Startup Weekends are weekend-long, hands-on experiences where aspiring entrepreneurs join hands with developers to determine whether a startup idea is viable. In 54 hours, developers, designers, marketers, product managers, and startup enthusiasts come together to set a vision, build products, and launch a mini startup. Beginning with open mic pitches on Friday, attendees bring their best ideas and inspire others to join their team. Over Saturday and Sunday, teams focus on customer development, validating their ideas, and building a minimal viable product. On Sunday evening, teams demo their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts.
The September 2013 Startup Weekend was themed Fashion Innovations. Coming to this event at first, I only expected to create some mock-up websites and mobile applications like at any other hackathons. Within only 2 hours into the event, though, I met incredible individuals and was unexpectedly drawn into this whole entrepreneurship thing… We preserved through the weekend and got First Place! It was definitely one of the most exciting and productive weekends where I got to connect with and learn from an incredible group of people.
Friday Open Mic Pitches: Team Formation
Dragged by my friends Cathy (Business) and Phoebe (Tech), I reluctantly joined them on the weekend of September 27th — 29th at Broadway Downtown San Diego. Since I did not not start my Business classes at the time, I had very little interest and confidence in contributing to a working business model. I just came to the event without any business idea, hoping to be recruited by some other teams.
After getting our name badges, my friends and I joined the other attendees and listened to their stories. Bryndon, a savvy business student from San Diego, happened to be in our circle. After some casual introductions, he asked me to evaluate his practice pitch of an idea he had in mind. Surprised by the fact that we did not have a single business idea, Bryndon challenged us to come up with one. Cathy, Phoebe, and I then pitched him an idea just for a sake of keeping the conversation going. Little did we know he would abandon his original pitch and ask to join us in developing this project…
The event coordinator then started a fun activity to help us prepare for the open-mic pitching session. He asked the crowd to shout out random nouns and adjectives and wrote them on the board. An arbitrary combination of these words would become a company name. He then separated us into different groups and had all the members randomly point to a single person in their circle. The selected one had to pick a company name and he/she would be the pitcher of the “company”. I happened to be the selected pitcher of our “company” called Hairy Octopus… The group members had to help me brainstorm and prepare for the practice pitch.
This was one of the defining moments of the entire weekend because I had a chance to connect with Jason Aplin, a mentor of our to-be-formed group. Coming from a marketing background, Jason proposed to make Hairy Octopus a hair-dye company. We went along with his idea; I pitched and we gave the crowd a good laugh. That was when I knew Jason would bring a lot to the table because he could turn something so random and trivial to a really good idea!
Practice round over; the real pitching came. Nervous, Cathy and I went up and proposed an idea called Swap.me, a website that would allow UCSD students to trade relatively in-good-condition clothes. We both knew buying clothes could be very costly, especially when you had tuition and a few other thousands things to pay for. Our mission statement was to constantly keep fashion new and affordable for college students. The project would need a solid business model and a functional website. After the open-mic pitching session, we would have our idea evaluated by attendees who had not yet had an idea and/or team. These attendees would then pick which group they wanted to merge into. Alex and Liz, two Computer Science upperclassmen from UCSD, joined our team immediately after. They were exceptionally talented and I knew they would bring a lot to our technical side.
Eddy, a veteran entrepreneur from Miami and founder of Mainloop LLC, completed our team formation. His experience in commercial mobile applications would tremendously backup our business model. Eddy was actually one of the pitchers during the open-mic session, but he too, decided to join our team! Having a good mix of people with business and tech background, we proceeded to brainstorming and dividing the work load.
Saturday: Let’s Talk Tech & Business
We split the work according to our expertise: Bryndon and Cathy worked on a solid business model and a monetizing mechanism; Eddy was in charge of making an iOS app that would display the items to be swapped on our website; Alex and Liz made a Blackberry version of that app since we also wanted to win the limited Blackberry Z10 phones; and Phoebe made a mock-up website. I did not have a specialization, so I would help with the business plan, then switched to building website using my experience in a hobbyist environment, and occasionally bugged Eddy to help him with the iOS app.
Later that morning, we realized a lot of holes in our business model: we couldn’t find a way to monetize. College students definitely would not want to pay a royalty fee for our service. Then, somehow the idea of “thrift shop” came up in our discussion… We immediately thought of another wild model: a mobile thrift shopping system. The name GoThriftGo replaced Swap.me and a new model was born. GoThriftGo was intended to be a truck that would roll to college campuses, buy unwanted clothes from students for cash, wash the purchased clothes, and resell them to other students. We agreed that the quality of clothing articles would be fairly good since students were most likely only bring their finer clothes to college. GoThriftGo would give students the opportunity to swap out their fashion statement at a really inexpensive price.
In the afternoon, successful entrepreneurs, a.k.a mentors, came and offered their experience and guidance to the teams. That was when I learned that Jason Aplin was one of them. CEO and founder of Tildeworks, a marketing startup based in San Diego, Jason provided us with extremely valuable business advice. He shared with us about his college days at Berkeley, past business successes and hold-backs, and his personal, interesting thoughts on life. We were all blown away by his intelligence and philosophy.
We ended the day with a working business model, a functional mock-up website, and application prototypes. They were the result of several hours of frustration and team conflicts, but we really pulled through!
Sunday: Customer Validation & Demo
We had a working business model, but the judges would not take our words for it. The obvious approach was to interview several college students and evaluate their interest. We first headed back to UCSD and stopped every single student we found. We had a mixed poll of opinions; some students were really excited to swap out their clothes, others did not buy the idea of thrift shopping, but they were willing to give it a try. We video recorded the ones that were really excited about our business model as a proof of concept.
Since it was the beginning of the school year at UCSD at the time, the majority of the student body went to La Jolla shores for Meet the Beach, our annual all-campus beach day. We then marched to La Jolla shores in jeans and shirts, trying to talk to students. Some people even expressed their interest in employment! I never went to the beach in jeans or had to stop people to start a conversation before, so the experience was quite thrilling. Nevertheless, we acquired some interesting customer validations that we could use during our presentation in a few hours.
It was our turn to present. We tried to present our business model within only a few minutes. There was a Q&A session where most of the judges were not sure if we were serious about our idea… They asked if we would actually carry on this model after the weekend.
When our team was announced first place winner, I was really surprised. It was just way out of my expectation for this event! We started with a very trivial and seemingly silly idea, but we really turned it into something credible and possibly profitable. The whole experience just taught me a lot of things: I once again confirm that there are a lot of things to learn beside coding behind computer screen(s) to be successful! I had a chance to make friend with ones of the most talented people, made some great connections, and had a tons of fun.