Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Maine has no shortage of groups that help entrepreneurs start small businesses, and one fledgling effort seeks to bring together a mix of business people, designers, financial experts and programmers in a freewheeling atmosphere aimed at spurring creative thinking.
Emily Bernhard, second from right, with BizzieMe partners Julie Kingsley, John Moore and Dragos Stancu. Bernhard came to a StartUp Weekend last year – which led to the creation of her BizzieMe media venture.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
StartUp Weekend, which begins Friday at 4 p.m. at the Portland Public Library and continues throughout the weekend at Peloton Labs – with only minor breaks for sleeping – is a brainstorming business workshop on steroids.
Saturday’s event is the second of its kind; the first, held in March, yielded at least three new companies from the weekend-long event that brought together 70 entrepreneurial-minded strangers with a variety of ideas.
Portland’s StartUp Weekend is one of more than 700 similar events that have taken place in more than 100 countries and spawned the creation of more than 10,000 startup businesses, organizers said.
“Portland is a very entrepreneurial town. StartUp is a communal expression of that entrepreneurial nature,” said Chris Hall, chief executive of the Portland Regional Chamber. “It’s feeding the social and economic dynamic in the city.”
Small businesses define Maine’s economy; about 80 percent of Maine businesses have fewer than 10 employees, according to the state Department of Labor.
At Portland’s first StartUp Weekend in March, 70 people listened to 45 quick business pitches and sifted through those ideas to pick the 10 best. Teams were then formed to build businesses that were then voted upon by judges. By the end of the weekend, at least two groups and one business connection were forged, growing into ventures that are still going concerns today.
Among the teams still working together include BizzieMe, which is creating multimedia, interactive programs for children, and 4370 Labs, which is developing Goals with Friends, a mobile application to help make accomplishing personal goals more achievable.
Meanwhile, the co-founders of Buoy Local, which has created a gift card redeemable at local businesses, met at StartUp Weekend and later teamed up to form that company.
“With a 30-plus percent success rate, it’s not just a feel-good weekend. It’s a success story,” Hall said. “Some people will be skeptical and say ‘Show me the money.’ Sure, the statistics say that most small businesses don’t last five years. But with the network of support and encouragement around these ventures, we hopefully will be able to move the needle a bit.”
The second StartUp Weekend will include 76 participants and 16 coaches to help mentor teams throughout their brainstorming and development exercises. The four judges are Bob Martin, president of the Maine Technology Institute; Jason Cianchette, founder and general manager of Liquid Wireless, which was acquired by Publishers Clearing House in 2012; Emily Madero, managing director of Idea Village in New Orleans; and Jon Ayers, chairman and chief executive of Idexx.
“A lot of what people got out of this was ecstatic enthusiasm,” said Liz Trice, one of the organizers of the event. “People were buzzing for weeks afterwards.”
Trice said the nature of the weekend helps people get involved with an entrepreneurial idea without feeling locked into a major commitment.
“We face what seem like external barriers, but are actually internal barriers. This helps build a lot of confidence for people to think big and take risks,” said Trice. “You join a team that you want to join. Something that speaks to you. And then you’re off on this race.
“But you’re only committing for a weekend. It makes it more approachable.”
The state has a number of groups that try to support and guide small startups, such as the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, the Top Gun program, local chambers of commerce, the Maine Technology Institute, the Foster Center for Student Innovation at University of Maine, and Blackstone Accelerates Growth.
Still, participants of the inaugural StartUp Weekend say there was something special about the program’s mix of ideas, entrepreneurs, experts and coaches working nonstop for an entire weekend.
“The intensity and focus around that one weekend outshadows all the other resources available,” said Sean Sullivan, a co-founder of Buoy Local. “StartUp Weekend opened up a whole new network and gave us access to skills sets to make ideas a reality. The formerly, seemingly insurmountable obstacles could be taken down.”
Emily Bernhard, a documentary filmmaker who pitched the initial idea that later morphed into BizzieMe, said the diverse mix of entrepreneurs, designers, programmers, financial and marketing experts helped make the finished projects possible.
“The random diversity of the team was a benefit. It was a great forum for that because it brought people with different backgrounds, expertise and ideas together,” Bernhard said. “I think how lucky I am to have a team coalesced around me. There were many, many great ideas but very few teams get them done.”
Bernhard’s advice for this weekend’s StartUp Weekend participants is to pitch the idea they are passionate about – but be flexible.
For example, at last year’s event, she initially pitched a business to make documentary films more relevant for modern audiences. But over the course of the weekend, as well as many months of follow-up work, some training through the Top Gun Prep program, and the help of a Maine Technology Institute TechStart grant, a different business emerged: BizzieMe.
BizzieMe is intended to help entertain and teach fidgety kids during the wait in restaurants for meals. It is close to launching a product with its first customer in the next few weeks, although Bernhard declined to name the customer, saying BizzieMe is still jumping through some legal hurdles, such as formal incorporation and acquiring a trademark.
The amount of work that gets accomplished in one weekend is equal to weeks or months of effort, said Mabel Ney, a member of the 4370 Labs team developing Goals with Friends. That team won the top prize during the initial StartUp Weekend.
“You compress an unbelievable amount of work into an intensive weekend. I saw more complete-product road maps in that weekend than I would see in months in a day job. In the corporate world, it could take three to six months to get to that phase,” Ney said.
Ney said her team operated under certain rules during StartUp Weekend. The first rule was to have a thick skin, since nobody knew each other’s backgrounds, expertise or personal experiences. The second rule was that the majority ruled: If the bulk of the team made a decision, everyone had to support it.
“You learn a lot about yourself. Some things are uncomfortable and you need to be willing to change or pivot and adapt,” Ney said.
Changing direction helped 4370 Labs get off the ground. When the team made its practice pitch to the group of consultants, they got a lot of questions about their revenue model and how they would make money.
“We changed our prototype in the 90 minutes before our final pitch. You have to be willing to scrap 90 percent of something to get to the best idea,” Ney said.
The business may not be done changing and morphing, Ney said. The group is still conducting market research with the help of a $4,000 TechStart grant from Maine Technology Institute, and may need to change its market focus again.
That’s part of the process of launching a startup, Trice said.
“It’s an educational experience,” she said. “It’s OK if it doesn’t result in a functional company or entity at the end. The experience alone will inform other tasks they undertake in the future.”
Jessica Hall may be reached at 791-6316 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was update at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 to reflect that were four judges for StartUp Weekend, not two. The addition judges were Emily Madero, managing director of Idea Village in New Orleans, and Jon Ayers, chairman and chief executive of Idexx.