (team 14) to start, and we worked backwards around the room pitching the ridiculous ideas. Some of them were really creative, like the Dirty Octopus night club, where you walk in with two legs, and walk out with eight. Some of them were just absurd, like the bazooka pizza delivery system which shot pizzas at you when you ordered. Then there was the Bazooka Stripper company, which was more of a prostitution service, but you get rated on how well you perform, so the next time, you will either get a bad stripper or a Bazooka Stripper. It was really quite a riot.
We had 60 pitches, each one minute long. That’s a lot of potentially great ideas, and a lot of data to learn and remember in a one-hour time span.
My idea was for an app called SunSpot that would allow you to, based on geographic location and time of day, determine the optimal angle to park your car at, so as to fully utilize the windshield shade at the front of your car. I had developed the pitch a couple weeks ago, and practiced it for about an hour on the drive to the event. Most of my drive I spent listening to the second book in the Hunger Games series, and only spent a little time listening to music. As I got closer to the event, I saw a bright shooting star fall from the sky, and I made a wish.
My pitch went well; I can’t say it was exactly as planned, but the first part actually went better than I expected – somehow in the heat of the moment, I re-phrased one of my sentences to be so much better than the awkward sentence I had been practicing. Even immediately after, I couldn’t remember what I said that I liked so much better than what I had practiced – and I still can’t recall it. I was pretty happy with my performance, having stayed within the confines of 60 seconds and delivering all the relevant information. And I honestly think my idea was the most unique idea. A lot of the other ideas are around event planning, new forms of online dating (both of which are just improvements on something that exists rather than fresh new ideas), and, of all things, online gaming. I guess the gaming thing is to be expected from this type of crowd – hackers, programmers, developers, and otherwise geeky individuals tend to align with the gamer profile as well. Some people talked a lot about themselves, some sounded like they were about to launch a 10 minute presentation, and were cut off. Regardless, everyone was applauded and shown respect – so this place has the good vibe I was expecting.
Each person that pitched an idea was given a big sheet of paper with the name of their idea on it, to post on the wall or somewhere in the room where people could see it. I found it hard to concentrate on what the other ideas were after I had pitched. My mind was wandering, and we were asked to write something about our idea below the title, so I was kind of multi-tasking, too. I probably caught one in three ideas afterwards; it had been a long day and I still had a lot ahead of me.
The last person to pitch was a last-minute add on, and he joked that he hadn’t won the big Mega Millions jackpot that had everyone abuzz, so he needed a plan B. That reminded me of my stop at the gas station earlier; I had to go in to the store to get water, and I had been toying with the idea of buying a few lottery tickets for myself anyways. In fact, I had sat down with my computer Thursday night to play with the numbers, and developed a somewhat scientific approach to picking the numbers. Of course, if it were that easy someone would have figured it out, but any edge on the 1 in bajillion chances of winning big is better, in my opinion, than a random guess. And by the way, a random guess is statistically more probable than a personally meaningful set of numbers, so I was putting myself at risk in that way. When I walked into the store of the gas station, there was a line wrapped around the store, almost entirely made up of lottery ticket buyers. I made a trip to the ladies’ room first, and then grabbed my lottery sheet and filled it out, side-by-side with another lady trying to decipher how it worked. We joined the line and chatted pleasantly, and came to find out that almost everyone in that line was a newbie to lottery playing – this record-breaking jackpot stirred non-players to give it a shot, on a big scale, myself included. And I’m sure each and every one of us had at least given some thought to what we would do with the money, should it actually be us. As for me, I was thinking which startup idea I would fund first… but now it was too late to check my numbers, it was time to launch a startup.
