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The Oregonian: Portland Startup Weekend -- A 54-hour sprint to new connections, horizons and possibilities
Author: D.K. Row
Posted: May 6, 2013

 

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Last weekend, about 100 budding entrepreneurs and a generous cross-section of Portland's startup and tech communities gathered for a 54-hour sprint.

The high-energy, double all-nighter known as Startup Weekend yielded friendships, connections and a few tense moments. And though participants may come into it hoping to parlay the weekend's intensity into a wildly successful business, expectations are actually more earthbound, organizers and participants say, because even great ideas don't automatically translate into profits.

That's why events like Startup Weekend, hosted by Portland State University's Business Accelerator, are conceived as educational moments that encourage greenhorns to more deeply explore their next steps.

"Portland Startup Weekend is the entry-point into the local startup ecosystem," says Jeff Martens,  co-founder of the tech startup CPUsage  and one of this year's judges. "The goals are to educate and inspire. Once an entrepreneur is pumped up with inspiration and educated on the high-level concepts of high-growth startups, its time for them to move on."

Participants meet and form teams, and spend the rest of the weekend turning a concept into a startup business. A panel of judges, comprising a group of local tech and startup experts, identified three teams with the most potential: LivFly, a site that matches runners so they can run together; FreezePup,  makers of frozen treats for dogs; and Wijly,  which aims to connect people and their widgets through the Internet.

A growing scene
Startup weekends have flourished since the first one was held in 2007 in Boulder, Colo. Today, more than 1,000 in 350 cities in roughly 90 countries have taken place, giving rise to several thousand ventures.

More than 500 teams have taken part in startup weekends in Portland, including a handful that continued beyond the bootcamp to become bona fide companies.

Notable examples are CPUsage, which takes idle computer power and harnesses it for other uses; and Audioname,  a startup that designs web tools to help people share the pronunciation of their names online.

Startup events have also sprung up outside the metro area and traditional business realms. Events have taken place in Bend and Eugene, and the global aid agencyMercy Corps will sponsor one in early June.

These events are not merely business vehicles. They also shape the city's cultural DNA, much like the local art scene did in the 1990s and the food world has the past decade. They're a good way to meet people, too.

Robert Gallup  of Wijly has deep tech experience as a programmer and manager but is unemployed. Jena Nesbitt,  the creator of FreezePup, was laid off from her job in February as a handbag designer. Both attended last weekend's event in part to make job contacts.

Organizers attracted a broad sweep of local startup and tech gurus as both observers and mentors. Among them: Business developer Doug Gould  of Cloudability,  design expert Jason Blackheart of Vizify,  attorney Jon French of Immix Law Group PC,  and startup founder Paola Moretto  of CloudyDays.  

An intense immersion
Still, the main attraction was the intimate, bootcamp-style workshop, which crystallizes the startup process from concept to execution.

Participants initially are split up by talent and interest: technical developers, business developers and designers. Or, in the event's parlance, hackers, hustlers and hipsters, respectively.

Experience level varies wildly, too. Gallup, 58,  once worked for Microsoft. Nesbitt, 26,  primarily had fashion industry experience. Chris Gueits,  28,  of LivFly,  graduated from Princeton University  and had explored the Los Angeles startup scene before moving to Portland recently.

Two Fridays ago, participants quickly pitched their ideas in front of others who then selected the top ideas. Teams were quickly formed around each of these ideas. For the remainder of the weekend teams lived out the life of a startup: They refined original concepts through customer validation testing, devised revenue models and executed part of their plan, like building a functioning app or website.

Though time was short, and real money and actual jobs were not at stake, real-life hurdles still appeared.

"The weekend forces you to narrow your ideas for the startup," said Gueits of LivFly. "The process forces you to face fundamental questions, like: Is your idea a real problem worth solving?"

Throughout the day, experienced mentors were on hand for those in need of advice or a sounding board. Gueits said that proved invaluable.

"We got along really well as a team," Gueits said. "But like any team, there's going to be moments of turmoil. How do we get to the next point? Those mentors helped."

On late Sunday, teams made their final presentations before the judges. And by the time the adrenaline emptied, meetings ended and laptops were turned off, the top three emerged

Wijly was awarded best opportunity for trying to give users Internet connectivity to their widgets. Consumers, for instance, might be able to turn off their home lights by remote after checking into a website.

FreezePup was tapped for both best execution and best customer validation for creating healthy frozen treats for dogs.

And LivFly was anointed overall winner. The startup aims to pair runners with other runners based on where, when, how far and how fast they want to run.

Prizes for the top finishers came in the form of services from sponsors: a free legal advice package from the Immix Law Group and a $10,000 consulting package from the interactive agency Copious,  for example. Memberships to other startup and entrepreneur networks in town were also given out, including those to The Indus Entrepreneurs  and Oregon Entrepreneurs Network.  

What's next? 
For many, the exhilaration of the weekend fades -- sometimes quickly. Others, equipped with a bevy of new business cards, Twitter handles and email addresses, will get the bug and reach out to such organizations as TiE, the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, Portland Seed Fund and Portland Incubator Experiment.

The top finishers at last week's event plan to move forward.

Gallup says he'll pursue the Wijly idea on his own. "This was an awesome experience," he said. "The people were supportive in the best way. They're hands off and create an incubator to try out new ideas under the safety net of mentors."

Gueits, of LivFly, was buoyed by the entire weekend. "This will open doors for everyone," he said.

Gueits says members expressed a commitment to take Livfly to market as a team. Time will tell, however, if everyone stays on board. But no matter who stays, Gueits said that he's going to try to make Livfly a viable business.

Nesbitt says she, too, will take the next step and try to bring frozen dog treats to market via traveling bike carts. She hopes others from her team will stay on board and join her and her boyfriend Brent Lange who helped develop the FreezePup concept. She says the skills and expertise of others "will be necessary. I know the two of us just can't do this."

But more than offering a new business opportunity, the weekend opened up a world of personal confidence to Nesbitt, who moved to Portland from Kansas City three years ago and has spent her entire professional career in traditional working environments.

"The event has changed my life," she says. "I went from thinking I needed to have someone as a boss while working in some corporation, to knowing that I could put my mind into something on my own. And that I could make it happen with help from others."