Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Startup Community

My biggest goal in 2012 was to start a company.  I wasn't very particular in what kind of company, and I kept myself grounded in the reality that most startups fail, and I probably wasn't going to be able to quit my job and be a millionaire with the first one out.  I had several brilliant ideas (doesn't everyone?) and they varied in scale, scope and potential.  

I got wind of this new thing called hackathons and within a month or so I signed up for a Startup Weekend event in Orange County, California.  You can read all about my Startup Weekend adventure here: journal was very lengthy, so I'll suffice it to say that my pitch was lame, I joined another group, and we won, which was a terrific accomplishment.  The company was called GrowUnity, and we had a domain name with a splash page, a rockin' logo, a Twitter handle, followers on facebook, you name it.

The unfortunate thing, and this seems to be a common theme with Startup Weekend winners, is that after the weekend was over, our team dispersed. That's not to say that there wasn't an effort, because there were meetings scheduled and emails exchanged.  I even went to far as to order my logo'd shirt from CafePress, signed up for an Earth Day event and handed out grapefruit from bf's backyard in exchange for email sign ups.  It was a raving success, and I was talking it up like it was going to launch soon.  I went to a few networking mixers set up by ASU Venture Catalyst with the intention of finding programmers / developers, and I did actually find a few willing to work for free up front.  I told our team's leader, but we never connected the dots.  Finally, he emailed me one day and told me that it was time he went to get a real job, and I guess the venture was over.  The website still exists with out splash page, a picture of me and the group, and a little story about how we started.  I assume the domain will expire soon and it will cease to exist completely.  

I was okay with seeing GrowUnity wither, because it wasn't really my passion or area of expertise.  Hell, I don't even eat fruit or vegetables most of the time, and I certainly can't keep even the most simple plants alive.  I think I was happier about beating the cocky guy who got second place than I was about winning, because he rubbed me wrong during the pitches and I wanted someone to take him down a notch.  I learned a lot from Startup Weekend, but probably more than anything was the formula for winning a Startup Weekend: customer validation.  While other teams presented fancy prototypes and fully functional apps, we had video testimonials, pre-signups and followers.  That lesson would repeat itself over and over again; the idea is worth zero, the people are important, but the customers are critical.  Do people want this?  

In lieu of being a part of the most collaborative team I've ever experienced or heard of, having seen it wither, I was ready to try my own gig.    I was going to start a local brewery tour, just like those which the bf and I had gone on in San Diego and San Fran.  It seemed simple, I could rig it so it had no upfront costs, therefore no seed money or funding required, and I could can it if it failed, no harm no foul.  I worked with a few friends who were interested, but none of them seemed to have the drive to actually execute and get things done.  Eventually, I allowed a couple of them to convince me that I may have to do it all myself, and I could delegate small tasks to them as employees, not partners.  

I then made one of the most common entrepreneur mistakes: I built my "product".  In this case, making the deals with brewers, catering service and transportation services.  I guess, like most early entrepreneurs, I assumed that I needed to have something before I could sell to customers, and of course they'd love it because it's a great idea.  

Well, by the time I had my offering together, the transportation providers were all closing up for the summer; it's too hot in Arizona to run those kinds of vehicles.  I was disappointed, but took it as an opportunity to work towards an opening date in the fall, so I'd be really prepared.  Wrong again.  The date of the first tour came and went.  Not a single ticket was sold.  I had passed out fliers and talked it up in bars, but my efforts were completely fruitless, unless you count getting a "like" or two on facebook as a win.  That was my first reality check.  

Venture Catalyst hosted a 10-week course called Rapid Startup School.  That was the first time I'd heard that it wasn't uncommon for Startup Weekend ventures to fail, and the idea was that this and the Lean Launchpad were what was missing from the puzzle.  I'm not quite sure how I got tangled up, but somehow I was signed up for the Rapid Startup School geared towards military applications and veterans, neither of which applied to me.  But they never kicked me out, and I figured the basics of starting a company would be the same regardless of the specific product or business type.  I was right, to an extent, I learned a lot more about startups; I also learned about how much opportunity there was for veteran-owned companies.  I encourage one of the bf's friends to join me, because he was a Marine with entrepreneurial pipedreams, but after one session he concluded it was too far to drive.  

The first night of Venture Catalyst is probably the most memorable.  One of the serial entrepreneur panelists stood in the front of the room and demanded "Let's start that business tonight!"  Over and over again, his mantra was repeated; let's start that business tonight.  The idea was that you don't need a website or business cards or even a working prototype, there are actions you can take right now to connect a customer with the product or service, and get it done.  One of my classmates did take this to heart, and came back the following week with a success story: his first customer!  Sure he was doing everything manually instead of through the fancy website he had envisioned, but you could see the potential for his manual efforts to provide revenue that could be used for development.  It was a great inspiration.  