Now that the pitches were over, the mass chaos set in, and that too, was what I was expecting. The idea-pitchers were trying to recruit people and garner votes for their ideas. We were each given 3 post-its which served as our voting mechanism, and placed the post-its on the large sheets representing the ideas we wanted to vote for. It was fantastically frantic. Before long, it was clear I was either not aggressive enough, or my idea wasn’t well received, or something, because I was getting no votes. In retrospect, I presume maybe the idea just wasn’t big enough for the ambitions of the people in the room; I had intentionally pitched a small idea that could be fully produced in the 54 hour timeframe. Most of the other ideas were trying to solve much larger problems and generate abundant revenue, and mine would not be a big moneymaker. I didn’t vote for my own, by the way, because I didn’t want to pursue my own idea if I wasn’t going to have a good team behind it. Ironically, I voted for ideas that I didn’t necessarily want to work on myself. So I started looking around the room to consider which teams I would want to join, and I asked a few people to remind me of what their idea was. I based the decision on the person and the idea, assuming I could contribute something to any team. I approached Dr. Mike, who was pitching a service akin to a dating service, which I actually liked quite a bit. We agreed to be partners and we started looking for developers.
Oh, I should mention that this whole event is being rigorously filmed for a potential pilot TV episode. So while I was talking with Dr. Mike, I had my first close-up (other than my pitch) in which the camera crew zoomed in and microphoned our conversation. While I wandered around looking for people with that green sticker indicating they were programmers, camera crews were everywhere, with their giant microphone poles, cameras and interviewers, making it even more crowded and more difficult to maneuver around. I was interviewed twice by two different camera crews. It was difficult to talk into the camera; I kept looking to the guy on the side as if for validation. It was also hard to hear in the chaos, so I wasn’t sure if I was answering the right questions. I guess they got what they wanted out of me, and released me back into the havoc of recruiting.
After A LOT of effort on recruiting, I started to realize the game had changed, or perhaps it never was what I originally thought it was. There is an apparent shortage of web and mobile app developers – supply and demand kicked in – suddenly those developers were the most sought-after commodity, and it was hard to imagine a group without one. Groups with developers looked promising, groups without developers were without team members, too. Our little group of two grew to four finally, one person being a developer, so Dr. Mike and I were pretty ecstatic. We hugged and went to get our stuff together to set up shop. I got pulled aside by one guy that mentioned he had a contact in Arizona that he thought would love to work on my SunSpot app that I had pitched, so I took his card and promised to email him about the idea; maybe my idea will be developed afterall, even if not here. Then I went back to my team and found out that we lost the developer. I like Dr. Mike, but I thought we needed a programmer, and he told me he wouldn’t be hurt if I left. I guess he was still going to pursue his idea with the other guy, Oz. We exchanged contact info so we could stay in touch, I guess because we liked each other well enough in the short time we had spent together.
I had formed a relationship with Phil, whose idea was about selling home-grown fruit like an Etsy model, while we were trying to get votes right after the pitches had ended. I had watched as he had merged with Andy, who had a similar idea about selling the rights to pick fruit off the tree in your backyard. As I looked around the rooms and the teams that had formed, for whatever reason, their team looked the warmest, most inviting to a newcomer who needed a new team. So I asked if I could join, gave a short blurb about my skills, and they welcomed me to the team. Because I had kind of seen it form next to my poster where I was recruiting for my original idea, I knew the premise and understood where we needed to go.
The group was all excited and had a hard time deciding how or where to start; one person wanted to tackle the business model while another wanted to outline the product description, and a Startup Weekend veteran suggested we look at the criteria for the final presentation. I immediately started having flashbacks of the nightmares of groupwork in school, and wondered if this would follow a similar path. The good news is, I think my other teammates also recognized the power struggle, so they started getting better at it. I thought about jumping in, but I really don’t like fighting for power; I tend to take control when nobody else does, but in this case, everyone else was trying to. Joe, the Startup Weekend veteran, started identifying potential failures and requirements for the final presentation, and I think in doing so, he gained the respect of the rest of the team and unofficially became our leader, at least for now.
