I wrote this letter to Startup Weekend sponsors to support the organization. I’m re-posting it here so you can see the impact one weekend can have on your life. Hopefully you’ll be encouraged to join an event in your city.
Enter… Startup Weekend…
For 2 years, I’d been working towards a J.D. at the University of Minnesota Law School. Years of effort and preparation at UMN Law helped me to build a valuable skill set and hone my analytical thinking. Startup Weekend put my skill set into action. I write to you today to convey how the organization did that, and to seek your further support of this life-changing organization.
Back in 2006, I witnessed the death of my best friend in a car accident. Sitting alone in a jail cell, I blamed myself for his death. Witnesses said we were racing, which was all the police needed to take me into custody.
I hated myself. My friend was the polar opposite of me. Where I had failed and was a disgrace to my family and friends, he was the gem of everyone’s hearts. Spending as much time with him as I did had been a blessing.
Since the accident, I worked hard to get out of community college and into the University of Washington. I continued to push, with support from my friends’ family, my family, and the community. Eventually, I made it into the University of Minnesota Law School.
That’s where Startup Weekend came in. Even before my law school journey, I dreamed of starting my own business. My driving mission was to help people. I felt that business was the best way to do that. I could employ and train people who needed it, put money into great charities, and build things to change the world. Yet I never knew how.
On November 2nd, 2012, I attended my very first Startup Weekend. I stumbled onto the website while searching for another event. Since the event was scheduled to be held in the Carlson School of Management at only $40 a ticket, I signed up. The more I read about the event, the more excited and curious I became. Even as a law student, a single weekend felt like such a small investment, especially compared to the potential upside. I hardly knew what to expect. Still, I felt I had nothing to lose.
Startup Weekend Twin Cities
Standing around the packed room, I felt nervous. The formality of the Carlson School lecture hall added to the tension. Yet the organizers, especially Shane Reiser, made everyone feel more comfortable and relaxed.
Pitch time came around much quicker than I expected. I figured it was better to pitch and fail than to have never pitched at all. The fun and relaxed environment made me feel much more comfortable pitching. It definitely felt more relaxed than giving an oral argument in law school.
My pitch focused on fixing the US criminal justice system. I had no idea what the hell I was getting into. Still, after my pitch, people swarmed me with business cards. At that moment I realized that Startup Weekend was more than just people trying to make money. The organizers, coaches, and many of the attendees wanted to make positive change in the world. That was the moment I fell in love with Startup Weekend.
Being thrust into a leadership position for the weekend taught me a lot in a short period of time. Our team fell apart on Saturday afternoon, having done little more than sit around and talk. The goal of the weekend was to build something, and we had little more than confusion. Remembering the organizers’ and coaches’ advice, I joined in on two other teams to see how I could add value. That decision to stay the whole weekend, in spite of my team’s break up, taught me important lessons about commitment and persistence. It also allowed me to see how the good teams clicked, the great leaders led, and how value was added all around.
After the Sunday night pitches, many people asked me what happened to our team. The coaches, judges, and organizers had done everything they could to encourage me to keep going. I failed to act on their advice over the weekend. The fact that we broke apart was painful, and solidified the organizers’ advice as a lesson I held onto. The lesson they taught me about following through to the end became invaluable for Startup Weekend Fargo.
Startup Weekend Fargo
My decision to attend SW Fargo turned into an “I’m doing whatever it takes to get there and do my best,” type of dedication. I asked anyone who would listen to drive up to Fargo with me: law students, undergrads, friends from the community. I felt frustrated as initial excitement turned into excuse after excuse. Yet I was not deterred.
Finding my skill set most closely matching the UX Design skill set, I signed up as a UX Designer. I rented a car. On the 4 hour drive up, I wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. Being a turban-wearing Sikh with a full beard, part of me felt scared of traveling to a remote town in the Midwest. A small part of me expected to be driven out by shouts of “Terrorist!” and “Mooslam!” Yet my experience at Startup Weekend Twin Cities encouraged me to forge ahead.
The pitches were halfway done when I walked in. Greg Tehven greeted me with excitement and gratuity. Everyone I made eye contact with smiled back. Everything about the space, the people, and the environment encouraged me that I had made the right choice.
After pitching, I was greeted by two students from Minneapolis. Kerry, a tall black guy with dreads from San Francisco, came up and introduced himself and his friend. Micah was a shorter, white, Minnesota native. Both of them were dressed professionally, and had come up to Fargo from the Twin Cities, like me. Seeing them in this space encouraged me that Startup Weekend and Fargo as a city were both open to diversity. Both of them were professional, fun, and focused. I knew right away I wanted to work with them that weekend.
At the end of the team building process, we had three designers, three business people, and one developer. Bryan, Matt, Lindsey and Saurabh, all residents of Fargo, had hopped on board. Once again, I was thrust into the lead role. This time I was ready.
