Startup Weekend attendees team up at The Factory downtown to launch startups over a 54-hour period. Photo by Mike Nichols
A community of entrepreneurs created more than 12 new startups at Grand Rapids’ fourth annual Startup Weekend — completing what was essentially a three-day sprint to build the most marketable business.
Based in Seattle and with facilitators in more than 200 cities globally, Startup Weekend comprises one of the largest networks of nonprofit community events for entrepreneurs on the planet.
The format is simple. Anyone is welcome to attend Friday night and pitch an idea at the beginning of the event. Popular vote selects which pitches make the top 10 ideas, around which teams form and begin bringing them to life. The race is then on to see which team can create the most marketable and best-designed business by Sunday afternoon.
For 54 straight hours, The Factory walls — covered in washable marker memos and multi colored sticky notes — echoed with the buzz of hustlers, typing hackers and scribbling designers as teams dashed through a sleepless weekend to complete their projects.
At 1 p.m. Saturday, the teams made their final presentations before the eight startup judges: Rick DeVos, creator of Start Garden; Zach Dennis, co-founder of Mutually Human; John Burmeister, banker at Huntington Bank; Erik Loehfelm, executive vice president of user experience at Universal Mind; Julia Jamieson, experience designer at Elevator Up; Ed Niehaus, advisor to Verify Valid; Jason Pliml, technology business consultant at the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center; and Kathleen Cook, business development director at IBM.
Pliml, who judged last year’s Lansing Startup Weekend, said he emphasizes customer development when he judges. The continual validation of a startup’s first steps greatly decreases risk, he said, because it allows startups to refine their product to an accurately measured market.
“It’s amazing what open conversations with customers do for a business,” Pliml said. “It’s better than starting up a major company, throwing all your money into it and then realizing customers don’t want or like it. A more healthy approach is to keep validating along the way with each step, asking, ‘Are we meeting what a customer would spend money on?’”
The overall winner of this year's event is U-Turn, an eight-man team comprised of Kendall College Assistant Professor Jon Moroney, Kendall industrial design students Kris Konechne, Luc Fewer, Joe Parr, Josh McBryde, Austin Blough and Jake Mikula, and one Grand Valley State University MBA student, Tim Spork.
The team created a U-shaped storage option, one of Grand Rapids Startup Weekend’s first ever physical products.
The team plans to sell the product through a direct sales website and retailers, and 62 percent of people surveyed by the U-Turn team said they’d buy it. The team found the basic unit cost of the product could be $5. Retail pricing would have a $19.99 base, with a $24.99 hardware cost.
Many in the Startup Weekend audience raised their hand when asked if they would buy it.
“I’m going to be your first investor,” Ryan Vaughn, co-founder at Varsity News Network, told the U-Turn team.
Vaughn asked what U-Turn’s future goal was. Spork responded that they were looking to get 3,000 orders by January 2014.
“Here’s your first $100 investment,” Vaughn said, pulling out the amount in cash. “You owe this back to me if you don’t have 3,000 by this time next year.”
The second-place winner is Curbserv, which created an app designed to enable users to place food orders without having to wait in a pick-up line. The team got its first customer within an hour of its final presentation Sunday.
The third-place winner is EZ Route, which created a recurring routing system that allows users to populate their contact lists with direction routes.
Event organizer Aaron Schaap, founder of Elevator Up, a web and software development firm, said he was thrilled with the teams and with the overall weekend.
He said entrepreneurial events like this teach Grand Rapids that when business minds can break things down to be obtainable and are able to ask customers questions about products and their problems, it allows entrepreneurs to feel confident about doing things for themselves.
“Every year, we get crazy stories of contacts that were made or people getting funded, or they go back to their own companies and are able to work with clients a lot faster,” he said. “(Startup Weekend) changes the culture a little bit from this level of entitlement of ‘I’m deserving of something’ to ‘If I want something, I can go take it, and I know how to do that.’ And it’s not as hard as you might think it is.”