Below is a piece I wrote in late January, which I decided to not publish then. Seeing as this idea – my company, Rapt – is what I’ll be working on for the foreseeable future, I find this the appropriate time to share my thoughts from right after Rapt was born.
What do you do when you win? You thank everyone, acknowledge the forces of luck, and, above all, you don’t think for a second that you uniquely deserved any of this.
It could have been anyone.
Start Up Weekend, founded by the Kauffman foundation, is a 54-hour event dedicated to “sharing ideas, forming teams and launching start ups”. Inviting passionate developers, designers, and entrepreneurs to cities all across the world, the event thus far succeeded in its mission: “Roughly 80% of participants plan on continuing working with their team or startup after the weekend. Over 36% of Startup Weekend startups are still going strong after 3 months.”
I spot Lumley and Shiva, my partners from the first start up weekend I attended four months ago in Chicago. There, we built a company called Motiv8ion, which encouraged people to achieve their goals by publicizing them in front of selected friends and sending users customized reminders (“Hey, you! Get off your ass and run!”)
In doing customer discovery ex post facto, we found that our users 1) don't want to publicize their goals, 2) don't want to have their friends see them and, thus, 3) would never use our site.
Our confidence in Motiv8ion was unfazed. After all, we would (probably) use it, so why wouldn’t the rest of the world (pay to) use it?
(This raises a philosophical question: Do you need to be both a user and a believer of your product for it to be – or for you to feel -- successful?)
It was with this question we were grappling: we all wanted to use our product, but in different — and often, conflicting — ways. As a result, we spent most of the 54 hours in Chicago deliberating over our vision. We ended up compromising and choosing a bit of everything, which led to an unclear, unimpressive, and unready product.
This time would be different.
Lumley had just quit his job as a consultant to pursue start-ups, he told me. This wasn’t surprising. “Epiphanies” for new careers and dreams tend to occur at Start Up Weekends. Shiva approaches me and reminds me that we’re on the market for an education-related product. We begin to search around.
One person wants to discreetly record our conversations so that we can easily look back to recall first names or review business meetings. (How Big Brother-esque). Another person wants to build a better platform for matching people who want to informally teach and learn concrete skills. (Pretty neat). Another wants to implement game mechanics at parties and clubs – 1 point for a drink, 10 points for hooking up. (No, thanks).
Before I know it, 50 pitches have gone by, and now the organizer is beseeching us for more ideas. I muster up the courage and get up out of my seat, conjuring a pitch in my mind. Though I don’t have any solutions, I do identify a problem: GPA, the standard measurement for students, isn’t aligned with actual learning. I’ve felt for a while that the education system was set up to encourage grade-grubbing at the expense of developing the entrepreneurial mindset, intellectual curiosity, or even just moral character.
“But I have another pitch, too” I jumped, as an old idea flashed through my mind. “real-time video rap battles on the internet”.
Shortly afterwards, a herd of participants flocked to me. “I loved your idea! That’s brilliant – let’s work on it!” Ecstatically, I exclaimed, “Oh great! Have you thought of more solutions to the GPA conundrum?”
“GPA?” They asked, looking at each other, and then back at me “I wanna rap battle!”
My Rap idea would get the most votes out of all the 72 pitches.
We’re 30 hours into the competition. One day at Start Up Weekend feels like eight normal days.
Shiva and I are evaluating customer segments, revenue models, and rollout strategies. I’m speaking about affiliate marketing, corporate sponsorships, and “synergies” like I have a Wharton MBA. Two days ago, I knew much more about the philosophy underlying Thoreau’s Walden Pond than I did about anything taught at Wharton.
Today, strangely, I feel as if I know a bit more about both.
Throughout, we find time to chat about personal matters. A teammate tells me more about his start up on the side, his ad agency, his life. Another teammate interrupts to give the good news: “100 people filled out our customer survey…and one lives in Africa!” I inquire about Lumley’s new start up ventures. I ask a participant on another team if she’s ever been in love. I speak to a mentor who’s a venture capitalist in South West Michigan but spent time in London. Meanwhile, we’re showing each other recent prototypes, brainstorming, laughing, high-fiving.
There’s just something about spending an extended period of uninterrupted time with the same people that’s inexplicably unifying. There’s a level of trust, comfort, and openness that cannot be reached during the standard 45-minute coffee date. I also find that, somehow, I’m having fonder thoughts of people I haven’t spoken to for the past couple days.
Later, we gather the education thinkers together and talk about hosting an event similar in format to start up weekend — conjoined with panelists and brainstorm sessions — but specified to education.
What excites me most about Start Up Weekend is the potential for applying the benefits of the event to different types venues. Why is it only limited to technology start-ups? Why not expand to fields like the environment, health, or social entrepreneurship — or why not assemble screenwriters, dancers, and other creative types, in the same building and host an “art-up weekend?”
The potential to generate ideas, develop relationships, and share insights at Start Up Weekend is unparalleled. As of now, it’s the crash course to see if you’re cut out for entrepreneurship — Be an entrepreneur for two days and see how it feels. Using a similar type of format, students could also simulate being a teacher for a day, or a doctor, or a banker, and evaluate if that path is right for them.
Just an idea.
We’re 53 hours in.
After a myriad of technical scares, we’re ready to present. I’ll spare you our pitch, which featured a live rap battle, and just say that the judges enjoyed it; so much so, in fact, that we won the competition.
What happened next was a blur. It was announced that we won free tickets to San Francisco to pitch our idea to investors. Friends rushed to congratulate us, showering us with laughs and smiles. The Judges approached us to assure us that this could really take off, handing us their business cards.
“Great Job” a participant says as he pats my back, revealing a rueful smile. This participant was last year’s start up weekend winner, and one year ago, his company was promised some investment money. But, as he related, eyes downcast, he never saw any of it. He’s now without a job, without money, without the showering of laughs and smiles, unsure of his next move.
His story brings me back down to earth, but only slightly.
Shiva and I call our team together to gauge interest: who wants to continue working on this? All hands shoot up, except one: Ken. He can’t; he’s got a full-time job. But, he says, he’s happy to give advice whenever we need it.
“1% Equity – that’s all I want!” he adds, for good measure.
As I’m about to leave, I’m affronted by a wide-eyed and smiling student. “Hey! I thought you had a really good idea!”
“Oh cool. Are you ready to rap?
“No—I mean the GPA problem; let me know if you do something about it!”