Startup Weekend – A Life Changing Experience

This is the account of TechFarms administrative assistant Morgan MacWilliam, who participated in the recent Pensacola Socialdesk Event on February 8th, 2019:

Never heard of TechStars Startup Weekend before? Allow me to fill you in.

If you consider yourself an entrepreneur, a mentor, or someone who wants to put their creativity to the test, this event is for you. TechStars Startup Weekend is an event circuit that visits your hometown in search of inspired entrepreneurs to develop an entire business including a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in less than 54 hours.

To be honest, I had never heard of Startup Weekend. A week prior to the event, my boss asked me to upload a blog post regarding the event details on our Upcoming Events webpage. Once I completed the post, I became extremely curious and began to investigate the event. I found out it was a contest where random people with similar entrepreneur goals come together to build a startup company in less than 54 hours. I also read you could purchase a ticket depending on your skill set – whether you’re a designer, a developer, or a general businessman/woman with marketing and PR experience. What really caught my eye was the pitching process. You could either choose to pitch a startup idea or observe the pitches and pick whichever you believed had the potential to become a successful business. When it comes to myself and competitions, I would usually choose the easy route by becoming a follower rather than a leader, but this time, I was determined to become a leader. Next thing I know, I had completed my application, clicked the submit button, and gone straight to work on my pitch.

My first plan of action was to grab a pencil, a sheet of notebook paper, and write down whatever came to mind when I think of an MVP. I thought of inventing a product that would help me sing like Whitney Houston at karaoke night. I also thought of creating a device that would spray the “meadows and rain” scent whenever it detects my dog passing gas across the living room. Then, I thought of coming up with a graphic design company, because I love to work with Photoshop and build websites, but then I thought, “Who needs another graphic design company anyway?” None of the ideas were impressive enough to me. I believed I could come up with a brilliant idea, but the idea did not hit me at that time – the idea came to mind when I least expected it to.

Six days went by, and there I was the night before registration staring at a blank sheet of paper with a mound of paper balls at my feet. I was not sure what to do at that point, because I had nothing – absolutely nothing. I then began to think about what problems in our society desperately need to be addressed, and the first issue that came to mind was school shootings. After the devastating high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I became fearful of how much longer it would take to find a solution before we encounter another school shooting incident. I knew hosting public rallies to spread awareness was not going to change anything other than developing a requirement for kids to carry clear bookbags to school – like that would prevent student fatalities – so I thought, “What product could I invent that would keep students safe, but the parents approved?” Suddenly, a lightbulb flickered in my head – a dusty old lightbulb that took me days to find due to the amount of clutter I had collected over the past couple of days. That idea was to base my pitch on a device like nothing before.

After my two-and-a-half-hour drive to Pensacola, I signed in and observed my potential competitors. I immediately became overwhelmed, because I knew absolutely no one, and I could already see teams forming – even before the pitches began. I remember telling myself, “Well, it is not like you traveled two hours and thirty minutes just to show up and leave before the competition starts; there is no turning back at this point.” It was time for the introductions of the directors of operations and the mayor, followed by critical thinking exercises. The critical thinking exercises definitely helped my nerves, until it was time to begin the pitching process. I made sure to be the first person in line, because A – I wanted to set the bar for my competitors, B – I wanted to show my potential teammates that I mean business, and C – I wanted to make sure I had enough time between running to the toilet and wearing my lunch.

I then stood in front of the contestants and said,

“I want to develop a device that would minimize the response time between the first bullet discharged by the perpetrator and the authorities apprehending the suspect. The device’s key function would be able to detect exactly which school building, what floor of the building (or area if it is one story), and most importantly, what the shooter looks like. This device would not only alert the authorities right away, but it would be able to provide the shooter’s precise location in real time and physical appearance: who the shooter is, what the shooter is wearing, how tall the shooter may be, hair color, etc. The only issue I have is that I am nowhere near tech-savvy, so I would need a team that can develop the coding for such device. My name is Morgan MacWilliam and I would like to call my pitch,

‘Operation SSL: Save Student Lives.’”

Once my pitch was finished, I was taken by surprise how impressed the audience appeared to be with my pitch. “Do I really have a chance at winning?” I thought to myself.

