Startup Weekend here ready to guide the next big idea
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In an era where the day's tech interactions start as early as the 5 a.m. alarm on a smartphone, it's no surprise people from all walks of life are conjuring up ideas for the next big breakthrough. But once most of them ponder the brainpower and cash needed to bring their concepts to life, it's also no surprise many ideas are dismissed as pipe dreams.
Recognizing the disconnect between people with innovative technology concepts and those with the expertise to bring them to fruition, tech entrepreneur Kit Mueller and Internet consultant David Cristello have organized the first Pittsburgh Startup Weekend, an event based on others hosted in cities across the globe. The goal is to build the structure of a solid business over the course of a weekend.
Part inspiration and part 54-hours of perspiration, guests at Pittsburgh Startup Weekend will gather at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland today, hear a series of rapid-fire business pitches from both experienced entrepreneurs and novices, and then form teams to build business plans, prototypes, websites or mobile apps for the companies.
Each group's efforts will be judged by a panel of tech experts, entrepreneurs and investors on Sunday. The winning team will receive cash prizes, Ideapaint dry erase whiteboard paint, hosting services from Pair Networks, Pirates tickets and free space at the Beauty Shoppe, an East Liberty-based office space for tech companies.
The amount of the cash prizes will be determined after the event's expenses are calculated.
The event, underwritten by the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation, is being sponsored locally by the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, Pittsburgh Technology Council, Alpha Labs, Innovation Works and several other organizations.
Audrey Russo, CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and a Pittsburgh Startup Weekend mentor, said the event will help guide many potential business owners she comes across who aren't sure what to do with their ideas.
"Very often people have an idea but don't know where to start and don't even know who would help [them] think it through," she said. Another hope is that the event will encourage business owners to keep their home base in the region.
"We need this to occur with more frequency so that people understand they can start and build big ideas right here in Pittsburgh," Ms. Russo said.
Mr. Mueller, a Pittsburgh native who was involved in Chicago Startup Weekend in 2010, said several who have attended such events across the world intending to be observers left as a central figure in a new business. Mr. Mueller has launched several businesses of his own in the past, including Chicago real estate networking company Chicago REVerb and SPARKt, a series of conferences for technology in real estate.
"You'd be amazed how much work gets done in 54 hours. It's inspiring," he said.
A prime example comes from a team Mr. Mueller worked with in the Chicago gathering. An idea to create a digital "dashboard" connecting Web-based enterprise software to a single screen evolved to a working product that interfaced with six different pieces of software by the end of the weekend.
In addition to working software, the team had convinced 10 potential clients to give recommendations for the product, found two potential companies to serve as alpha users and created a full business presentation.
"All the things you need to present to a real investor in a real business case or a real user, we had pretty much teed up to go," he said.
Maris McEdward, vice president of marketing for the Seattle-based Startup Weekend Organization, said one of the most successful businesses plans to date was made by someone with no intentions to pitch an idea.
Zaarly, a Seattle-based online marketplace where users request goods or services from people in their communities by setting their own pricing and delivery terms, was introduced by former Kauffman Foundation executive Bo Fishback and tech entrepreneur Eric Koester in February 2011 at Los Angeles Startup Weekend.
The pitch was so effective it led to the company receiving more than $1 million in seed funding -- including funds from actor Ashton Kutcher -- and to Mr. Fishback leaving his position with Kauffman to head the startup full-time. By October, the company had received $14.1 million in venture capital and added former eBay CEO Meg Whitman to its board of directors.
Mr. Koester, also a Startup Weekend board member, said he didn't expect the company to gain so much momentum from the event, but anyone attending one of the competitions shouldn't discount the possibility of similar success.
"I don't think any of us envisioned on Friday night of Startup Weekend that we'd have something like Zaarly on our hands. But it goes to show that if you take a big idea and give it to a hard-working, smart team, that anything can happen," he said in a blog post on the Startup Weekend website.
Another hurdle that may prevent people from selling their idea is a lack of trust. Ms. McEdward noted there is no official confidentiality agreement surrounding pitches made at Startup Weekends, but pointed out that the most important part of any idea is execution, which won't ever happen without collaboration.
"Some people have been thinking about their ideas for years and it's scary to think about pitching what's become their baby to a room full of strangers," she said. "But an idea that is worthwhile isn't going to grow without other people judging its validity and helping to make it grow."
Even if an idea presented during Pittsburgh's weekend doesn't translate into a successful business, Mr. Mueller said the effort of building the business is almost as important as actual success because it will encourage other entrepreneurs to take risks. "You need to be as willing to risk it all as to win it all in this case, he said.
"The entrepreneurial mind-set is go big or go home. You're not looking to hit a double. Sometimes in this arena, because there haven't been as many big wins, people are trying for that ground rule double.
"I think if you're going to compete against other people when putting ideas to market you've got to swing for the fence."
For more information, visit pgh.startupweekend.org.
First Published March 23, 2012 12:00 am