Erika Allison, like many of us, often jots down the various business ideas that float through her mind every so often, the kind that offer the tickling sensation that this could be something big.
But then life and other distractions get in the way and the hastily jotted-down note with the sensational business idea languishes in a drawer or pinned to a bulletin board.
Allison, a Bangor resident and director of the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership at the University of Maine, was frustrated by this recurring dilemma and wanted an excuse to break through those barriers and take an idea to the next level. She found that opportunity at Maine’s first-ever Startup Weekend, which was held in Portland this past weekend.
Startup Weekend is a global movement, with more than 700 similar events occurring in more than 100 countries, from Mongolia to South Africa. And the cool thing: the events have yielded more than 10,000 startup businesses.
Allison had first become aware of Startup Weekends when she lived in New York City, but she had never participated in one. When she heard Peloton Labs, a co-working space in Portland, was hosting Maine’s first Startup Weekend, she decided to make the drive down from Bangor for the weekend-long event.
“My real motivation is I have ideas and I write them down and never do anything with them. I was really looking for an experience that would motivate me to action as opposed to just collecting ideas,” she said. “I knew from what I heard about Startup Weekends in those 48 hours you accomplish a lot of things. You take that idea and actually do something with it.”
Allison was one of roughly 70 participants who showed up, according to Liz Trice, the lead organizer of the event.
Here’s how it works. The first evening was an opportunity for individuals to pitch their business ideas. The whole group then votes on the ideas that are most interesting and most viable and teams form organically around the ideas they are most attracted to. Those teams then work 14 to 15 hours a day to take those ideas forward and create a foundation for a startup business. At the end of the weekend, the teams pitch their businesses and present what they’ve come up with to a panel of judges, which chooses a winner who receives a host of business and financial consulting services.
In total, nine teams were formed this past weekend to pursue business ideas for mobile apps, brick-and-mortar businesses and nonprofit festivals.
The business idea Allison pitched that first day had not been languishing in a drawer for years. In fact, it was only recently hatched, a result of a successful New Years’ resolution to exercise more. She had failed her other resolutions, but she had begin exercising more, and the reasons she attributed to her success were a mobile app she used to track her progress and a workout buddy, or “accountability partner,” that kept her honest.
“The idea was I had succeeded with that, now I want that solution with other goals — to read more, or eat more veggies, or spend less money,” Allison said Monday. “But there’s no solution that harnesses both those aspects — tracking your progress through an app, but also being able to challenge a friend to do the same goal with you and have that support and shared experience along the way.”
Several other participants liked Allison’s idea and they worked 14 hours a day to build a mobile app, and so Goals With Friends was born. (The team doesn’t have a website yet, but it has a Twitter feed.)
“The team organically came together and its was exact right blend of skills we needed to make this happen,” she said. “We went from nothing — a spoken idea — to over the course of the weekend we created a prototype with screenshots sequenced together that we were able to give a demo of at pitch.”
There was a marketing expert, a programmer who knew how to write code, a social media guru. She was amazed at how well the team gelled.
“It kind of feels like we’ve been working together forever as opposed to having only met 72 hours ago,” she said Monday.
What makes Startup Weekend so important, and powerful, is that it changes the normal conditions that face anyone who’s ever had an idea for a business, Trice said.
“We know lots of people who have new ideas, but there’s lots of reason to drag your feet on developing your idea. One of those reasons is we have lots of other distractions, you have doubts about your ideas or you don’t have all the skills it takes to get it to the next level,” she said.
Startup Weekend forces people to commit to those idea and pursue it nonstop without distraction for an entire weekend.
“In normal life, delay tactics and distractions slow us down. In Startup Weekend we’ve removed almost all those barriers,” Trice said.
Allison’s biggest takeaway was the confidence she gained from taking an idea and building it into a viable business plan to be pitched to a panel of experts.
“I knew it was going to be a good learning experience, but I didn’t anticipate how good a learning experience it was going to be,” she said. “You can read about entrepreneurship as often as you want — I’ve done a lot of reading in this area — but actually spending a weekend going through the process … it’s something you could never learn without going through it. Now that I’ve experienced it once with so much support around me I would feel more confident in future ventures when I run into adversity to know how to persist.”
At the end of the weekend, the panel of judges choose Goals With Friends as the winner.
The challenge now is to determine whether Goals With Friends is a viable enough idea to pursue in the real bootstrapping world of startups, or whether to chalk up the weekend as a learning experience and move on. While Allison isn’t ready to give up her day job anytime soon, she believes the idea is viable, and said her team plans to meet within the next week or two to determine next steps. A few of her team members are employees of Idexx, the biotech company in Westbrook, and they plan to reach out to the company to see if the app, once there’s a beta version, could be incorporated into the company’s corporate wellness plan.
Judging by the success of the inaugural Startup Weekend, Allison and Trice believe there will be more like it in the future.
“I think weekends like this are fabulous for Maine,” Allison said. “If you think about it, this weekend 70 people came together and created nine businesses. If you listened to the ideas, they were so diverse. It really reflected the creativity of the state — everything from an international dance festival to a composting portapotty to our app idea. It went from hi-tech to the arts and community-focused solutions. … There was a nice feeling that people were in this to improve where we live and improve our state and you really got that sense.”
Allison also can’t help finding parallels between Startup Weekend and the mobile app her team developed over the weekend.
“Together we were able to work together on something challenging, but on a shared journey with all that support, and we were able to succeed,” she said. “As we say in our tagline, ‘Don’t goal it alone.’”