Fifteen more pitches went by, and it was time to vote for the top six pitches. Contestants had three Post-It notes to distribute among their top three picks. At first, I accepted the fact that I may not make it to the top six pitches, because it was my first time participating in the contest – let alone be a leader – but boy, wouldn’t it be cool if my pitch did? After the voting results took place, there was a tie for the sixth pitch among myself and two other competitors. By three votes, my pitch took the sixth slot. I was extremely happy for myself but knew it was the beginning of the long and stressful road ahead of me.

It was time to collaborate with the other participants and I assumed that my potential teammates would approach me immediately, because of how important it was to solve the school shooting crisis, but what took five minutes of discussion among the other leaders felt like five days. The director of operations asked me, “Do you have any teammates yet?” I shook my head in disappointment. The director then told me I had to find at least three teammates, or my pitch would not make it to the finals. As I reminded myself to get out there and look for my teammates, I was finally approached by Rick, John, Rob, and George, all developers who started off as teammates but ended up becoming my lifelong friends. Shortly after, we went straight to work.

The second day of the competition was extremely tough. I had about four hours of sleep due to my brain constantly thinking of what direction we should head with our MVP development, along with the excitement of making it to the top six. At around 8:30 the following morning, we met back at the Socialdesk and began to discuss what the MVP should be, and strategized who should work on what. Right before we started, one of the teammates made a last-minute decision to switch teams. This part of the experience took a huge toll on me, because we now had to distribute the work among four teammates rather than five – but hey, what is a competition without curveballs being thrown at you?

It took my team and me about six hours of deliberation, two pots of coffee, and a panic attack to finally come up with an MVP. We decided that our device would have three key functions: an audio sensor, a pressure sensor, and a camera sensor. What took forever was the coding aspect; because the idea was so original, the guys had to make the coding for our demonstration from scratch. My low-key panic attack made me determined to find the closest wing stop whenever lunch came around, and boy did I leave the second my phone struck 11 o’clock.

Sitting at Buffalo Wild Wings, I was so overwhelmed and extremely intimidated by my teammates. Not only were my teammates all male in their mid-30s and way more experienced in the technology industry than I was, but they spoke in some sort of a “tech-a-nese” language I could not comprehend. My teammates would repeat the term Raspberry Pi this and Raspberry Pi that, and there I am thinking, “How in the heck would a raspberry pie reduce the response time during a school shooting? Are we going to throw pies at the shooter until the shooter runs out of bullets? Better yet, are we going to use the Publix 2-4-1 raspberry pies to woe the judges into selecting our team as the winner during the presentation?” Little did I know that a Raspberry Pi was a credit card-sized computer. I was so lost and broken that I was considering going straight back to the hotel and just giving up the whole competition. I then overcame my demons of failure and told myself, “Suck it up, fix your hair, wipe the running mascara off your face and get back to your team, because they need you just as much as you need them.” The second I showed up, I sat back down in my uncomfortable folding chair, took charge and continued to lead the team. We began to thoroughly work on the branding of our company, which was, “O.O.D.A Security Systems (Observe. Orient. Decide. Act.).” O.O.D.A. is a military tactic when undergoing an unexpected dilemma; this idea came from Rob due to his military background. At this point in time, it was 6 p.m. and we were running out of time. We quickly strategize our roles in the presentation and began to work on the demonstration of our product.

Day three had arrived, and I was sweating bullets at this point. We were just finishing up the slideshow for the presentation and beginning to practice the demo of our MVP – not to mention we only had five hours of sleep the night before. With the time winding down, we quickly practiced our presentation, changed into our business attire, and arrived at the presentation ceremony. I told the director of operations that I wanted my team to go last, because I wanted to observe my competitors in order to have a better understanding as to what kind of questions the judges would ask, what their demeanor would be like, and how the overall presentation was supposed to go. Before the presentations began, the director of operations reminded the teams that we had seven minutes to present our business plan, the MVP and the demonstration of our MVP, including three minutes of Q&A.

