The Startable Pittsburgh Conversation

The Startable Pittsburgh final community event

“I wish I had this when I was a teenager.”

As we prepare for the Startable Pittsburgh application to open on January 1, I’ve had many conversations with many recruitment partners, and this is the phrase I usually hear as we close out our chat. Before we reach that point, though, there are several questions I usually answer to differentiate us from the myriad of summer options vying for young adults’ attention.

To save my fair reader the trip out to Broad Street, I’ve compiled the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions here.

What is it?

Startable is an eight week summer program for teenagers between the ages of 15–19 where we teach students maker skills and entrepreneurship and provide investment to help them launch their own handmade businesses. We provide free access to machines and makers of TechShop, condense the entrepreneurship skills taught to the companies at AlphaLab Gear, and infuse playful lessons from our friends at City of Play in order to do this in a way that’s high-quality and meaningful.

Students from any neighborhood or experience level are invited to apply (seriously, look at this distribution map from last summer!) but we do give priority to students who are located in the East End and who would not otherwise have access to these resources.

The distribution of our 2016 cohort. Some of these commutes are a serious testament to our student’s dedication.

How are the eight weeks laid out?

For the first week, students engage in a design thinking process that introduces them to potential products and tools while helping them get in touch with their unique point of view. By the end of week one they decide on a product, which determines the machines they will learn at TechShop — anything from the woodshop to sewing machines.

Weeks two and three are dedicated to learning those machines and the elements of a business plan, which they begin to assemble for their businesses.

Week four is all about pitching that business plan to an audience for program investment, which they use to buy materials.

Weeks five and six are open work time — participants are given ample support, but at this point are turned loose as they establish their own preferred work schedules as any entrepreneur would.

Once they have product made, week seven is dedicated to learning the tools to set up an online and physical selling presence. At this point we also pick semifinalists for our annual pitch competition.

Our wonderful entrepreneur judges from the 2016 final event

Week eight is all about our final event. The final event is an open community commencement of the program, which features an open market of student products as well as a pitch competition. Leading up to the final evening, students are frantically preparing their merchandising for our open market, and pitch finalists are preparing their speeches to compete for a $1,000 prize.

What kinds of businesses do students start?

Prior to the program, we sit down with our maker experts at TechShop and determine a list of handmade products that are creatively exciting and have market potential, while also feasible for someone from any skill level to come in and master within our eight weeks. The twelve categories we’ve established for 2017 include things like poster making, jewelry, t-shirts and hoodies, and wooden kitchenware; students who are already advanced and can create a viable work plan may also be able to come up with their own product category. Students narrow down a top three and then staff pick the one they’ll pursue, again keeping an eye on the market and maker potential.

A booth displaying some of the amazing work our students created last summer.

How long have you been doing this?

The program began in 2014 as a small pilot program. To make a long story short, it began with five teenagers learning to use some tools to build outdoor games for a community lawn. I was hired right before the 2015 program, so I can tell you in planning my third summer with the program, it’s amazing to see how the program has grown and changed since that pilot. We’ve used an iterative process to grow and transform the program in a manner similar to what we recommend our own students employ with their startups. In 2016 we successfully ran the program in its current form, and are excited for our fourth summer to be our best one yet!

Wow, so cool! (This is not a question, but if the person I’m meeting with gives me an opening, I make sure to share the following:)

As the person who runs Startable I am obviously biased, but we have something special here, and I think all of us who have gone through at least one summer would agree.

I don’t know if it’s the intense nature of that eight week period, or the unique combination of people and opportunities, but it’s kind of amazing to see how this program is actually starting to change lives. It’s going to take years before we understand the full potential of that impact, but I already see it in smaller ways — in friendships that have lasted and alums who, in spite of the grueling schedules we as a society put teens through, continue to show up. Show up for open market opportunities and entrepreneur mixers and at TechShop after school to keep making their cardboard cat products and clocks and artisan knives.

The impact isn’t limited to just young people — if anything, I think our teens inspire us most of all. Makers who came in to teach with us as a side gig have left with a new passion for education after seeing what’s possible. I’ve seen educators who work with us start their own small businesses (I am one of them!).

And most of all, it’s humbling to see the way people want to come back next summer. Circumstances don’t allow for everyone to, but half of last summer’s students are in the process of applying to participate in our second year alumni program, and all of our former instructors have voiced interest in coming back to teach again.

Closing words

If you are a teenager or know a teenager (or know a few of them!) — I know there are countless wonderful options to consider for how to spend summer 2017. But I hope you will seriously consider Startable Pittsburgh. There isn’t another program out there quite like it — believe me, I’ve checked.

When it comes down to it, eight weeks is not an extremely long time. Twice that amount of time has passed since our last cohort said goodbye. But it’s just enough time to change your life, if you let it.

The Startable Pittsburgh application goes live on on January 1, 2017. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for updates throughout the year.

The whole gang from 2016. My favorite picture.