It may have been a gray and dreary weekend outdoors in Seattle, but inside Adler Hall at the University of Washington campus the electrical energy of young entrepreneurial talent was tangible.
Startup Weekend UW was the first event at the University of Washington under the global Startup Weekend movement. Dating all the way back to 2007 and occurring in cities all over the planet, Startup Weekend brings young budding entrepreneurs together with a support system of the local Startup Weekend organizational team and a cadre of coaches from an array of industries. Food is provided through the generosity of local restaurants who deliver meals for participants throughout the weekend. The 54-hour marathon session culminates in five-minute finalist presentations before the audience and a panel of judges chosen from local entrepreneurial business leaders. From 16 to 18 finalist teams, the top three are chosen and prizes awarded.
Organizer Alex Diaz said the UW event was highly successful. “There was something unique about tapping into that university vertical,” he said. “The focus of this was to educate students about startup idea – the entrepreneurial spirit. There are a lot of relevant programs at the University of Washington but this allowed us to create a program that tapped into all of it in just one go. Not only that, but we opened it up to the Seattle community, so we had a wide range of ages – from 18 to almost 44, and a wide range of experience from no experience to thirteen years of experience.”
Co-organizers Vj Rajpal, Kartik Rishi, Ross Hattori and Jace Lieberman agreed. Not only was the event sold out two and a half weeks ago – the wait list also reached maximum capacity. Interestingly, marketing for the event was conducted almost exclusively through social media. Community support was “unreal”, according to Diaz. “Who doesn’t want to help teach students about entrepreneurship?” added Rishi.
The team credited facilitator Tom Nagel with providing a structure that supported teams as they embarked on their various projects. “He provided them a really easy entry to the model that is Startup Weekend,” noted Diaz. “We also really worked hard to put on a number of pre-events,” added Ross Hattori. “That was actually a central part of this vertical; to make sure that there is education that happens before, during, and after the event. We had the Windows 8 bootcamp, where we attracted about 50 students to come to this space, where they could learn about Startup Weekend and about technologies that Microsoft is providing.”
The event is prized by organizers and participants as an exciting and rich learning experience. “It’s a quarter worth of learning in just 54 hours,” pronounced Diaz to the agreement of the organizational team.
Members of the winning team, NomON, strongly agreed. “Working with other developers, you learn so much code and tricks of the industry incredibly fast,” said Will Voit. The five UW undergrads – drawn from the business, electrical engineering and computer science departments – found the intense weekend an adventure. After coming together on Friday evening, the team formed a concept and found themselves floundering by noon on Saturday. “So the term of the weekend was ‘pivot’,” explained Will Voit, and electrical engineering student who worked on code. “- pivot in our case meaning ‘scrap and start from scratch’.” He described their first idea – an application that would facilitate typical co-housing dilemmas faced by student roommates – coordinating rent, other expenses and responsibilities. But the app began to morph into a property management tool, he said, and the team discovered that such an application already existed.
They credit organizer Vj Rajpal with helping them out with the NomON idea, a concept even some of the team members were hesitant about at first: random food delivery. The team created a simple app that requires the user to supply just four pieces of information: where they are, food allergies, absolute “no” foods, and how much they want to spend on food. The app then queries a database of food delivery options and places an order for fast delivery. The user doesn’t know what they’re getting until the food arrives. A quick sidewalk market survey convinced the team that despite their misgivings, the idea promised to take off with consumers.
The team agreed that their division of labor – marketing and finance by Stephanie Halamuk and Claire Koerner, web development by Evan Cohen, hardware and coding support from Will Voit, and the logo and user interface by Tarryn Marcus (with support on logo from friend Jordan Soltman) – contributed to the win. Most of all though, they had chemistry as a team, recalling that in their most frustrating moments, they were able to use humor to move ahead with their project. “We were stressed,” recalled Marcus. “But we were laughing!” added Koerner.
The judges awarded second place to Tune Tether, a team which created an app to play music simultaneously synced among several smartphones or other devices. Third place went to “Get in Now,” a network to connect service providers (doctors, hair stylists) who have last-minute openings with customers looking for last-minute appointments.
The “Spirit award” went to the creators of the website “Perfect guy but…” which allows users to name their deal breaker traits in boyfriends. The light-hearted interface was the front end of a super-lean, scalable website technology.
The award presentation, at the end of the night seemed almost an afterthought. For organizers and participants alike, the real benefit was the networking and lessons learned from the process. After 54 hours of exhilaration, frustration, and sleep deprivation, the NomON team was still clearly jazzed.
“I could stay up all night again,” insisted web developer Evan Cohen. “I don’t have class on Mondays – let’s do it!”