How Hard Could It Be?
Right now, all eyes are trained on Chuck Erickson, tonight's keynote speaker. Erickson wears a dark blue blazer and speaks with a sort of clerical cadence, like a televised pastor trying to inspire his flock. You can tell he's in the zone. It's nearing 8 p.m., the end of another workweek in late January, and I'm seated among a group of start-up aspirants in the University Center ballroom at California State University, Monterey Bay, about a mile and a half from the Pacific Ocean. Startup Weekend has officially begun.
Erickson grabs onto the lectern.
"Don't let people tell you you're too small to start something," says Erickson, an investor and business mentor in Silicon Valley. "When Zuckerberg first brought out Facebook, everyone said, 'Who cares?' And look what happened when two guys from Stanford decided they had a better idea for search."
There are about 80 people in the ballroom, and they all seem to be nodding.
There's Ed Carapezza, a former construction manager who dreams of building a skateboard company.
There's Magdy Francis Ibrahim, a local restaurateur who wants to create better business-management software.
There's Tisa Cawthon, a paratriathlete and interior designer who wants to relaunch Cockroach Crunch, the failed iPhone game she developed in 2009.
There's Basile Michardiere, a 21-year-old Frenchman building a social network for families.
There's Cesar Lerma, who says he's working on a "worldwide equation that anyone could use to become a millionaire."
There's David Steinberg, a 28-year-old software engineer who wants to build an advertising network that would reward people for real-life activities.
There's Eddie Aguilar, a business student who wants to build Moocher, an app that will ping users when retailers are giving away free stuff.
There's Rick Brandley, a self-described "supersenior" in his fifth year of college, who wants to build Wan2Learn, a website on which instructors can offer their services. ("Like Craigslist," he says. "Only without sh-ty design.")
They've all paid $50 to $100 to come to Startup Weekend, the part-business-plan-competition-part-hackathon-part-cultural-phenomenon. In six years, there have been more than 1,000 Startup Weekends just like this in 450 cities in 104 countries. This very weekend, in fact, there are 10 other Startup Weekends happening all around the world. More than 100,000 people have done it. It is, in short, the world's most popular start-up event, inspired by a simple, exhilarating promise: "No Talk, All Action. Launch a Startup in 54 Hours."
Erickson pauses and inhales.
"I really want you to work hard, go out there and be successful, because all of those naysayers that said you can't do this--well, let me tell you, when you've made it, and you're successful, it's so nice to walk back up to them and go, 'Na-na-na-na-naaa.'"
Erickson releases the lectern, and everyone cheers--it's time to pitch.
Thirty-two participants queue to stage left. One by one, microphone in hand, they explain their business idea and whom they need to help them build it. (The other attendees don't have business ideas; they have come to Startup Weekend to attach themselves to a cool project.) When the pitch session is over, the unaffiliated participants are given 20 minutes to roam about the ballroom, looking for a team to join. It's like speed dating for start-ups. Pitches without much traction are discarded, and their founders decide to join another team or leave. By 9 p.m., 10 teams have formed. In less than 48 hours, after hacking together a minimum viable product--all weekend, people will be talking about their MVP--they will present to a panel of judges. Winners will get free business services and the confidence to continue pursuing their dream.
I sit down next to Eddie Aguilar, the founder of Moocher. Aguilar is dressed casually in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black coat. He's only 21, but he's commanding his team of seven workers like a seasoned CEO. Winning this event is important to him.
"Have any of you worked at a start-up company before? It's incredibly hard."
"Developers: What do you need from me?"
"Let's define our value proposition."
Aguilar grew up in a modest Los Angeles suburb and now studies entrepreneurship at CSUMB. After college, he wants to move to Silicon Valley and study patent law. Aguilar embodies the classic start-up dreamer, the type of kid who can see a business opportunity in nearly anything: Before Moocher, he thought he might build a geolocation app that would find available public restrooms. Before the bathroom app, he wrote a business plan for an e-commerce site that would let college students exchange textbooks online. (When I suggest that there are already several sites that do this, he corrects me immediately: "My business model is totally different.")
We're at a large round table in the break room, not far from the bottomless pot of coffee. Aguilar tells his three developers to sit together and asks his two marketing people to sit by him. It's going to be a long, hard weekend, he tells them. They may not get much sleep tonight. He pulls out a whiteboard from under the table and begins to write down tasks.
"People," he says, "It's OK to think big but act small."
Day Two: This Could Work! (Couldn't It?)
Basile Michardiere, the French founder of Bubblio.com, is one of the first to arrive at the University Center.