The first team had such a solid presentation that you could feel the confidence radiating to the back of the room. They finished their presentation before the seven minutes was up and had plenty of time to answer the judges’ questions. Once their turn was over, I immediately knew they would be my biggest competition. Skipping through the second, third, fourth, and fifth team, I thought my team was next until I quickly realized that one of the teams that was neck and neck with me for the sixth slot has regrouped and developed another pitch – here we go again with the competition throwing curve balls.

It was finally our turn, and boy did I want to throw my guts up. I began the presentation with a solid introduction, but soon after the second slide, I forgot what to say – I went completely blank. Within the five seconds of silence, I had to close my eyes, recollect myself, and say what needed to be said. I passed the presentation on to Rob and quickly ran into position for the demo of our MVP. Neither the judges nor the guests knew what I was doing. At the time, I wouldn’t be surprised if they assumed, I had stage fright – which I did. With my Jessica Simpson heels slipping off, I ran out of sight quicker than Usain Bolt in the Olympics. We then performed an excellent demo that involved a real-life simulation of the device’s tracking app functions, what parts the device would consist of and moved onto the last bit of our presentation. Before we began to discuss the cost of our MVP, we ran out of time. At this point, I was convinced that the presentation itself was the hardest part of the entire weekend, but that was yet to come.

The judges had three minutes of Q&A regarding our company and our MVP. One of the judges asked a question regarding the results of a survey we were required to administer. My stomach dropped as I thought, “I forgot to conduct the survey.”

I forgot about one of the most important requirements – to conduct a survey of 25 or more people in order to prove that our MVP is a viable product and the public finds our MVP essential to society. This required task should have been administered by our fifth teammate, who switched teams the previous day of the competition, but it still does not change the fact that I had nothing to show the judges. I had to think quickly on my feet, because our three minutes of Q&A was the only time we had to outshine the other teams. So, I then explained,

“Due to the circumstances, we did not have enough time to conduct a survey among the community. However, if we did conduct a survey, the participants would have two options to choose from: either vote with or against a solution that has the potential to decrease student fatalities drastically. At this point, American citizens are done with the arguing and are ready to solve this issue once and for all, which is why there is such a high demand for a different solution – even from the Department of Homeland Security. If parents are not comfortable with the teachers carrying a firearm to school, then what – supply more clear book bags? It is time to stop procrastination and come up with a solution, and I believe we have found that solution.”

The time was up, and I could not be happier to hear the loud buzz of the alarm. I felt like I just got off a three-day roller coaster ride and I could finally sit still. Now that the hard part was over, it was time for the judges to deliberate. It took the judges 45 minutes to reach a final verdict. I didn’t care if we placed or not, because the feeling of conquering my fears and accomplishing an experience unlike any other was enough for me. During the award ceremony, the judges first announced the third-place team. I thought we would at least make it to third place, but unfortunately, it was not our team. I was disappointed, but too tired to care too much, because all I cared about was going back to my hotel to regain the hours of sleep I lost. The second-place team announcement soon followed, and the judge had this to say:

“Company Number 2. This company had really identified a big bold and unique idea. One that could leverage new technologies in a way that possibly could be patent and scaled. They really identified a current trend and a current need to respond to those needs in a very effective manner. We saw a lot of potential for this MVP to be scaled across the country and across the world. So, without further ado, the second-place prize award goes to

…. Team O.O.D.A.”

My mouth dropped. I could not believe that I made it from a three-way tie for the sixth slot to second place overall. I was so proud of my team members and myself for working so hard over the weekend with a total of nine hours of sleep. It was totally worth it, because no matter how many speed bumps we encountered along the way, our hard work paid off. By no means is this the end of the road for the O.O.D.A. team, we are still developing our system and hope that one day we’ll be able to launch the new and improved O.O.D.A. Security Systems.

What an inspiring experience Morgan and her teammates had at the competition. Making an idea into a fully functioning business within 54 hours from scratch sounds like a recipe for competitiveness, excitement, frustration, and inspiration – all in one bite. We then asked her, what is your best advice to give to someone who is interested in competing in the Startup Weekend contest? She replied, “The best advice I could give to anyone interested in competing is to manage your time wisely and to push yourself to be a leader, because the feeling of proving those who have doubted your courage, your self worth, and your potential to become a leader is a prize itself.”

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