The exhilaration of building a company over a weekend

Editor’s note: When we asked Ben Davidson to report on what goes on at Startup Weekend we couldn’t know we would also get a glimpse of what it’s like to win. Judges for the event were Jack Ahrens, Venture Capitalist at Pathfinder; Kim Klap of Start Garden; Matthew Mace, founder and CEO of BlueGranite; and Gary Stock, founder and CEO of Nexcerpt. They considered eight different companies before declaring Davidson’s team the winner. Here’s how it went.

From the moment the pitches began Friday evening, it was clear the weekend was going to be an exhilarating experience. From mobile applications to crowd-funding solutions, browser extensions to social media services, the innovations coming from Southwest Michigan these days are as varied as they are impressive, as Startup Weekend demonstrated.

Coming only a couple of weeks after the announcement of Start Garden in Grand Rapids (a $15 million venture fund which gives out $5,000 to two new ventures every week) the third Kalamazoo Startup Weekend had an added element of exciting possibilities.

The weekend brought together developers, designers, as well as "non-technicals" for a competition where teams go from a concept to pitching a viable business idea in 54 hours. Several dozen contestants converged on the third floor of the Entertainment District in downtown Kalamazoo to describe their business ideas and then put together a team who would turn it to a reality.

What starts as a room full of people who may not even have met each other before quickly turns into a busy, focused group of teams all hoping to win. This is not to suggest that the environment is one of hostility, however. On the contrary, team members from one group will regularly wander over to see what others are working on and offer advice as well as a fresh perspective. The weekend may be a competition, but the deeper focus is on innovation and exciting ideas, whether from your own group or from a table across the room.

I had the privilege of working with a group on a mobile application, BabyBook, that offers a mobile supplement to the traditional, hardcover album of "firsts" that parents put together to chronicle their children's lives.

Having never been a parent myself and feeling my coding abilities to be a bit rusty, I was apprehensive when drafted as the lead developer for my team. However, with teams being solidified late on Friday night, there is little time to wonder if you are the "best pick" for your role on the team. The knowledge that a product must be ready for presentation by the end of the weekend provides inspiration to ignore doubts and fears, and instead to use all of your energy to launch yourself into making the most of the next two days.

After a short meeting that mapped out the next steps for each project, groups either left for the night or, in some cases, got straight to work to get as much done as possible while everyone's energy was still running high.

If there is any question of whether or not Startup Weekend truly mirrors the world of small business and entrepreneurship, that feeling is quickly dispelled by Saturday morning. Issues arise almost immediately -- between oversleeping, hardware problems, or perhaps enjoying the previous night a little too much, teams quickly find that the plans that seemed perfect only hours before have become difficult or even seemingly impossible to stick to. Teams must reassess and often "pivot" their ideas to make better use of their time and produce a more viable product. Designers and developers often stayed downtown while other team members hit the streets, coffee shops, and forums to validate their business ideas with the outside world.

For me, this was when things started to feel more intense, in equal parts stress and excitement. Neither the lead designer, Emilia Rauckis, nor I had been the sole person in charge of such a large portion of a project before. While she designed the look and feel for the BabyBook mobile application, I was busy trying to remember how to even start writing the necessary code. The feeling of that morning was perhaps summed up in an email I received from Emilia stating in all capitals, "I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING!" Despite this, both the design and development started to come together as our teammates -- Tharyn Taylor and Dan Jeffries -- returned from surveying locals about the market for our application. Thankfully, they had found that people were interested in our product. Another team wasn't so lucky, finding that their business idea would be almost impossible to implement.

It is that first part of Saturday that sets the tone for each team for the rest of the competition.  Some teams find they are on the right track, some must change their focus to something more marketable, and unfortunately some teams decide the obstacles before them are too great to overcome and drop out completely. This can cause everyone to feel a bit "unglued," but the organizers of this Startup Weekend were prepared -- having supplied Nerf guns to the groups, there were impromptu team battles to let off steam. By midnight, though, everyone is back to work until being forced to leave the building at 2 a.m. Many contestants kept working from home, though, and some didn't even sleep before returning downtown at 9 a.m. the next day.