It's 8 a.m., and participants are slowly, somewhat groggily, trickling in. Forty-seven people remain. Today's goal, as outlined by the Startup Weekend road map, is straightforward: Research, build, research, build. Teams are expected to make a good start on a product, research its market potential, start creating a prototype, receive customer validation, and design marketing copy and logos.
Teams will also be meeting throughout the day with mentors and coaches, a staple of the Startup Weekend experience. These mentors and coaches--a mix of entrepreneurs, investors, and business professors--volunteer their weekends to provide everything from strategic advice to emotional support. Outside Startup Weekend, their consulting advice could theoretically cost hundreds of dollars.
Michardiere has taken a year off from Sciences Po, one of France's elite colleges, to move to San Francisco to pursue the Silicon Valley dream. His start-up idea is a private social network just for families, and he's here to find a team of engineers that can turn his idea into a reality. Like a true leader, he's even bought Rockstar energy drinks for the team to share. He cracks one open. It smells like cherry candy.
"Developers, man," he says with a slow Parisian lilt. "They are expensive."
The official Startup Weekend road map, the 10-page entrepreneurial instruction manual, pushes its participants to spend a lot of time focusing on customer validation. So Michardiere is crafting a survey. On Sunday night, when the teams will present to a panel of judges, the judges will want to know exactly what market this new business will serve.
Right now, the time constraint is killing Michardiere.
"I am tense!" Michardiere tells me, chewing on his fingers. "I have to make it now."
Tisa Cawthon and her life-and-business partner, Lenny Marut, are quick to show off Cockroach Crunch.
As the game's name suggests, cockroaches skitter across the screen, and players earn points by crushing them. In 2009, the couple paid a programmer $10,000 to build the game, which they sold on iTunes for $1 a download. They admit they didn't think much about marketing. In fact, they didn't market the game at all. It tanked.
Cawthon now spends her days training for the 2016 Paralympics triathlon. (Her left arm was amputated in 2008.) She's taken the weekend off to come here in the hope of figuring out how to relaunch Cockroach Crunch.
Cawthon stands beside her team.
"You got some ideas? Throw 'em out," she says.
A whiteboard in front of them reads Brain Dump.
"Who's our market? Is it going to be preteen? People in general? What makes us different from all the other apps?"
The team members jump in with ideas. One of them suggests they make it more shareable by adding social-media features. Cawthon mentions packaging the game for a corporate buyer like Raid.
Later, I ask Cawthon whether she thinks she can successfully relaunch Cockroach Crunch.
"Hey," she says. "You never know."
The Del Monte shopping center smells like lip gloss and Wetzel's Pretzels. Rick Brandley, the founder of Wan2Learn, and his friend Trevor Randall have come here to survey potential users of their site. Once they have 100 survey responses, they feel they will be in a strong position to defend the brand on Sunday night.
"Theoretically," their survey pitch goes, "would you use a website that connects instructors who want to teach stuff with students who want to learn stuff?"
Randall holds a clipboard in his hands. On it, there's a sheet of paper with three columns: Yes, No, Maybe.
We enter a Macy's looking for people to poll. Brandley is wearing jeans and a plaid spring coat. He has a thick neck, little black eyes, and hair the color of orange Gatorade. He sells insurance part time, and right now he's using his best salesman approach.
He saunters up to three nice-smelling women at the perfume counter.
"Ladies," Brandley announces. "We're doing this thing called Startup Weekend, where you start a business in one weekend. Can I ask you one question?"
The women seem suspicious. One of them looks behind us, as if she is expecting Ashton Kutcher to jump out at any minute. Brandley reads the question, and tepidly, the three women nod in unison. Randall records three yeses.
The duo repairs to the menswear section.
"We should get some shirts," Randall says, passing a stack of folded polos.
"Let's focus," Brandley says.
The pair catches its next mark: two employees in matching button-downs near the Nautica section.
"We're doing this thing called Startup Weekend...Can I ask you one question?"
The Nautica men are yeses. We head outside.
Brandley spots a security guard and calls him over to poll him, but the guard interprets the survey as a solicitation--an affront to Del Monte's strict no-solicitation policy. As we're escorted off the property, Randall tallies the number of respondents: a disappointing 27.
Later, Brandley talks about Wan2Learn becoming a real business one day.
"It would be nuts if this took off," he says. "I feel like this will be easy. I'm super confident."
Mexican dinner is served, and teams are scrambling to finish their prototypes and begin assembling presentations.
