The following is a first person account of what I experienced as a Startup Weekend 1st timer.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15th : 7PM
Andrew “Kirps” Kirpalani (one of the organizers) took the mic and began with a question, “Why are you here?”. His answer was simple and to the point. “You’re here because entrepreneurs are the most interesting people in the world. You’re here because you will be more productive and end up with more creative energy in these three days than you have all year. You’re here because you’ve had this idea for a while and have always wondered if it had legs. You’re here because you’re ready to create a startup. “
When I started here back in June, I knew I had a lot to learn and that some things could only be learned during a specific time. Startup Weekend is one of those things. I’d received different takes on the weekend. What it was, what you should do, what mattered and what didn’t. Some said you might end up quitting your day job. Others said you could meet an investor or co-founder. Regardless, you’d get to build on an idea, learn how to validate it and properly articulate it.
As City Manager I have a lot of responsibilities. One of those is being able to provide educational programming that is relevant to our residents and the startup community. Granted, I AM part of a startup, but I’m not a CEO, CFO or founder of anything. It’s hard to know what someone needs, especially when you’ve never been in their shoes. I figured, if I was going to do this right and learn as much as I could, I needed to start at square one. I shouldn’t sit on the sidelines; I should be on a team and create something. Ultimately, I should to be a part of something larger than myself and the startup community.
The mission of Startup Weekend is to change people’s lives by bringing out their inner entrepreneur. It’s a chance to be part of a global startup battle. In the next two weekends there will be 200 cities and 20,000 entrepreneurs competing for $500,000 in prizes. How’s THAT for being a part of something huge?
37 people signed up and gathered at StartupCity for Startup Weekend Des Moines. After the initial welcome and dissemination of pertinent participant information, those who wanted to pitch an idea got in line. Once pitches were done, it was time to vote. Each pitch was written on a large Post-it and placed on the wall. Each participant was given three regular sized Post-it’s to use as their vote. A vote was cast by placing a regular size Post-it on one of the larger Post-it’s. The ideas with the most votes remained.
The remaining ideas were:
The Wedding List: a web application to make the process of creating a wedding guest list smoother.
Are We Open : a network connection for the neon “Open” sign.
Trakkit : application that allows individuals to track the “stuff” they do everyday. See graphs, gain insights, and visualize everything you like to track.
FoodFrom: delivery of food from your hometown straight to your doorstep through a subscription box service.
BeardOrNot.co : an online beard competition, users upload a photo of their beard and people get to vote on the degree of beardlyness that the photo possesses
Brick X Brick : Creating a 2D representation of a photo using Lego blocks. You can print off building instructions and buy the pieces you need.
Papermedium: Physical copies of your favorite Medium authors to your doorstep.
I was a fan of several of these ideas. This was the hardest part of my weekend, figuring out which team I wanted to be a part of. I looked around to see how many people were in certain groups and thought about what I could do to help, since I’m not a programmer/developer or designer. I looked to my right and saw Torey Maerz, Mike Naughton, Kasey McCurdy, Michael Bosworth and Jeff Shinrock standing together. These are people that I share a space with everyday, but don’t really get the opportunity to work with. In that moment, my mind was made up. I was joining Team BeardOrNot.
We gathered in a small conference room and created a few lists on the whiteboard: Skills, MVP, Tasks and Deliverables. Doing this showed us right away who knew how to do what, what was most important and what needed to be done. We created a Trello account that would allow us to keep track of all the tasks and show us the status of each task. This helped everyone stay focused and manage time properly since we didn’t have to ask what needed to be done or ask someone where they were on something. All we had to do was look. While we added tasks to Trello we talked about content. A spokesman would take things to another level and we knew we needed a gallery of beards. Without that, there was nothing to vote on. I decided that this would be my focus, since I lack the technical skills necessary to build a Lincoln Log Cabin, let alone a website.
At 9:47pm I sent a facebook message to Sam Auen explaining where I was, what I was doing and that we’d like to have him be our spokesman in a promotional video for the site. I stared at my sent message. I saw a checkmark and timestamp. HE READ IT. I told the guys he read it and waited for a reply. I was too excited to be patient and sent a follow-up message at 10:06pm. At 11:32pm he read it and replied, “I can do something for that”. YESSSSSSS!!!! I set up a time to swing by Tacopacalypse on Saturday to record the promo. Knowing that Sam would be at the restaurant, I wanted to make things as easy for him as possible, so I wrote up a short script. I contacted a talented videographer, asking if he wouldn’t mind coming along for the ride. He agreed. Double YESSSSSSS!!!!