We started forming ourselves into teams based on what we needed to present Sunday night. We wanted a semi-working webpage, or at least a mock-up, so we had a wireframing team, a development team, and a graphics team. We had a lot of business people on our team, probably more than we should have, so I was even more grateful they had let me in despite my lack of development and design expertise. It’s not that I lack the skills, I just wouldn’t call myself an expert.
We were kicked out of the room, so our group headed downstairs. Some of the team members went home, while most of us stayed in the coffee shop down there and worked until close to midnight. When we felt like we at least had a game plan, we called it a night. I had decided not to book a hotel room, on the off chance that someone would either offer to share a room with me or if a local invited me to stay in their guest room. So as I was getting ready to leave, I asked if anyone could recommend a local hotel. Andy, who happens to be a fellow Industrial Engineer and share a few other common interests with me, said he had a room not too far but it only had one bed. He offered to call the hotel to see if he could switch to a room with two beds, and I accepted his offer to see if we could split the costs. When he called, they were sold out, so I decided to just book a hotel on my own. The first one I looked at was also sold out, so I started getting a little worried – this event couldn’t possibly be that big, I wonder if there’s something else going on in town? Then I found one that appeared to have a room, but by now it was so late that the websites were only showing Sat night and on.
Because I have some psychological aversion to making phone calls, I bid the remaining team members good night and drove to the Days Inn, which was actually really nearby. To my disappointment, when I got to the window it said, “No vacancy”, so I turned back, but then something caught the corner of my eye. The man at the counter was trying to stop me. He opened the window and asked if he could help me. I said I was looking for a room, and he said he had one. Why would you have a “no vacancy” sign if you have a room? He invited me into the office and told me he had a suite. I was nervous for a second, and asked how much, and he said $99. That’s a steal compared to what I was seeing online, and this is a perfect location, so I booked it with him.
I got to my room, 314, which is a great number because it reminds me of Pi. Yes, I am a nerd. It actually has a really large living area and separate bedroom, this could realistically be a meeting place for my team tomorrow, with it being so close and all, I started thinking. I was thrilled, although it took me a good five minutes to figure out the lights. It’s no luxury suite, but for $99 a night at midnight in a busy area where half the hotels are sold out, it’s golden. And with that, I was off to sleep.
I had no problem waking up Saturday morning. I was already gearing up for a grueling day of intense, frantic teamwork, fighting and accomplishment. When I got up to the room, Adrian had already claimed a pair of round tables for our team, and was busy chatting on the phone. Andy came up soon after, and started making coffee from fresh grounds with the coffee maker he had brought himself. The coffee maker, we later joked, was our 13th team member.
I set up camp next to Andy, plugging in my laptop on one of the three power strips beneath our tables, and we started chatting. The team members slowly filtered in, some weren’t even sure if they were on our team, so we had to identify ourselves as VeggieGrow.
An older guy from another team came over for some coffee, but it wasn’t ready yet, and he acted a bit perturbed. Andy mentioned he had brought it in himself, it was not paid for by the Startup Weekend, but the guy just waited impatiently as if he had a right to it anyways. It was a bit comical. When it was ready, the guy practically charged the coffee machine. Andy had brought in some pretty special beans, apparently, so he asked that the guy wait until our team had the first round, and the guy was cautiously receptive of this. He left briefly, but was back in no time.
The developers, or the “dev” team as we so coolly called them, didn’t have much to work on to start, because we didn’t have a clear vision yet of what we were going to accomplish. So that was the first task our team set out to establish. While Andy, Will and I, who became the “wireframe” team, worked on the storyboard for our product demonstration, the business people on the team started brainstorming names and seeing if those domains were available for purchase, as well as if the Twitter account was available. One of the graphic designers was drawing up logos. Before long, Andy, Will and I had whiteboarded out a few ideas for the different pages, and were pitching it to the whole team. We made some changes, and then drew them out on large white sheets to hang on the windows behind our tables, so everyone on the team could clearly see the vision and refer to them as needed. Then we prescribed graphic elements that were needed, so the designers could start working on that. We identified the first major programming challenge, and the dev team dived right in. Meanwhile, Andy directed me to download the trial version of a wireframe software, and he and I started working on the structure of the website.
