A few months ago, I timidly signed up for Startup Weekend, 54 hours during which innovative startup enthusiasts gather to work together on business ideas and present to a panel of judges. I thought it would be a résumé builder or an interesting experience at best. The idea of winning never crossed my mind.
Just six years ago, this opportunity didn’t exist. Founded in 2007 and now a nonprofit based in Seattle, Startup Weekend (startupweekend.org) offers low-cost, intensive weekends for would-be entrepreneurs to get together to pitch ideas, work on projects and get feedback from industry experts. Funded by The Kauffmann Foundation and various technology companies, Startup Weekend has become a launch pad for new companies and a connection gold mine for the tech industry. More than 100,000 people have participated in 478 cities, and nearly 9,000 startup companies have sprouted and grown.
After a rough week at work, I forced myself to stop making excuses and sign up. All it took was a $100 online payment and a quick decision whether to attend as a designer, developer or business person. No prerequisites, no waiting list. The ticket price would cover all my meals from Friday dinner to Sunday dinner, a T-shirt and the Seattle City Hall facilities where we would all spend much of the weekend.
That Friday night, as I walked into a room filled with about 100 people, I seriously considered turning around and going home. I assumed everyone was already a founder or well versed in the startup scene. After grabbing a free burrito and sitting down at the closest table, I quickly discovered that most people there were just like me: interested in startups but with little or no experience with them. I even found myself at a table with two fellow Microsoft employees.
I had already decided I wasn’t going to pitch an idea. I figured I’d just listen to the ideas people had, join a group that sounded exciting and take some notes on what would make a good pitch for next time. As at least a third of the room lined up to pitch, a supportive group of insta-friends at my table urged me to give it a try. I ended up with a microphone in my hand, speeding through a minute-long description of the first idea that came to mind.
The real-world problem my idea would solve was this: People write all the time — for cover letters, emails, website content, etc., but they don’t have a quick and easy way to get feedback. The company I proposed, RedPen, would use crowdsourcing to help people edit their writing.
To my shock, the pitch received the second-highest vote count from the 103 attendees and was selected as one of the 12 concepts to be developed that weekend. (The idea with the highest vote was called
404Kids, which proposed a way to make it easy for websites to double-purpose their “404 Not Found” pages with information about local missing children.) People quickly approached me, asking to join my team. Within minutes, my group had self-selected down to eight people: three developers, one designer, three with business expertise and me. We spent the final two hours of the night in excited discussion about what RedPen might actually become.
Friday night at home, I could barely sleep. Promptly at 9 a.m. Saturday, I got to City Hall and found my teammates already there. My slight embarrassment for feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve dissipated when they all started talking about how they couldn’t sleep, either. The thrill of working with others who were passionate about the same idea, relentlessly building it into something real, was electrifying. We immediately got to work, sketching out the layout and user experience of our site, drafting and sending out surveys and doing competitive market research. Driving our intensity was the short time frame: We had to flesh out a business plan and a working prototype by 5 p.m. Sunday.
Quickly, I realized that each person had a skill he or she was great at and passionate about. Our designer awed us almost immediately with sketches of a beautiful website that far exceeded the purple-marker, chicken-scratch layout I had drawn for him. One teammate made elaborate Excel spreadsheets of Google search words and price models, while another did an in-depth analysis of our competition. Our youngest member, only 18, who had insisted that he “had no skills,” put together two surveys, got more than 70 responses and aggregated the data into professional-looking charts. Our developers got straight to work, programming the important parts of the site that we had agreed upon, amazing us every few hours by getting a new piece working. I focused on making sure we had a simple user experience that would draw people in and keep them engaged with the site, as well as overall coordination.
Startup Weekend offered us six mentors, including seasoned entrepreneurs, startup founders, angel investors and tech experts. We took advantage of the time of all six mentors, who gave us specific, useful input. Some were more interested in helping us decide how to build the site, while others pushed us to go deeper into detail on our business plan. As we got feedback from our surveys about what our users actually needed, our business model began to seem as if it could eventually be profitable. We had to figure out exactly how we would go about growing our user base, how our pricing model would work and how much it would cost.
For our final presentation, we knew we would have only five minutes. We spent most of Sunday building, refining and practicing it. Although most teams chose one spokesperson, we decided to give four people a chance to present, each talking about the part he or she had worked on. That was risky and required quick, smooth transitions. We got it down to an art. All too soon, it was time to present.
I opened the presentation, and from there it went like clockwork. We discussed how we would monetize RedPen by incorporating paid, freelance editing jobs. We followed with details on how we had responded to our user research and how we were different from competitors who mostly focused on either specific types of help, like grammar, or were broad forums for open discussion. We ended with a working technical demo, which reflected our elegant design.
The five judges were an engineering director, a startup founder, a marketing consultant, an angel investor and the president of a venture-backed startup. They gave constructive comments to all the groups. For us, their only feedback was, “Great job! We can’t believe this hasn’t been done before.”
Still, I held my breath as they announced fourth place, an honorable mention for 404Kids, which they said was a good idea but not a great business. After that came third, second and, finally, the winner of Seattle Startup Weekend: RedPen!
Even without the final announcement, it was clear to me that we had already won. We had a team full of like-minded, talented people bound together by raw passion for an idea, a good start at a business plan and confidence inspired by a roomful of mentors, judges and others who were genuinely excited to use our product.
As the event ended, person after person came up and asked to connect with me, including one of the judges, who wanted to help us attract users. Among our winnings is a meeting with Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle firm that funds technology enterprises, as well as $1,000 worth of Amazon web services and other services and products that will help us grow.
Before we left, our team made plans to meet up again the next weekend. What I thought was going to be 54 hours and a bullet point on my résumé has already leapfrogged me into the 80 percent of Startup Weekend participants who continue their work beyond the event. I feel confident our team will also be part of the 36 percent that will still be going strong after three months. Who knows? It might even go down in history that the famous website called RedPen was started at Seattle Startup Weekend in autumn 2013.
Emily Yang is a program manager at Microsoft working on Xbox One. RedPen has been rebranded as EditVine and plans to have its new website — EditVine.com — up and running this month.