While the fellas continued to plug away on things I couldn’t understand, I thought about getting pictures of beards. I looked online for a basic Audio/Photo/Video/Media Release Form, to further legitimize what we were doing and to also cover our ass. This is America, we have more lawyers than doctors. Having a release certainly couldn’t hurt. By the time I found one that I liked, it was a little past midnight. I decided to call it a day and go home to get some sleep. I said my “goodnights” and told everyone I’d be back at 9am.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 16th: 9AM
I made a quick stop at Amici to get a Mocha Frazzi and grab a doughnut. They were having a buy-one get-one deal on doughnuts, so I grabbed a Maple Bacon one for Mike. Mike likes doughnuts. When I got to the office I greeted the gang and asked if they got any sleep. The got a few hours, but were really excited about the idea and ended up plugged away until early in the morning. While they stared at their computers, I hit up facebook. I wanted to try and get as many beards as possible before recording the promotional video at 11, and before I took Brett Neese to his tattoo appt at 1. I promised him I’d go with him since it was his first tattoo. We’ve all been there, right?
At 10:30 the videographer and I head over to Tacopocalypse. When we get there Sam had just left to run to the store. This worked in our favor because it allowed us to get the equipment set up, do an audio check and discuss what would be the best place to shoot. We decided that inside the restaurant wouldn’t work because of the customers (we would need their permission to be on video), the light wasn’t good and the noise level couldn’t be controlled. We discussed doing it outside, but decided to wait and see what Sam thought. Sam shows up and said we could go into the hallway next to Tacopocalypse. I had no idea one even existed. The hallway was working perfectly until a baby -who was part of an Ugly Christmas Sweater Family Photo being taken at the photography studio connected to the hallway- started to scream and cry. Sam told us we could go into the basement and record. This basement would make antique hunters go NUTS. Old Coca-Cola machine, Anderson Erickson cooler, I’m telling’ ya…it was a beaut’, Clark. Sam lead us to the very back and we found the perfect place to shoot. I had him take a look at the scripts and let him know ad-libbing was fine, I had just put those together to give him an idea of the tone we were trying to convey. Long story short…he nailed it. The videographer and I leave Tacopacalypse and I return to the Bank of America building to pick up Brett and take him to his tattoo appt. Once the appt was done I made a quick stop at Office Depot, then it was back to StartupCity.
When I walked into the small conference room -aka our home for the weekend- I noticed a new list on the whiteboard: Mission Critical Function. This was a list of things that needed to be done ASAP in order for the site to be functional for Sunday. We needed vote navigation, real content and to fix the router. Kasey, Jeff, Boz, Torey and Mike worked on the “pull data from the server and place it on the homepage” real content, while I focused on the images that needed to be uploaded to populate our gallery. I set a goal of 50 beards. I asked the guys if they felt that was too lofty of a goal, they said, “no”. I continued to hit up friends on facebook, demanding (in a very polite way) that they let me use a picture of their beard. The videographer had given us the footage he recorded earlier in the day and gave it to Kasey so he could put together the promotional video. Everyone kept working on the site while I tried to get beards and Kasey worked on the promotional video.
By 5pm I had 13 beards and was due for a break. I told Kasey I needed to get out for a bit and offered to get him some food so he could stay focused on the video. When it was time to get the grub I grabbed a few releases and was on my way. Between StartupCity and Court Ave Brewing Company I got three beards. YEA BUDDY!!! I was super stoked! Not only did this show me that my message was hitting the right angles, but it proved that guys would be receptive to what we were trying to do. Once back at the office we kept working on our Trello To Do List…all while jamming to Hip Hop. We had changed the music to a different genre for about an hour, but turned it back to Hip Hop because it made ALL of us more productive. Not sure how that works out, it just did. As we neared the end of day 2 we noticed everyone was in need of a break. We decided to hit the streets for an hour with two goals in mind: have a tasty beverage and get some beards.
While out getting food earlier, the men I got pictures of told me to check out Royal Mile, Hessen House and Breck’s to get some beards. We left the office at 10pm and our first stop was Royal Mile. As we walked past The Lift, there were 3 guys standing outside smoking, two had beards. I told them our mission and asked for a picture. One gave a “yes” the other gave a “no” claiming that he was working and didn’t have the time. We kept walking to Royal Mile. Once inside, the fellas went upstairs to scope out Red Monk, while I hit up the lone beard in the room. I explained what we were doing and his face lit up. He looked at his buddies, pointed to his beard and said, “Told you”. He gladly signed and let me take his picture. I was told by my crew that there weren’t any beards upstairs, so we went to Hessen House. I entered with my phasers set to stun and looked for beards. While waiting for a drink, a gorgeous one walked in. Kasey looked at me and said, “Danyelle, you gotta’ his.” I replied, “ I’m on it. Watch my drink”. With release in hand I headed off towards “Mr. Hessen”. A minute later I walked back with it signed. I was able to get a second release signed before we hit the patio and while on the patio I obtained a 3rd . Our hour was almost up so we made a brief stop at Breck’s. It was packed and was taking way too long to even enter the bar, let alone see if any beards were inside, so we all headed back to StartupCity to keep working. Around Midnight I called it a day and told everyone I would return at 10am tomorrow.