There were a few other morsels that impacted me greatly from the Rapid Startup School, including financial and legal liability which I don't know much about and scared me into checking myself.  Specifically, even if you have an LLC, if you mix your finances with those of your LLCs, you are no longer protected personally, and a lawsuit could come after you.  There were also a lot of things I had very little interest in; different technologies ASU was pumping out that could be used to create a business around - interesting stuff but I wasn't looking for ideas, I had too many as it is!  

The last night was also very memorable because Jay from Local Motors came to speak.  I knew about Local Motors and had previously visited; they are a very cool company and if you haven't heard of them, definitely check them out.  Essentially, they are pioneering the idea of open-sourcing a vehicle design.  Their first vehicle is called the Rally Fighter, and it's bad ass.  When I had visited a few months prior, I had connected with and was given a tour by an individual who was already planning to leave the company.  His attitude towards LM was a little negative, making it sound like Jay was a little crazy and unrealistic.  I could see his point - the idea was in that gray area in which lies the line between crazy and genius, and I think it's always a little hard to tell on which side of the line you fall until the fog clears and you've either failed miserably or become the next big thing.  LM wasn't the next big thing, yet, but it did have cars rolling off the production line and revenue for them, so there was some legitimacy to the madness.  While visiting, I had seen a book about collaboration on the desk, and I went home and bought that book and read it.  I was a little disappointed in it, because it was supposed to be all about how collaboration is the next business model, but LM was the only real example of any sort of success in this regard.  Anyways, hearing Jay speak at Venture Catalyst was a very different experience.  His passion was obvious, but more so, his vision was clarified for me well beyond my previous understanding.  I had some challenging ideas of my own, and I debated whether or not I should put Jay on the spot with those types of challenges, and in the end, I did and he handled them with great style and flair.  I concluded that he is one of the smartest, bravest and most interesting people on the planet, and one I want to know better.  

So in 2012, with the goal to start a company, I had: (1) gone to a Startup Weekend, won, and then failed to make a business, (2) started the seeds of a network through ASU Venture Catalyst Techiepalooza events, (3) got an LLC, website and service offering together, and then failed to get customers for the brewery tour, and (4) diligently attended a Rapid Startup School which inspired me.  I don't really call my efforts a failure or a success, because I learned a lot, and I did finally see revenue on the brewery tour recently, although it was in 2013.  So in a small way, I did start a company that eventually had revenue, although not profit and not an ongoing business by any means.  

The breakup had a profound effect on me in many ways.  The ex- and I were going to try to stay friends and he wanted to continue helping with the brewery tour.  Indeed, when I did finally run my first private brewery tour, he was the tour guide, and we celebrated because we both did an excellent job in our roles.  But the breakup made me very lonely; sure I had friends and family, and I am forever grateful for those people who helped me get through the first couple weeks.  It was out of this desperation to fill the void that I finally turned to Meetup.  Mr. Suave had told me about it a number of times, and I just always assumed that I didn't really need it in my life.  Now, I needed it.  Within days, I was signed up for dozens of awesome groups and following their events on my phone through the app.  

It was through a startup group that I found Lean Startup Lab.  The host, Rick, is a serial entrepreneur and very clearly a seasoned and passionate person wanting to help other entrepreneurs.  It appears one of Rick's deepest desires is to create a community in the Phoenix area to foster startups.  The idea is that as small successes come through, everyone helps each other and we all grow and benefit.  I won't get into the details here of what transpired over the next few months, but it was worthwhile for me to go every Thursday night (and at times, other nights for smaller meetings) for quite some time.  I met some great people and connected with them through Twitter, LinkedIn and Rick's creation, Startup Orange.  

Last week may have been the beginning of the end of the Lean Startup Lab tale, at least for now.  It was originally started to be a three or four week lab at most, but we continued meeting as we got fresh meat week after week, and it continued to feel valuable.  Last week, though, only a few people showed up, compared to the 30 or 40 people that had previously filled the room.  Some of the groups had formed little ventures and were pursuing those outside of the lab, and I supposed I was probably the only person that had been there at day 1 that showed up last week, besides Rick obviously.  Maybe that makes me a sucker, I don't know.  

The resulting meeting was very different, as one might expect, than previous weeks, and we ended up talking about what I call a big hairy audacious goal. Much like an idea I've toyed with for years, the idea was centered around empowering inventors and creating businesses rather than a specific product or business idea.  My idea was focused on consumer products, like home decor accessories.  This idea came out of Emelia's venture engineering concept, so it was more focused on engineered products requiring CAD drawings and functional design and the like.  We met again last night, and vetted out the idea in a little more detail.  I'm pretty excited about it, because I truly believe something like this is inevitable and will exist in the near future, so to be a part of its creation would be a huge honor and achievement.  We haven't really nailed down "what" it is, its kind of like an incubator or an accelerator, its a little bit of venture engineering, its potentially a matter of coaching, and nothing exists exactly like this.  
Somehow, we hope, this will create a robust startup community that can have a huge impact on the local economy.  

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