I don’t think anyone realized it then, but the team was organically well-organized. No leader really delegated these tasks to us that I recall, it was more like we each understood our roles and just got started. That’s not to say there was no leadership, there were definitely decisions made and a general vision set, but we offered up proposals and, upon validation from the team, created our own workflow. When there was a need, someone would stand up and say it out loud, and someone else would jump on it. If someone looked bored, other team members would offer suggestions of what they could work on. If the person you needed was already busy, we would add post-it notes to their workflow of our next requirements. Each little sub-team worked together and interfaced with the other sub-teams as needed. It was strangely synergistic; with a team the size of ours (did I mention we had 12 team members?), we should have divided into factions and warred against each other, but that never happened. That’s not to say there wasn’t conflict, but it was generally resolved by stepping back and clarifying the full vision of what needed to happen in the next day and a half, and resolved within minutes. It was really, truly, the most disturbingly functional large team I’ve ever known to be, and this became more evident in hindsight later.
After brainstorming and eliminating ideas for our company name, we voted on the remaining choice (there was only one we really liked that was available anyways), and finalized the decision. Henceforth, we would be known as GrowUnity. Phil asked if anyone had a hosting service we could utilize, and Will volunteered. So Phil gave him a $10 bill and asked him to secure the domain name. The marketing team got busy with a Twitter account and a facebook page, and the graphic designers put together one of the best logos I’ve ever seen. Will took the logo and transformed it into a splash page, so as we directed people to our site from our social networks, there would at least be that awesome logo. Andy had brought in a small monitor that displays websites, so he pulled up the website so we had it running as a visual indication of our progress. The whole team applauded, and got back to work.
It wasn’t as frantic as I had expected; not nearly. We worked diligently, we didn’t chat too much, we never fought, and we didn’t take many breaks except to grab meals or drinks from the nearby tables and get back to work. There were times I didn’t have anything to work on, so I would jump on my social networks and promote our brand. I solicited contacts whom I thought would respond. When the marketing team finished the online survey, I pushed the link to many of my contacts. We got responses immediately, and they kept stacking up throughout the next day and a half. We had a great response – better than any other team that weekend. This was what leveraging social networks was all about!
Now, I’d be lying if I said our team operated without any problems. The issue of legality became a challenge for us, implying that our business model was completely doomed. Several team members tried to suggest workarounds, but it was clear that no work would get done until we modified our model. Phil, the brain behind the initial idea, had a long conversation with a couple other team members, and our mentor, Bob. I think Bob was anchored to our team thanks to Andy’s coffee, and would become one of our greatest assets (along with the coffee). After a while, Phil came back and announced to the team that we would no longer sell the produce through our website.
In startup lingo, this is called a pivot. A skeptic might suggest that it’s a nice way of saying our idea ended up being terrible, so we’re going to stay within the same theme but go in a completely different direction with it. But actually pivots are often seen in a positive light in the world of startups; they are often prompted from market research and customer development. So pivoting shows that you learned something and have adapted, and are thereby better equipped to succeed.
In our case, when we pivoted, we went to the dark side – we talked about selling subscriptions, and requiring the would-be buyers and sellers to deal with money on their own terms. This means we had to change our check out page to a reservation page, we had to remove the prices and replace them with message functions, and completely remove the fruit basket that represented the typical shopping cart. The marketing team had to modify the survey questions, further delaying the start of data collection. It was devastating for a lot of reasons, not just that we had to change. I think much of the group lost faith in the idea; it wasn’t as slick, it wasn’t quite right, and we just didn’t know if it would fly. I think we all felt it in our guts, but we put on a facade and worked diligently regardless. We were going to finish this.
