Starting Something at Startup Weekend

Feb 4, 2013

This Friday, wannabe entrepreneurs will gather at UConn for the second annual Startup Weekend Storrs. It’s a 54 hour marathon which aims to develop and launch new companies into the real world. But does it work? --  and does that matter? WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports.


Startup Weekends have become all the rage in Connecticut’s new entrepreneurial ecosystem. As well as Storrs, Hartford, New Haven and Stamford have all hosted the frenetic, round-the-clock competition that teams developers, designers and marketers together to build products and launch companies - all in a weekend.


“If you just want to get going, this is the perfect event. It’s short, it’s non-stop -- you can’t stop working, you’ve got 54 hours -- so it’s forcing you to focus, knock your idea around, beat it up a little bit and see if there’s anything there.”


Adam Boyajian is an entrepreneur in residence at UConn, and one of the people running this year’s Startup Weekend Storrs. He and his business partner Mike Parelli both took part last year.


“The things you have to do in that weekend, a lot of people avoid doing till a year down the line, and it forces it to happen right in the beginning, see if you have a viable company and really focus on that lean start-up approach.”


For some, the approach works like a charm.


“So you log on to Sobrio, and there’s two buttons -- there’s I’m driving, and I need a ride. So I’m going to click on I need a ride, I’m going to say where I am....”


That’s Nadav Ullman, just graduated from UConn, and a winner of last year’s Startup Weekend Storrs with his company Sobrio. It’s a designated driving app, adapted to college campuses, that he developed with partner Tom Bachant.


“Right so, say I feel like being a driver tonight. I log into Sobrio and hit the I’m driving  button. Then from here I get to set a radius of how far I’m willing to drive.....”


Ullman, whose major was consumer behavior, says he went to Startup Weekend just out of curiosity and didn’t initially intend to pitch the idea of Sobrio, but when he did, lots of people recognized how well it fits into campus life.


“The designated driving experience already exists. So there’s already people who go out at night looking for rides, and they need to find who the safe driver is, and there’s also already people who are the designated drivers for the night, looking for people to people to pick up, making an extra couple of bucks for the night, or just being a good friend. But there was no proper way for them to connect and communicate.”


Over the last year, Sobrio has been a success on the Storrs campus, and is just gaining traction at UMass. Ullman and Bachant now have more than 60 other target schools where they’d like to launch. Their other current project is to monetize the app and begin seeing revenue at their fledgling business. Ullman says as a student, Startup Weekend was a breath of fresh air.


“A school project for instance, you go in and half the people are slacking, half the people took the class because they needed the credits, or it was required for their major. But this was, everyone was here for the same exact reason, and throughout the 54 hours, everyone would stay really late at night, everyone would wake up early to make sure we were together in the morning.”


What it doesn’t guarantee is commercial success.  Last year, Sobrio was a joint winner with two other apps. Mailstack, an email management app, and Platforum, the brainchild of Hemel Shah and Andrew Jorgensen.


“The market that we were trying to target wasn’t quite as big as we thought, and there was also a number of barriers to entry that would have caused it to be not quite as profitable as we thought.”


Platforum aimed to adapt web forums for mobile devices. In the end, despite its popularity at Startup Weekend, it didn’t get off the ground commercially. But Jorgensen says that doesn’t mean that for him Startup Weekend itself was a failure. He and Shah are both now working at startups in Cambridge, and he says his experience at Storrs is still relevant.


“Coming into the startup industry you’ve really got to show that you have this entrepreneurial drive -- you’re a self starter, you can get stuff done on your own, you don’t have to have your hand held every step of the way. So I think from that perspective, Startup Weekend was great.”


“Most startups fail.”


Danny Briere is CEO of Startup Connecticut.


“We tend to lose sight of that, right? The metrics we use to evaluate the startup ecosystem in Connecticut shouldn’t be, well look at all these companies that failed -- you want to focus on the ones that succeeded.”


Briere says for many entrepreneurs, like Jorgensen, failure is as significant as success for the lessons it teaches. And he says startup weekends are a very intensive teaching tool.


“How to access mentors, where they can go for funding, how to go and talk to customers about whether or not their product’s needed. They come out of that having experienced a microcosm of entrepreneurship.”


As Connecticut’s new entrepreneurship ecosystem gets underway with the launch of CT Next and its four hubs, Briere says Startup Weekends and similar events will be a key part of the mix.


For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.