We Tried to Solve the World’s Biggest Problem in 54 Hours
I participated in Virtual Techstars Startup Weekend: Sacred Heart University this past weekend and I wanted to write a reflection of my crazy journey while it was still fresh in my head.
I’m no stranger to entrepreneurship hackathons and business plan competitions, cutting my teeth way back in high school at Bronx Science where I participated in the Junior Achievement Business Plan Competition and built my first company. I continued on my entrepreneurship journey in college with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Change the World Challenge and Business Model Competitions. More recently I participated in StartupBus in the summer of 2019 and Techstars Startup Weekend Schenectady just last month in March 2020. All in all, I must have worked on a dozen business ideas and definitely have a list a mile long in Google Keep with the idea for the next billion-dollar company hidden somewhere on there.
I wanted to start off this reflection by thanking my amazing Startup Weekend team, Charlotte Huntington, Mahir Kamal, and José David Romero Zanabria, for such a fantastic experience this past weekend.
My team was a truly diverse and global one, only enabled by today’s technology. I’m here in Troy, NY while Charlotte, a Sacred Heart University student was in Prior Lake, MN, Mahir, an Islamic University of Technology student was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Jose, a cloud/blockchain developer was in Huancayo, Peru.
Startup Weekend typically kicks off with a pitch session, followed by a voting period to select the best ideas, and then an intense scramble to find a team or recruit talent for your own. This time around, due to the event being virtual, ideas were submitted ahead of time, participants indicated their interest on a Google Form, and teams were assigned in the interest of efficiency.
The idea I submitted when I registered for Startup Weekend was a very vague one — in fact, it wasn’t even an idea at all. It was a question: “How can we best help those most affected by the current global crisis?” My team identified with this question as we all saw the impact first-hand in our local communities. So there we were, a group of ragtag changemakers from all over the world, trying to solve the biggest problem we’ll face in our lifetimes.
We brainstormed all of Friday night and jotted down what must have been a dozen ideas ranging from microfinancing for developing countries to equity crowdfunding to crowdsourcing resources for small businesses to natural language processing enabled chatbots that would provide free digital information support. We didn’t settle on an idea, much less a name until mid-day Saturday, right before we hopped(or were teleported rather via the magic of Chris Chang, our facilitator) into our mentoring sessions that afternoon which was affectionately called “Mentor Madness”. We were still known as Idea #5, the default name that Tamas Javor and Eric Francis, our organizers gave us when I registered. In the 24 hours between then and the time we had to pitch on Sunday, we really did the impossible and moved mountains and parted seas.
In an effort to answer the huge question we posed, we reached out to community leaders around the world to learn what type of businesses and populations were being affected the most by our current crisis. We learned that across the board and around the world, restaurants and small businesses are hurting the worst, so we set out to build something to help them.
We were inspired by the bingo cards that local restaurants and small businesses in Troy have been putting together to incentivize the community to order delivery and takeout. Our first idea was to take the bingo card concept and create a digital version of it that could be deployed easily in any community across the world.
After chatting about it as a team, we felt that bingo cards were too narrow of a scope for what we were trying to do. We expanded the idea to gamifying supporting local restaurants and businesses. We looked at existing platforms that did a great job at incentivizing behavior through gamification like Yelp, Reddit, and Snapchat and used it as inspiration for our platform. Looking back, we should have more thoroughly tested the virtual bingo card idea — I don't think we did any customer discovery before we decided to pivot away from it. For all we knew, virtual bingo cards were exactly what restaurants and their customers wanted and we could have deployed a real MVP and saved a ton of time! Maybe we’ll go back now after the time crunch is over and give that a thorough testing.
As we conducted more customer discovery on the general gamified platform, we learned that users really cared about the social aspect of the platform and competing with their friends and against their neighbors to climb the leaderboards in their local cities. We looked at different ways for people to earn points and add to their social impact score. At first, we thought that points would be tied to financial actions like ordering food or gift cards but soon realized that there were other ways to support local restaurants and small businesses without spending a penny. People could interact and share posts from their favorite restaurants to give them a signal boost, check in with their favorite small business owners to see how they’re doing, or fact checking information for local businesses so Google Maps and Yelp stays up to date. We realized that by integrating with Facebook, tracking these actions became really easy and your social impact score, level, and rankings could automatically update based on your daily Facebook usage.
