Can you start a business in 54 hours? Last weekend, I went to test that theory at a Startup Weekend event in Kitchener, Ont. Turns out you can, sort of.
I’m not the typical kind of person you’d think of when you say “startup.” As a full-time working mother with two kids I was not the target audience for this event. But Startup Weekend accepted anyone with the gumption to throw themselves into a room with a 100 other people who thought mashing together technology and ideas was an awesome concept.
I’ve always had ideas in my head but never really knew what to do with them. And the thought of having my own company sounds really cool. Who doesn’t think that? So when I checked out high-tech incubator Communitech’s website a few weeks back and saw it was holding a Startup Weekend that only cost $100 (less for students) I figured, ‘why not?’
So I convinced my husband to be a solo parent for a weekend while I went from Toronto to Kitchener, about an hour’s drive away, to see what it meant to start a business. Not that I had any idea what I was in for.
You can come to a Startup Weekend with an idea in mind, or you can go for the experience and join a team when you get there. I had an online fundraising idea for high-performance athletes in mind, so I crafted my pitch on the notes app of my smartphone and practiced it on the drive. You only get a minute to make your pitch. ‘I’ve made speeches before,’ I thought to myself, ‘this will be no problem.’
I arrived at Communitech’s offices – office envy, by the way, with lots of light, glass, open space and colour – and crammed into a room with about 100 other people mingling and noshing on Pepi’s Pizza. I knew no one in the room. With that in mind, I figured if I totally embarrassed myself, at least my chances of seeing those people again were slim. After a quick look around the room I was relieved to see I wasn’t the only woman, nor the oldest person.
You have 60 seconds – not a second more – and you can’t pitch an idea you’ve done significant work on.
Half of the 44 pitchers, including me, got cut off by the timers. I’d forgotten what it’s like to speak in front of an audience of 100 strangers. My legs started to shake 15 seconds into my prepared speech, but I think I got the key message out before they turned off the mic.
We all voted on the ideas we liked best, and those with the most votes won. People formed teams around the winning pitches, hoping to get a good mix of non-technical people, web designers and web developers.
My idea didn’t fly and it only got a few votes. When I texted my husband later he suggested that a room full of technology and business types was probably not the best audience for my idea. He had a point.
I joined Team Prioritor – along with seven guys – which aimed to produce a productivity app to make time management fun. Users get points for working on job-related tasks and points are deducted for going off course and playing on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other time sinks. We also wanted to have real-life rewards such as coupons. As the Globe’s Careers web editor, where we reguarly write about ways to be more productive, I figured I could contribute to this effort.
And we’re off
This was my group: Brenden, whose pitch won and who works at a local startup called Sortable; Alex, who has his own company called Kids Great Minds that teaches kids about computers and programming; Gerry, who had worked at RIM and was volunteering at Communitech; Louis, a programming ace; Jack, a marketing and business student; Ben, another programming ace; and Robin, a business and computer science student. It was a good mix. And none of us knew each other.
The energy in the room was electric as all these minds joined together to create a vision. We sat down, gave a brief introduction to each other, and brainstormed our idea on large sheets of paper to try to suss out what was possible and what our vision was for the product we wanted to produce, in some form, in the next 54 hours.
We called it a night around 11:30 p.m., with plans to start bright and early at 8:30 a.m. the next day.
Validate, validate, validate
In the morning, mentors from Communitech wandered around the room, giving teams tips on their next steps, and in particular to help find ways to figure out whether their ideas interested anyone else in the world. And to test market assumptions.
We created an online survey and blasted it to all our social networks while the tech guys looked at ways to make our idea come to life on the computer. Meanwhile, Jack and Gerry looked at potential competitors to see how we could be different and better.
As the responses started rolling in – we got more than 500 people to take our survey in 24 hours – we started to apply what we learned to our idea and began to craft our business case, define our market, and crunch some numbers. Mentors dropped by throughout the day to poke holes in our plans and to steer us in the right direction. Others came by to give us tips on crafting our pitch, what points we had to address, and what criteria the judges would use.
At one point the table was covered in laptops, papers, pens, umpteen half-filled coffee cups, empty cans of Red Bull and plates of cookie crumbs. I brought in chocolates and jujubes to fuel our late-night session. Sleep deprived, we were running on caffeine and sugar.
We got a website up, posted a video and asked if people were interested in signing up to be part of a beta test of the app. By the end, more than 600 people did. It was a whirlwind of activity separated only by breaks for food. By 11:30 p.m., our brains were fried.
Crafting the pitch
Early the next morning, bleary eyed, we all trudged in for the final day. Ben and Louis showed us what they had come up with, and we began to craft the pitch we had to make after 5 p.m. We had to prove our idea and business case was the best.
Brenden and I began writing PowerPoint slides, as I pulled lines from my notepad from the previous days chats with the marketing whizzes.
You get five minutes to make your presentation and then the judges get three minutes to grill you. It was nerve-wracking to know that the information on the page was going to make or break our pitch.
Brenden, a gregarious guy in his cowboy hat, was chosen as our presenter and I helped go over the talk again and again. Several mentors listened to the preliminary version of the pitch and gave us suggestions. It was an ever-changing document until nearly the last moment.
In the end there were 12 pitches on ideas as varied as cloud gaming to geo tracking of to-do lists to crowd sourcing for financial data and a social media evaluation tool.
Brenden did a great job on our pitch, making the crowd laugh at all the right points. Alas, we didn’t win.
The winners were Homefed, a site where you could match up travellers with chefs willing to prepare an authentic home-cooked meal. Second place went to Fides, a tool to manage Twitter accounts to get more community engagement from each tweet. Third was Zero Wait Thirty, an app to help restaurants communicate with customers to reduce wait times and keep them from walking away.
Even though we didn’t take with first prize (or the new computers that went along with it) we all agreed we had a blast and that we would ponder whether our idea might be worth pursuing. Feedback from the judges said we didn’t differentiate ourselves enough from the competition in a very crowded market, and that we didn’t prove our business case well enough.
It was a fun and exhausting weekend. And I never thought I could hang out in a room full of tech and biz geeks and love it, but I did.
Gillian Livingston is the Careers editor at The Globe and Mail.
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