One of the suggestions from our mentor, Bob, was to have each person on the team come up with three ways the business could fail. I stepped up to the plate on this idea, suggesting that we take it to the next level. I referenced a Six Sigma tool called a FMEA, short for Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, and quickly put together the framework for it. We were mostly utilizing Google docs, so I posted the file to Google docs and then we got everyone to enter their three failure modes into the file, scoring them based on the criteria I had set. I was excited to bring something to the table from my Six Sigma Black Belt experience.
We celebrated some major milestones, like when the dev team got a map working with interactive pins which indicated the produce type. Some of the biz team went out to collect in-person interviews and surveys. They came back with 10 pre-signups, out of 22 people they talked to, and they weren’t even targeting customers at a farmer’s market; these were just people on the street! We celebrated that, too. And most of the time we made such a big deal out of these little accomplishments that the camera crews had no choice but to run over to film our excitement.
We had a speaker come in that night, so we were instructed to turn our chairs around and listen to him while we munched on our dinners. Hiten Shah is a serial entrepreneur, and currently the CEO and Co-Founder of KISSmetrics, a person-based analytics platform. He talked about what the right metrics were for a startup; hits per page is not a good metric if you’re not generating revenue. He also talked about some of the pitfalls he ran into while trying to start and run other companies. One caution he gave us was around virtual teams; he pretty much said it is impossible to grow a startup with a virtual team, yet that was exactly what he was doing with KISSmetrics. I was skeptical to say the least, but appreciated his advice on a lot of topics.
After the speaker, we got back to work at our table. But as the night wore on, when I was expecting frantic productivity and excited chatter about brilliant ideas, there was a just a slow progression. I was fully prepared to stay up almost all night, and suggested that when we get kicked out at 10, we could move the party to my hotel suite. That idea was put to an end pretty quickly. “We all need to get some sleep,” said Phil, and it seemed that this team would not be an all-nighter team.
It was 10 pm, and then it was 10:15, and we still hadn’t been kicked out yet. Some of the team started packing up, and Phil threw in the towel around 10:30 pm, stating that we all need to get some sleep for crunch time tomorrow. Naturally, several of the younger souls decided it was time to hit the bars. I decided I would tag along for some “networking”.
I had a very awkward chat with Joe, the insightful Startup Weekend veteran of our group. Since we didn’t do a whole lot of personal chatting in the team setting, Joe and I tried to get to know each other, but the conversation was slow and fragmented. I wasn’t sure if it was my lack of conversation skills, his, or something else. I know now that Joe was in a funk over our team’s pivot, mulling over how this legal issue was so detrimental to our business. After standing there with Joe awkwardly enough, I broke away to join another part of the group. Several of the people I had networked with Friday night were there, and it was a lot of fun to catch up with them after a full day of progress.
There was much cheers-ing, celebrating and joking, and it was really a fantastic break. But as is often the case, people started taking off, and the remainder of us decided to bounce to another bar. After a few minutes in the second bar, I was feeling a little claustrophobic and tired, so I decided to call it a night. I went back to my hotel and slept peacefully.
Day 3 I hurried back to our meeting place to get started on the webpages I had been working with, anticipating that I’d have the graphics I needed in my inbox. No such luck, I scanned through my email four or five times, and saw nothing new. So I didn’t have much to do, which I supposed allowed me to fully absorb what happened next.
Joe came in, and appeared relieved to see me. He said after he had left the bar, he had spent hours researching the laws on the web, and had found absolutely nothing indicating that it was illegal to sell produce. He mentioned how, if you make it into something, then it is a concern of the FDA, so jam and cooked dishes were out. But there was no law preventing a person from selling the fruits falling off their trees. I had a hard time believing it – there had to be something wrong here. I started looking things up online as well, since i didn’t have anything more important to work on anyways.