While all of the customer discovery, iterating, and pivoting was happening, we launched a landing page at level5.shop and drove users who were interested in having a new way to support their local restaurants and small businesses to sign up for our exclusive beta. Before Startup Weekend was over, we amassed 100+ interested beta users from all over the world and 15 businesses who were interested in partnering up. And oh yeah, we had a name! We were now officially Level 5, a play on our beloved name Idea#5, but also because we help great (five-star) businesses level up. I thought that was pretty clever.
Throughout this whole process, we realized that Level 5 could be so much more than just a platform that tracked your social media interactions or financial contributions to restaurants. Level 5 could be a company dedicated to democratizing social good. Restaurants and small businesses just so happened to be our first market because we could make a positive impact for them right now during this crisis. Post-crisis, we could expand to include community service, community engagement, and donations to charitable causes. In my head, it started to sound more and more like Passport for Good, a local company building a simple way for students to highlight community engagement. They’re great friends, so we definitely want to be complementary to their offerings and not competitive.
Sunday morning rolled around and we only had one and a half slides of our pitch deck done. The team let me take the lead on that while they pushed hard to get that 100+ magic number for beta users signed up. I put together an outline and started to dive into the design. I like picture heavy decks with simple phrases on the screen if at all possible. I didn’t have the time to put together all the pictures, logo wall, and geographic locations of beta users that I wanted to so I just improvised with text in the time that we had. It didn’t help that we were the first on the docket to pitch. I notice that I’m always building my slide deck at the last minute. Perhaps maybe next time, I’ll start building the slide deck on Friday and use it to guide all our activities for the weekend? I barely managed to pull off making the deck, we didn’t have time to practice, and definitely didn’t sound as polished as I was hoping we’d be in my head. That combined with not having time to flush out the second half of our deck including the revenue model, timeline, and visual aids for customer discovery and customer validation hurt us in judging. We had all the information in our heads, but just didn’t have the time to put them down on a slide a weave a story out of them. It’s much better to start building your deck early with incomplete information than build it late with all the information your head. At a pitch competition, a pitch is how we as entrepreneurs communicate to judges, so having a polished well-rehearsed pitch is essential. Q&A went much better than it did at the Startup Weekend where my team built StartupHouse and I was able to weave in customer discovery and learnings from the market into my answers. And after watching the rest of the pitches, a couple of announcements, and the awards, a crazy weekend of building and another journey through the ever-loving hell of Startup Weekend was complete. (Then I hopped right off this Startup Weekend and right into a five hour all-hands meeting to organize next week’s Global Online Startup Weekend USA — Unite to Fight COVID-19 and walked away as the livestream team lead for all of the US… five days before kickoff… but that’s a story for another day!)
So… What Now?
I’m only speaking for myself here, but after chatting with small business owners, restaurateurs, directors of small business support organizations, mentors, and end users, I really think this might have legs. Across the board, everyone loved the idea of supporting local restaurants and small businesses and if you know me, I’ll continue to do so no matter what. If there’s a way to scale the impact that I’m having by building out a platform like Level 5, I’d definitely love to explore it further.
I’m so proud of everything we accomplished this weekend, all the things we learned, the lessons we were able to share with each other and the other teams, and the amazing global connections we made with the other participants, mentors, and judges. Placing third was just a bonus.
This experience was so amazing — you really do get what you put into it. You can do a bunch of Startup Weekends, but you always learn new things every single time and you’re always exercising your entrepreneurship muscles and becoming a stronger entrepreneur.
I realize that I joined this Startup Weekend with a broad question and not a more refined idea. It took us about 24 hours to even solidify an idea and in a 54 hour sprint, you’re so far behind the other participants who came in with a well thought out idea that they just had to execute on. I feel that if I did participate with a more refined idea, my team and I wouldn’t have gotten as much out of the weekend as we did. Having been around the block a couple of times, it would have been very easy for me to come up with an idea, think about it for a few days prior to the competition, pretty much work out the business model and execution strategy in my head, and just present it to my team as a path to follow. That may give us a higher chance of winning, but really, is it about winning or is it about learning, going through the process, listening to stakeholders, pivoting at least ten times(really!), and building something that your team really feels ownership of? Because to me, it’s all about the latter and I wouldn’t have it any other way.