Sunday morning brings a new portion of the Startup Weekend challenge to each team: crafting the perfect pitch for their business. While some members from each team continued to chug away at code, research, or other time-consuming tasks, others began to put together slides and practiced their speeches. Each team is limited to five minutes of presentation, so as the afternoon wraps up each group is trying to shave off seconds here and there while still keeping as much information as possible.

Personally, I found myself fretting over problems with the prototype BabyBook application until a few minutes before final presentations began. As the audience gathered behind the tables, I along with several others rushed around trying to get the last little bit of work in before having to stop. A few minutes later, though, everyone grouped up and prepared for their pitch before the panel of judges.

Nervously shifting in seats and drinking more coffee than was probably wise, teams anxiously await their five minutes to pitch their business idea. Following each presentation is another five minutes of questions from the judges before they leave to deliberate and decide the winner of the competition.

When the judges return, the mood of the room is one of anticipation. While Startup Weekend has a strong collaborative element, it is in the end a competition that each team wants to win. Having competed before but never won, I found myself shifting on the edge my seat as the judges prepared to announce the winner.

Nobody leaves Startup Weekend without getting something. Even if a team does not win, the friendships made and professional connections formed have great impact on the contestants. The thrill of the competition itself is enough to keep bringing people back again and again. So, when the judges called up the BabyBook team as the winner, I was elated. Everyone shook hands with the judges and talked about next steps for each of the teams. The validation of winning kept my spirits especially high -- I'm not sure I wiped the silly grin off my face for a couple of hours.

Eventually, though, the fatigue from the late nights and long days sets in. Everyone starts to pack up, some leaving for home and others getting together for a bite to eat before parting. The BabyBook team got together and discussed what to do next. Would each team member stick with the group? Or was the commitment going forward simply too great to handle?

The future for each team, winner or no, is uncertain. Some will go on and continue to grow, while others will stay as a weekend project. For BabyBook, our next step has become pursuing outside funding. Our idea may take off, or it may not. No matter what, though, come October you can find me at Kalamazoo's next Startup Weekend.

Benjamin Davidson is the Marketing Director for Watts Homes and previous contestant at multiple Startup Weekend competitions.

The companies

Organizers of the third Kalamazoo Startup Weekend say they worked hard to get the message out the 54 hour event was not just for developers, but that business and design background were equally important. The message seems to have allayed some fears. The third Kalamazoo Startup Weekend had its largest turnout and its greatest participation from women.

The companies created during the Third Kalamazoo Startup Weekend:

Anesthesia Resource – A website that allows those in the anesthesia community to find focused answers to their anesthesia related questions. It will also have a job board and uploading capabilities.

• Hearthfelt Pancakes – Hearthfelt Gourmet Pancakes manufactures original gourmet, dry pancake mixes.

• Charity Networking – There are people with extra stuff and there are people who need stuff. The problem is neither have to money or a common meeting place to help each other out.

•  Mi Favoritos – Read it later in a 3×3 grid. A way to save stories to read at a later time, it creates a unique reading experience by removing all of the distractions from an article and showing you just the text and images.

• Beer Tweaker – Custom, craft-brewed beer with custom labels created from customer designs and shipped to cater weddings and other large events.

• CrowdLanding – As the leading crowdfunding aggregator, CrowdLanding has built a proprietary system to track companies searching for crowdfunding through platforms such as CrowdCube, MicroVentures, Launcht, EarlyShares and hundreds of other crowd funding sites.

• Warn Weather – Notification system for severe weather.

Photos courtesy Startup Weekend.

Weekend participants are seen at various stages of the competition. The final photo shows the creators of BabyBook, Ben Davidson, Tharyn Taylor, Emila Rauckis and Dan Jeffries.

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