Our business focused on getting customer feedback for restaurants. We spent the first night brainstorming and getting to know each other. While part of me wanted to get working, I started to recognize the danger in pushing everyone too much from the get-go. I let go of my desire to CEO-myself and micro-manage. I remembered Shane and Greg’s example of having fun while working hard. Friday night, I just tried to enjoy my time with these awesome people.
Saturday turned out to be a true bonding experience. Our brainstorming from Friday night kicked into gear. Saurabh, the developer, blew us all away by his dedication and focus on simply building a product. Given his speed, we expected to have a product by Sunday. He inspired us all to forge ahead.
We split tasks and executed beautifully. The scrum board drove much of our production. It allowed us to plan and put up tasks without disturbing other team members. It allowed us to transition into the maker’s schedule. Lindsey, Matt, and Bryan came up with the name, Eathos. Lindsey spent much more of the day splitting design tasks with Bryan. Both of them turned out beautiful renditions of buttons, the logo, and color schemes.
Driven by other members’ successes, it was time for us business minds to get to work. We left the building, armed with brainstorming sessions of questions. We met with 5 restaurant owners and managers and discussed our project. We identified customer feedback competitors, such as Empathica, a company contracted with Applebee’s. Of the decision-makers we talked to, each one showed excitement and enthusiasm about having our product tested in their businesses. We knew we had stumbled onto something big.
I walked into the building early Sunday morning, only to find a few people there. I wondered why most attendees hadn’t shown up yet. It felt empty and surreal, completely unlike the excitement, passion, and dedication that danced around the room the day before.
Sitting down, I got to work planning out the day’s activities. Startup Weekend Twin Cities taught me that the pitch was the most important part of the weekend. Many coaches, including Neal Tovsen, hammered that point home back in Minneapolis.
An hour into the morning, I wondered where the developer was. Checking my phone, my heart sank. It buzzed with a text that he had fallen ill. I felt the momentum shift from under my feet. I thought back to the break up in Minneapolis. I remembered the sinking feeling of having nothing to show Sunday night. I quickly realized that we needed to finish, and we needed to finish well—no matter what.
I explained the situation to the team. I emphasized that it happens, especially since Saurabh had proved his commitment to the team before anyone of us. He had already launched the team ahead just by his efforts on Saturday. We banded together and went into overdrive.
Remembering lessons from Startup Weekend Twin Cities, I started practicing my pitch. Shane’s Sunday morning email had keyed us into what mattered. I practiced the pitch every hour. The first one, 30 minutes into the morning, looked and felt like complete crap. The second pitch proved to be a huge improvement. Motivated by the progress, we plowed ahead.
Our duties were split. We built on Saturday’s example. The design team, Lindsey and Bryan, poured everything they had into designing prototype slides. Dave Batcheller swung by our team. As a coach, he took the time out to listen to and critique the pitch. Dave made it very clear that we needed numbers. His input drove us into a frenzy to get more.
Micah and Kerry threw themselves into industry and market research. They dug up numbers and data on the industry. Our target market emerged, in part driven by Steve Blank’s push to “get outside the building”. Matt worked with our price point of $500 a month, validated as reasonable by a restaurant owner, and crunched the numbers into a business strategy.
Everything began falling into place. I continued practicing the pitch, watching video of my previous pitches to find and eliminate weak points. Each member contributed. I dove headfirst into weaving all the pieces together. As we worked, the story really started to come alive.
As the final session came closer and closer, we scrambled and pushed harder. Our team became one. Each one of us found space to contribute. We pushed in whatever capacity the moment required of us. Some of us took on timing and recording duties for each pitch practiced. We clicked.
Walking over to the theater, I felt my heart racing. Adrenaline and nervous energy coursed through me. My excitement to show off all our work energized me.
In the hour before our turn, Bryan and I decided to keep practicing. He would be switching the slides on stage, and we wanted to get our timing down to a habit. We scrambled around the foyer, looking for an outlet for my laptop. After finding a good spot, we went to work. I practiced another 6-7 times at least. Each time, Bryan timed my pitch. Each time, Bryan gave honest feedback. Each time, Bryan posed challenging questions.
After our quick-fire session, both of us could tell we simply needed to rest. No matter the result, we knew we did the very best we could. I knew we were ready.
We ended up winning the competition. In discussions with coaches after the final session, we discovered our teamwork played a huge role in our victory. We enjoyed ourselves at the after party. At that moment I felt that I came to Fargo alone, and was leaving with a family.
Startup Weekend’s Impact
When I went to both Startup Weekend Twin Cities and Fargo, no one asked about my dark history. No one made comments one way or another about my turban or beard. No one focused on the fact that I felt nervous and far outside my comfort zone. All that mattered was the value I contributed over the weekend. It felt like a fresh start. Although my criminal record changed my life in a positive way, the only thing that mattered was the value I added in 54 hours.
Without Startup Weekend, this UMN law student with a felony on his record may never have had the courage to stand up and choose himself. I feel confident that any investment in this organization will see returns on an unprecedented scale.
Support the organization! Contact me at twitter.com/sukhneet_s to see how you can make a difference.