Winning Startup Weekend

My team won Startup Weekend in Washington, DC a year ago in June 2015. I’d been meaning to write about it, so here goes…

For those who don’t know, Startup Weekend is a weekend long event held in cities all around the world where teams of people come together to validate a business idea. It’s intense, a little stressful, and fun (no, really). We were based at Impact Hub DC (great space with great people!).

I hadn’t planned to pitch any ideas when I arrived on Friday night. The theme was social impact, and I had one idea floating around in my mind, but thought I would join someone else’s group just for the experience. By the time person #20 was pitching, I decided that I preferred my idea and lined up. About 30 other people thought the same, and the line more than doubled.

The organizers said we had to have a name for the idea, so I was slightly panicking trying to think of one while standing in line and trying to work out my one minute pitch on the fly. The first 2 words to pop in my head that made any sense were ‘surplus’ and ‘cab’, so Surplus Cab was born! I used to work in events and saw first hand how much food was left over every night. My idea was to transport leftover food from events to shelters and soup kitchens. The idea came to me 3 months earlier and I learned through my research that there are a handful of businesses in the country also in the surplus food transportation business.

Food waste has always been my biggest pet peeve. I remember staring into the cafeteria garbage cans in disbelief at the end of every lunch period in school and wondering why anyone would throw away an uneaten apple or half a sandwich.

After over fifty pitches, we voted and narrowed it down to fifteen teams. I learned that first night, that while a lot of people liked my idea, nobody wanted to join, save 1. So, I had a two-person team, too small to compete. After failing to recruit more team members, we merged with another two-person team who had pitched the idea to cook affordable meals from surplus produce. We were the smallest team in the competition, which actually made us more agile. We tried reconciling both ideas that night, but neither would give in.

By Saturday morning we still hadn’t decided and the clock was ticking. We had to go with something B2C because it was the weekend and we couldn’t do much customer discovery because most nonprofits and event venues were either closed or didn’t have a staff member we could speak with. A few hours and lots of research later, we decided to sell affordable meals made from surplus prepared food. It was pretty much exactly a 50/50 combination of both teams’ original ideas. We changed the name to ‘Surplus Kitchen’.

Thanks to the Good Samaritan Act, any business that donates food to a nonprofit is protected from liability. However, our idea involved repackaging and selling pre-made food, which doesn’t fall under that protection. Nevertheless, we visited a low-income neighborhood to ask our potential customers, and most were actually willing to pay for such meals. However, we were still worried about legality and scrapped it.

We butted heads for a few more hours before revisiting an earlier idea to transport surplus food from private dinner parties to shelters and kitchens. We interviewed more people and, tight on time, made an online survey garnering over 100 responses. More than half of respondents were willing to pay $10-$15 for someone to donate their leftovers to a shelter.

Sunday morning we created a business model canvas and presentation, including a mockup of the app that customers would use to schedule pickups. The toughest part was figuring out logistics. I now better appreciate the small details and the value of listening to everyone’s input.

Participating in Startup Weekend gave me a huge confidence boost because the idea was now more than a line in my Evernote. That night we collected the dinner leftovers and delivered it to a shelter.

For the next few months, we met with some potential advisors and another organization in the space called MEANS Database. We did more research and brainstormed different business models, but we all had other things going on and weren’t able to actually start the business. Life happens. That’s why I was so happy to learn about a startup from Baltimore called Unsung that is doing almost exactly the same thing! They’re expanding to Washington, DC and are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to build their app. To learn more about their journey, head over to Cofounder Dean Masley’s profile.