Last week's Global Entrepreneurship Week constituted a dizzying number of events —lectures, workshops, information sessions, meetings, political speeches, panels, luncheons and numerous chances at shameless self-promotion for corporations claiming to support entrepreneurs. For those just stepping into the entrepreneurial scene (like myself), it was all a little overwhelming. In some cases, so much information and no clear directions only served to muddy the waters as to how one actually goes about launching a business from scratch.
Out of this tizzy of a week, one event really stuck out: Startup Weekend.
The global program, sponsored by Kansas City's very own Ewing Marion Kauffman foundation, is a marathon event where entrepreneurs of all ages, professions and experience levels gather to build an entire business from scratch in just 54 hours.
When I say build a business, I mean from the ground up. Friday night starts off with one minute pitches from any participant who thinks they have a viable idea. Nearly 50 people pitched their original, undeveloped business ideas at the Kansas City event, and every person in attendance got three votes to use as they pleased in determining the best ideas that would be developed over the course of the weekend. Then came the networking as teams formed organically, letting each potential business determine a team's composition and size. To aid in the process, entrepreneurs described themselves as one of three main categories of professionals: developers/coders, designers and non-technical.
Once your team was organized and solidified (there was a good bit of team switching too at the beginning), the fun really started. By Sunday evening, each team was to give a five minute presentation to a group of local, successful entrepreneurs who would judge the teams primarily on three three criteria:
1) Business plan: How will your business generate revenue and what will be its expenses? What is your core value proposition? Who are your customers and how do you plan to attract them? What are your key activities and how do you plan to carry these out? What resources will you need and who will be your partners in acquiring these?
2) Customer validation:
Do your potential customers want your product / service? This is the market research aspect of the business, and requires collecting data, getting customers actually signed onto your new business, determining what they will be willing to pay and validating your business model.
Actually building a minimally viable product, ideally meaning a working product that you can demonstrate to the judges.
Having spent weeks developing each element of this list in the past, plus a professional quality presentation that should have also taken at least several days to prepare, I was shocked to see the speed at which all three can be created or completed in a single weekend when you bring together a group of forward-thinking, highly motivated individuals.
Eighteen cups of coffee, one late-night trip to IHOP, 5 Red Bulls (the whole event could have been a Red Bull ad) and 7 hours of total sleep later, it was Sunday night and my team had a viable business with customers already signed on. Our business is called Shop Startup, and we focused on helping start-up businesses, specifically those with unique holiday/general gifts, connect with potential customers and cut through all the noise online without breaking the bank. (We really built it, it's really working, and there are some really great gifts already there. Go check it out!) And all this with only two designers, two programs, one team leader, one business guy and two marketing dudes.
For my part, I conducted market research (we conducted three separate surveys on Saturday and Sunday, plus the online research), determined opportunities for revenue generation, signed on about 30 new clients with the team, surveyed potential customers, planned and mathed out our cost structure, managed our social media presence, murdered more trees than I care to admit while planning out our business on paper and built our reputation with the other teams at Startup Weekend.
It was a competition, and our business placed third. But more importantly, it showed me that starting my own business isn't just possible, but there are lots of people out there who feel just like I do, that entrepreneurship is the only way we will rebuild the U.S. economy.
Could the company you work for really launch a new product or service without months of meetings, hundreds of lawyers and a 50 person team? Could they even come up with a viable idea in 54 hours? Really?
The motto of Startup Weekend is "No Talk, All Action." Talking is what politicians do. It's what business professionals do. And it's the reason that progress and change are so slow in this country. We constantly talk about intangible concepts like "moving forward" and "rebuilding the economy," but it's all meaningless without real action. This motto resonates with me as a student of public policy and as an American. Frankly, it gives me a lot more hope for the future than broad, non-quantifiable promises made by politicians or large corporations.
If we really want to create jobs for college graduates, and there aren't enough in the corporate structures that exist, then why didn't I hear about anything like Startup Weekend while I was in college?
Many of us don't have the need for extravagant houses, cars or the other status symbols of our fore bearers, and a lot of the people my age at Startup Weekend said they would give up their corporate jobs in a heartbeat to be part of a viable startup company. This would mean giving up a degree of security, true, but it also represents a shift in thinking. Maybe the work (the lack of barriers, the freedom to create and the potential to really have ownership) is more important than the job (the guaranteed income).
Millennials should be creating their own jobs, because the idea of "get a job, be successful" is a thing of the past.