November 3, 2013

Charles Lawton: At Portland Startup Weekend, dreams get a chance to materialize

And it’s a great way to add entrepreneurial spirit to Maine’s character.

It had everything Maine desperately needs: youth, enthusiasm and optimism.

It had people from Maine and people “from away.” It had men and women. It had people of every color of skin and style of hair to be found on the Earth. It had innocent dreams – some surprisingly modest and others audaciously bold – and outlandish schemes. It had vulnerable newcomers, spirited cheerleaders and wizened veterans eager to share years of broad experience in non-threatening ways. And it had tough judges, asking probing, no-nonsense questions and making harsh, real-world decisions.

In a word, it was as diverse, teeming and seminal a petri dish of potential change as could possibly be assembled in Maine.

It was Portland Startup Weekend 2013 – an event that modeled for all of us what we can only hope will become Maine’s dominant economic culture over the next decade.

Startup Weekend is a global grassroots movement of entrepreneurs dedicated to engaging people in the process of learning how to start and grow new ventures. Organizationally, it is a nonprofit corporation headquartered in Seattle. Operationally, it is a group of affiliates who have held more than 400 weekend events – like the one held this past weekend at the Portland Public Library – in more than 200 cities in 100 countries.

All Startup Weekend events follow the same basic model. Registration is open to anyone. Participants pitch startup ideas or simply listen to the feedback generated around those who do make pitches. All involved then vote for which ideas to pursue and organize into teams to turn the selected ideas into concrete business plans. Teams then plunge into a 54-hour frenzy of business-model creation – designing, coding, thinking about products and customers, doing research, building prototypes and websites, conducting opinion surveys and even signing up customers.

Throughout the weekend, teams bounce ideas off a circulating group of mentors – local entrepreneurial leaders willing to commit their time and experience – who offer a range of suggestions and criticisms as they see fit. Over the often sleepless, sometimes beer- and pizza-fueled, but definitely not lost weekend, ideas flop, reform, are changed and gain or lose support. Teams add and lose members as thinking becomes clearer, or doesn’t, and passions for enterprise dreams ebb and flow. Participants share in the emotional highs and lows generated by the feelings of solidarity and “this is bigger than me” that can really be experienced only by those who have been part of a close-knit team.

And finally, all this effort is put to the test. A panel of judges composed of local business leaders and startup experts invited “from away” scores and ranks business plans and selects a set of top-ranked finishers who are required to make final pitches. Before the judges, their peers and an audience of those lucky enough to have been invited or clued in enough to know where to go for an exciting Sunday night, the finalists have four minutes to make a pitch and another four to answer any questions the judges may pose.

The startup finalists have to explain what their product or service is, to identify who is going to buy it and, most importantly, why that market is going to buy it from their newly formed startup rather than from some established company. They have to lay out their growth plans and explain how they are going to finance that growth. Here geek speak doesn’t cut it. STEM skills must be complemented with basic human communications skills. Pitches that are simple and to the point are prized. And answers that demonstrate a quality too often absent in those “full of passionate intensity” – the ability to listen – are rewarded.

In the end, the top-rated plans got prizes, but everyone left a winner. All those who attended saw and participated in one version of Maine’s future. To my mind it is the winning future, the one I hope will come to pervade our culture in the same way that love for the natural world and local control of public policy do today. If to these long-established elements of Maine’s character we can add “entrepreneurial spirit,” we will turn from the economic and demographic death spiral that otherwise awaits us.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at: clawton@planningdecisions.com

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