I found one article that implied it was illegal to sell produce from your yard, but didn’t explicitly state so. Instead, it posed the question, “Should Sacramento allow people to sell fruit and vegetables like Oakland?” It made reference to a change in Oakland, CA allowing individuals to sell produce, but never said if or why it was illegal in Sacramento. I asked Joe about it, and it didn’t seem to phase him one bit; he still insisted that there was no law preventing the sale. So I took it upon myself to write to the author of the article directly. Certainly, if she knew of something she hadn’t stated, she should be willing to tell us, right? We had also identified a website with a similar theme to ours that had been shut down for unannounced reasons. I wrote to them too, hoping they could at least tell us whether it was a legal issue that shut them down.
As our teammates filtered in for the day, Joe filled them in one by one. I think Phil was dumbfounded, but strongly encouraged by Joe’s finding (or lack of finding laws against what we were trying to promote). Phil announced that we were pivoting back to the original idea; we would sell produce through our website. I started working on the changes to the website right away, and the marketing team started reviewing the questions from the survey to see if they were still useful. Luckily, some of the questions still applied, so we were good there.
Now we were frantic. We had a countdown to tech check, and before we got there, we needed to run through the slides with the speakers, and before that, we needed speakers and slides. Not to mention the website was still mostly naked, and we hadn’t worked out the demonstration of our product yet. We banded together, partially fighting against a deadline, and partially renewed by the hope of a truly great business idea, now that we were back to selling.
Adrian had tasked himself to go get video footage of comments and reactions to our products, and had left earlier in the morning to go to the Farmer’s Markets before they closed. He came back triumphant, having gotten interviews on camera with local growers and leaders in the community. He also got several people to say to the camera, “I support GrowUnity!” and one shot of a whole group of people saying, “We support GrowUnity!”
Will and Adrian got to work right away on splicing the video segments together and adding the names and titles of the interviewees to the bottom of the video. It was pretty slick, like something in a real TV commercial or newscast. The presentation was coming together in theory, but we still had no idea what it was going to look like or say. Joe, Phil and mentor Bob had a pow-wow and came up with a strategy. They announced that Phil would be our first and last speaker, Adrian would talk through the demonstration, Andy would do the “clicks”, and Kelly would do the marketing piece.
That afternoon Phil started leaning on me for support, which was a welcome change from being a designer. I wanted to contribute in any way I could, but I felt a little under-utilized not doing anything on the business side. Our team had a lot of business people, and not enough developers and designers, so I didn’t mind helping in that area, but I didn’t want to do just that. Anyways, Will had tasked himself with quite a lot: combining and editing the videos Adrian had taken, and putting together the presentation. I was confident I could make fabulous slides in PowerPoint, and I was nervous too because Will was still working on the video. What’s more, we had no content for our slides yet.
In a hustle to get something started, Phil and I jumped into a PowerPoint presentation, while Joe kicked off a Google doc for an outline. For the first slide I worked on with Phil, he wanted a graphic to show the growing trend in organic, locally grown produce, including Whole Foods, CSAs, farmer’s markets, and now the arena of backyard farmers which the market was currently not serving. I tapped into a library I don’t often use, the smart graphics in PowerPoint 2010. I wasn’t sure if I would find anything there that I really liked, but I came up with a very graphic, up-and-to-the-right arrow with bullet points, and filled them in with the various markets. This was all but complete when we figured out that we were duplicating efforts with Joe, and came together on my computer to set it straight. Joe was immediately impressed with the one slide we had put together already, and was excited for the potential of the rest. Once we had a generic title on each slide, giving us the basic outline, Joe went to work on something else and Phil and I continued developing content for his slides.
Finally, we forced ourselves to go find an empty location downstairs and try a run-through of the presentation, even though our slides had almost no content still. We timed it, too, since we would be cut off at precisely 5 minutes. Of course, the first few run-throughs were terrible, because we didn’t know what we were saying yet, but that forced some ideas to come out. I went back and continued working with Phil on his content, eliminating a slide that I showed was redundant based on the way he was using the previous slide. Meanwhile, Will started working with Kelly on trimming up what she was trying to say. Andy and Adrian practiced the demonstration, which included a live upload of a picture into the website, and navigation around the site to identify made-up sellers of oranges in the area.