SUNDAY November 17th: 10AM
I greeted my teammates and asked where we stood with the things I didn’t understand. We were looking REALLY good. They were finishing up a few things and making sure we’d have a fully functional site by 5pm, which is when we were to give our final pitches. Kasey had finished the promo video and had enough time to put together a 2nd clean version. After watching what I consider an EPIC and hilarious video, I went back into beard acquisition mode. By 3pm I had 37 beards. I didn’t hit my 50, which was a tiny bummer, but 37 was damn good and I was proud of my efforts. I updated everyone on the number and asked if they would mind if I did the pitch. I felt it would only be fair since they did a majority of the work this weekend and I was the one who got decent sleep. They told me to go for it. With their input and revisions I put together a pretty tight pitch. I printed off a copy and headed to the skywalk to practice.
I returned to the conference room around 4 and the site was ready for pictures. I put them on a USB and shared them with the team. From that point on it was a straight hustle to get the user accounts created and beards uploaded. Kirps told us it was time to head out into the main room for final pitches. In my head I was screaming, “NO! NOT YET! WE DON’T HAVE OUR BEARDS UP YET!” Sigh. We loaded into the chairs in the main area and my hands started to shake. The laptop sitting upon my knees was bouncing. I was so nervous. I have this thing with talking in front of a crowd. For the most part, once I get up there I’m ok, especially if someone else is with me. But this was different. This wasn’t just a regular talk in front of a crowd. This was me telling familiar and unfamiliar faces about a project I worked on all weekend with my friends. I didn’t want to let my teammates down.
Kirps let everyone know what was going on and introduced us to the judges: Erin Rollenhagen, (founder, Entrepreneurial Technologies), Sheldon Ohringer (CEO At Celaris) and Joel Marks (Software Engineer at Webfilings LLC). He also gave us the final pitch order. Team BeardOrNot.co would be going 5th. Jeff could tell that I was nervous and told me to relax. He reassured me that I was going to do just fine and reminded me that we did this for fun. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Next thing I know, it was our turn to pitch. Jeff and I step in the front of the room, I take the mic from Kirps and give a disclaimer: Warning. The following video may contain subject matter not suitable for children. Parental discretion is advised. Kasey cues up the video…and it doesn’t play. I’m thinking, “Ah man…technical difficulties? Really? I’m ready to get this over with and can’t because the video won’t play.“ Kirps says that it’s a good time to take a break and tells us to come back in 10.
Break ends and we start again. “Seriously. The following video contains material not suited for anyone. Parental discretion is advised”. I looked at the judges and wondered what they would think. The video kicks in. I look at the crowd and see smiles and hear laughs. 60 seconds later the video ends and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face if I wanted to. I start the pitch and explain how the idea for BeardOrNot came about, who was on the team, how we got Sam and the beard pics, how the site works, how we would monetize the site and ended with a question, “Is it a beard…or not?”. Cue inner celebration…end with deep sigh. We sat back in our seats and listened to the rest of the pitches. When the last pitch was done Kirps told us that the judges would deliberate and that dinner should be delivered momentarily.
Everyone grabbed food while I walked around trying to shake off the rest of the jitters I had accumulated. 20 minutes or so later, Kirps announced that the judges were done deliberating and asked everyone to come back into the main area. My team and I gathered at a table off to the side so we could get a good view of the judges and crowd. Sheldon tells us that they really liked all of the ideas and we collectively did a really great job with our pitches. He also tells us that it was really hard to decide who the winners were, but they made their decisions; 3rd place belonged to The Wedding list and there would be a tie for 1st. He said that both teams started with the letter “B”. I thought to myself, “Wait? What? OUR team starts with the letter “B”.” I looked at my team and remarked, “Shut…up”. We tied for first with Team Brick It!. Wow. I was stunned. Honestly, I thought the judges would look at it like a joke. But they saw the potential that we saw. I couldn’t believe it. We won. We friggen won! We all gathered for a group photo, then my team and I thanked the judges for their time and asked for additional feedback. They were more than glad to provide it and what they had to tell us reinforced the ideas that we discussed, but didn’t go into detail on because we didn’t have the time. What we DID have time for, was a celebratory drink.
Startup Weekend was amazing. I met a lot of really great people, got to spend quality time with friends and won something I had never done before. I walked away smarter and fully inspired. I built something awesome with awesome people. Finally, the title of “I do awesome things with awesome people” came to life. I don’t know what will happen with BeardOrNot.co, but my mind is swirling with possibility. I didn’t have that before Friday, now I do. Startup Weekend brought out my inner entrepreneur. Mission BEYOND accomplished.