Michardiere's fingernails are nearly chewed off, but he seems happy. The team has made progress. Marcus Bell, one of Michardiere's developers, has called in a classmate to help with some of the design work, and he's already sent in a logo. The team is also meeting with Matt Coombs, a Startup Weekend coach and a serial entrepreneur-turned-college administrator.
"If I'm looking at this as an investor, I want you to be able to tell me why this business model is sexy," he says. Coombs explains that Bubblio.com's core value proposition to investors wouldn't necessarily be its monthly fees but the aggregate data it could collect. "If I've announced that I'm pregnant on Bubblio, you can now sell that in aggregate to every neonatal company," Coombs says. Michardiere smiles and nods.
Over at Team Moocher, Aguilar is crouched over his three developers, who have already developed a basic Moocher app. "Sleep?" says Ugar Oezdemir, one of the developers. "What's that?"
Cockroach Crunch is struggling. The online survey the team sent out crashed, and the results never came back. They're still fixated on what exactly makes a game go viral. They're thinking about launching a Kickstarter to raise money, but they're not sure how they would monetize the game.
Around 11 p.m., I visit the Wan2Learn team table. While Brandley and Randall were out at the mall, their teammates had made progress. Their designer, Brad Schoch, has created a PDF mockup of a landing page, search functionality, and an instructor page.
Brandley is ebullient about how things are going. He raises his fists. "This could be the next Facebook!" he exclaims. Eyes light up with the possibility of great fortune. Then, with one quick thwap, Randall raps Brandley in his crotch, and Brandley crumples to the ground. The team members laugh.
Day Three: Who's Ready to Pitch?
The University Center ballroom looks like some sort of start-up combat zone. There are giant slabs of paper with hockey-stick-like revenue projections strewn about the floor, and cinematic sunbeams cascade into the room through its western wall of windows. People dart around, bleary-eyed and drinking Red Bulls. They are amped up and excited for the evening's pitch competition, which starts at 5.
Teams continue to meet with coaches, refine their pitches, and try to predict questions the judges may ask. For David Steinberg, the founder of Vigor.io, a rewards-based promotional service, meetings with coaches this weekend have been the most valuable part of the experience.
"Startup Weekend forces you to think about your idea seriously, which is something I wouldn't have done in the past," he says. "I might have done a mockup, but this forces me to think: What if someone actually put money in my hands?"
Fewer than 1 percent of Startup Weekend companies actually raise money from venture capitalists, but it happens. Startup Weekend has come a long way. The first one, a scrappy affair in 2007, was streamed live over TechCrunch. It was a novelty, a stunt--70 or so geeks in a room seeing what they could hack together overnight. For the most part, TechCrunch readers loved it. But there were a few skeptics, people who saw something sad, or even dark, in the proposition that something meaningful could be created overnight. Those people suggested that the excitement around the event--which ended up creating a simple app--presaged an imminent start-up bubble.
But something else was happening--maybe less perceptible at the time but very real. Because the costs of starting a business were increasingly approaching zero, entrepreneurship was becoming more accessible to the masses. The intimidation factor was dwindling.
Still, I wondered: Do people really believe they can start a company--or become ready to run one--after 54 hours?
Of course not, and by Sunday evening, I begin to realize that's almost entirely beside the point.
From the moment participants enter to the moment they leave, they are carefully stewarded through the "entrepreneurial journey." They share ideas and listen to others. They learn how to calculate revenue projections and start-up costs. Real entrepreneurs teach them how they can go out and raise money. It's education, sure, but there's something more vital, more elemental, and perhaps more complex about the human psyche that makes this 54-hour experience so addictive.
It's fantasy camp. At some point or another, haven't we all imagined ourselves as Mark Zuckerberg?
Rick Brandley is sitting with his team in the back of the University Center ballroom when he learns that Wan2Learn has won Startup Weekend Monterey Bay. He nearly jumps out of his chair. It turns out the judges didn't really care if the teams had built a prototype, and Wan2Learn's PDF presentation was by far the prettiest. The team gets up onstage and accepts its plaques.
Michardiere's pitch fell a little flat, and one of the judges didn't quite understand how Bubblio.com was different from some other sites. But Michardiere is still glowing. He's glad he met his developers, and they already have a plan to meet up sometime in the next week. Moocher's presentation went smoothly, but the judges saw the business as a Groupon clone and discounted it immediately. Behind closed doors, as the judges deliberated, they did not even mention Cockroach Crunch.
Before everyone leaves, Brett Nakatsu, the Startup Weekend facilitator, gets onstage.
"Did everyone here learn something?" he asks. Everyone in the audience raises a hand.
Someone in the back of the room shouts that there will be another Startup Weekend six months from now.
The crowd roars.