From the pitch to the prize: building a company in 54 hours
June 23, 2013 Editor 0
Pitching your startup can be nerve-wracking. You’re condensing the idea you’ve dreamed about for months into a few sentences and sharing it with a group of strangers who can crush it or allow you to nurture it into a full-blown company.
If that isn’t pressure enough, once your pitch at a Startup Weekend event is voted on to the next level, you have 54 hours to create a business model, design and code the product, and validate how it might fare on the market. This was the basic challenge that potential entrepreneurs had to navigate at Startup Weekend’s Tech4Change event, held at Mercy Corps‘ headquarters June 7-9th.
But this marathon event had an extra twist: it focused on tech startups that would have the greatest social impact. Entrepreneurs had to meet the added challenge of creating viable social enterprises that could be scaled to address tough global challenges. Participants came away with more than just their ability to stay sane in the midst of creative chaos; they learned how to perfect the art of pitching, network with possible partners and team members, and most importantly, develop the skills to successfully launch their own company.
“Distill your problem statement and be as specific as possible about what you are trying to solve,” said Adam Steele, the COO of Seattle-based Startup Weekend. He advised the audience of entrepreneurs to spend extensive time on general market research.
Find out who else is doing what you’re doing, who your customers are, and be especially aware of the context of your product market. This puts you in a position to have the most impact. Startup weekend is a one-of-kind educational experience, there’s nothing like it.
The weekend saw designers, developers, business project managers, marketers and nonprofit program officers come together to create products with powerful social impact. Non-profits like Mercy Corps added their own expertise about the needs of potential low-income customers and social issues in the places the organization operates, and creative agencies, like Thoughtworks and Manifesto, were eager to gain new ideas and strategic partnerships for clients.
At the end of the weekend, Joanna Malaczynski’s business idea, EcoValuate, took the grand prize for its model to aggregate information from public and private databases to analyze the environmental safety of chemicals. Before pitches were made at the competition, Malaczynski, who is a lawyer by training and has a master’s degree in environmental planning from UC Berkeley, said she had been working on her pitch for months and wanted to see how it would fare among the other ideas focused on social change.
Malaczynski’s vision clearly resonated with the crowd, who voted it into the top 10, and also with the judges. Although no cash prizes were awarded at the competition, winners were offered a host of other services to get their ideas off the ground, such as free legal packages from Perkins Coie and Davis Wright Tremaine, marketing advice from Manifesto, membership to VOIS Business Alliance and web services, like free domain names from domain.com.
Other simple, but socially powerful ventures that were pitched included “FlagTo,” which would use local technology to give mobile addresses to businesses and people in challenging places where it’s difficult to acquire a physical address; it secured second place in the competition. Another was “Smart Phone,” which aimed to give people in the developing world a smartphone they could pay for by agreeing to watch ads every time they used the phone.
“A startup is a blessing and a curse,” remarked Kathleen Judge, a competitor, before the frenzy of the weekend had even started. She was referring to the risk and hard work involved in trying to make it on your own. However, Tech4Change demonstrated to her that she was far from alone in trying to solve old problems through technology and entrepreneurship.
Tech4Change was the first of its kind to focus on social impact in Portland, but StartupWeekend has had a long-running partnership with Mercy Corps to recreate the entrepreneurial spirit in devastated areas like the Gaza strip and Haiti
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