As the slides started coming together, I posted them to google docs, and Will took over the official slidedeck. We either missed tech check completely, or it didn’t happen, so we plugged his laptop in on the stage and made sure the slides read nicely and the sound worked at the right level. Will continued tweaking and updating, mentor Bob continued coaching Phil, and the rest of us worked on various tweaks and promoting our name online.
We opted to go last of the 14 presentations. We figured this would give us an edge of being in the judges’ memories when they went to decide. I’m not sure we needed the edge, because I think the judges could clearly recall each idea afterwards, but it certainly didn’t hurt. The judges were pretty rough on some of the teams, asking very pointed, painful questions about their assumptions, their business models, etc, obviously criticizing them a bit. It was clear which ones would be taken seriously and which ones were in trouble. One team went up with no presentation, no product, just a sad but inspiring story: they had come up with an idea they thought was powerful and everyone would want it. But as they did the customer validation and development, discovered that there was almost no market for what they were trying to do. So they decided to can the project and start thinking up new ideas, and promised something great in the future. Their presentation was met with thunderous applause and even a few standing ovators.
Finally, it was our turn. The whole team stood behind our speakers, and smiled as the four and a half minutes quickly slipped away – we needed the last 30 seconds for our video. We started the video a little late, but because we were no longer speaking, the people running the event didn’t bother trying to stop it. The questions we were asked weren’t nearly as bad as we expected, and we were whisked offstage to our exit interview with the camera crew. We congratulated ourselves and thanked one another for the hard work. It didn’t matter what happened next, we were all feeling pretty good.
While the judges were deliberating, we made our rounds with different people we had met at the event, finally now being able to truly relax, and I started hearing a common theme; most of my new friends put us in their top 4. We might actually have a shot of winning, I thought.
Before too long, it was time to announce the winners. I was still standing in the back with Dr. Mike, so I stayed in place. First, they did an honorable mention for the team that had killed their product idea due to customer validation. The second place winner was announced to be the team with the email signature product.
Comically, the announcer forgot the name of the first place group, but started saying something about veggies… it took me a second to consider what he was saying, and then I realized – that was us! We had originally been called VeggieGrow, and we had won! Our team stormed the stage, patting each other’s backs and high fiving. It was hard to grasp, but we had won! We scooted off to the side of the room, and K5 announced they would also support four or five other teams if they fixed one thing in their business model – and listed what each team needed to work on to get sponsorship. As those teams were announced, we applauded our congratulatory applause. But it was hard to stop thinking about our accomplishment – we won! We had actually won! I wasn’t sure if I was going to cry or do cartwheels.
We had to do some photos and take more videos of our reactions, and we vigorously thanked our mentor, Bob. Then there was an afterparty at the K5 location across the street. So we wandered over there and discussed some more. There would be some tough decisions to be made in the near future, about whether or not we’d stay on, but for now, it was time to celebrate.
As I drove the six hours home, I was wired from the excitement of the event, and from winning. It was an incredible high that kept me awake until 4 am even though normally I tend to fall asleep behind the wheel. In the sky, I saw a flicker, and it reminded me of the brilliant shooting star I had seen on my way to Startup Weekend. I’m not a superstitious person, but I certainly felt like luck, or fate, or positive energy – something – was on our side. How else could a group of 12 strangers become an amazingly functional team, bringing home the grand prize in a weekend event full of incredibly intelligent, clever and talented people?
Some people look at entrepreneurs and ask how they do it. I think I had a little taste of that this weekend; I now feel I understand how they do it. You hardly need sleep or down time when you love what you’re doing. Earlier this year I decided that 2012 was the year I would start something big, and this has given me a lot of confidence and if nothing else, another credential, to help make that happen. Check out growunity.com, and stay tuned!