One idea, 54 hours: Startup Weekenders build real company

One idea, 54 hours: Startup Weekenders build real company

54hrs.jpg
Michael Synk was crying quietly as people left the Emerge Memphis building Sunday night.

(pic) Barry Foster, Greg Nail and Meka Egwuekwe discuss ideas for the
development of a new social networking Web site for Ultimate Frisbee
players during the Startup Weekend workshop at Emerge Memphis.

Two days earlier, he had stood in front of an audience and pitched a
vague idea for company based on Ultimate Frisbee, a sport like touch
football but played with a flying disk.

His peers chose his idea over alternatives, and made it the focus for
Startup Weekend, an exercise in which entrepreneurs try to build a real
company in 54 hours.

Over the next few days, some were so consumed with the project that
they spent the nights in the converted warehouse near the river. He
said he was overwhelmed by their cooperation.

"It’s just a whole bunch of people took an idea and created
something out of nothing," said Synk, a 51-year-old business coach.
"And it’s inspirational."

It’s too early to say if the fledgling company will survive, but the
event and the social events that led up to it appeared to have met
organizers’ main goal of strengthening links among local entrepreneurs.

"I met a lot of people I didn’t think existed in my area," said
Jonathan McCarver, a 25-year-old Web developer for Signature
Advertising.

Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Startup Weekend LLC holds the events in
cities around the country, and the Memphis event had the backing of
several local organizations that promote entrepreneurship.

54hrs_a.jpg(pic) The clock applied constant pressure on participants in Startup Weekend
at Emerge Memphis, counting down the 54 hours they had to create a
model for a new business.

It attracted 100 participants from as far away as Madison, Wis. They
paid $40, which covered supplies, food and beverages, including beer,
and used the offices of Emerge Memphis, an organization that provides
services to startups.

The participants included attorneys, entrepreneurs and tech experts.
They were mostly men and mostly white, though there were also many
black participants.

The first task Friday night was selecting an idea for the company.
Participants presented more than 20 concepts, including several for
computer games and one for a solar energy products distributorship.

Speakers who ran over two minutes were cut off by consultant Spencer
Dillard, who shouted an unprintable word that means "nonsense." The
practice reportedly comes from a CEO who uses the technique to keep
meetings in check.

A preliminary round of voting led to three finalists. Dan Marks
pitched a program that would use handheld devices to help golfers
measure the distance from the tee to the green.

Meka Egwuekwe, a 34-year-old senior software architect for the
marketing and branding firm Lokion, suggested using in-home cameras to
transmit images of intruders to customers’ handheld devices.

Synk suggested making gear such as shoes and uniforms for Ultimate
Frisbee players. He said the suggestion came from his 16-year-old son,
Peter, who plays the game, and later said he had decided to make the
pitch only at the last minute.

There was a show of hands, and the Frisbee idea won in a close vote.
After more discussion, the groups set up groups to handle everything
from legal matters to marketing.

Some people left early, but others threw themselves into the project.

McCarver said he stayed until 1:30 a.m. Saturday, and returned in a
few hours and stayed up almost all the next night. He left around 5
a.m. Sunday, slept a few hours and returned to find two partners in the
same spot, one programming and the other asleep.

"Everybody was passionate," he said. "Even people who would
obviously be unhappy about the project they had to work on still took a
passionate approach to it and did everything they could to make it
work."

He and other participants made heavy use of Internet technology to communicate.

David Barger, president of Internet consulting firm LunaWeb Inc.,
walked around the room with a laptop computer, using its built-in Web
camera to transmit the proceedings live via Internet.

By Sunday, the Frisbee concept had changed radically. It now had a
name, Spynnr, pronounced "spinner." Instead of making gear, its primary
focus was creating a software tool for use on Facebook.com, a social
networking site that lets people post information about themselves and
find people with similar interests.

The software tool would allow players to find local games and rate
one another’s skill levels. It could also be applied to other sports
and could make money through advertising, Synk said.

By Sunday, participants had created the Web site, Spynnr.com, and a motto: "Is your game on?"

They had even printed up T-shirts with a company logo and brought in local Ultimate Frisbee players for market research.

They had chosen people to turn Spynnr into a reality, though they
hadn’t yet incorporated the company or set up a formal leadership
structure.

Entrepreneur Don Samulack, 49, who holds a doctorate in
neuroscience, will work with McCarver to lead the effort in the short
term. They said the company is likely to change in the next few days.

"You can only do so much in 54 hours," Samulack said.

Contact Daniel Connolly at 529-5296.

Moving forward

Startup Weekend is over, but organizers hope to keep the momentum going for LaunchMemphis, a larger series of events.

Participants are forming interest groups around several concepts that didn’t make the final cut.

An event where startup firms will meet with venture capitalists and
other investors is scheduled for June 9 at the FedEx Institute of
Technology on the University of Memphis campus.

A "boot camp" to help entrepreneurs turn ideas into plans is
scheduled for June 14 at the Emerge Memphis building Downtown. It will
be held in the offices of Mercury Technology Labs LLC, an organizer of
the LaunchMemphis events.

A reunion for Startup Weekend participants is scheduled for Aug. 7 in the same space.

For more information, call Lori Turner at 266-2662, or visit launchmemphis.com or startupweekend.com.

To hear the sounds of Startup Weekend for yourself, listen to an audio presentation at commercialappeal.com.

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