I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I signed on to cover Startup Weekend at UCC. I knew it was an event hosted by Google to kickstart business ideas, and I knew it was a some sort of competition: best idea wins. But I knew little else, so the plan was to show up as a participant, join up with a group, and write.
I was such an eager beaver that I arrived 30 minutes early and began observing my surroundings. The room was large, and staff members ran back and forth in red baseball shirts. People slowly trickled in until about a hundred people filled TC119 and 120.
What surprised me the most that first night was the wide demographic: the tattooed and the pierced mingled with the wrinkled and the gray. Veterans and doctors exchanged stories. Hippies, hipsters, stoners, edgy teenagers, clean-cut corporate stooges, rednecks, leathernecks, squids, left-wingers, right-wingers, all somehow in the same room without blowing up. I even saw a cowboy. His hat was white so I’m pretty sure he was a good guy.
The opening few hours of motivational speeches about small businesses and entrepreneurship would convince even the most introverted individuals to pitch. The most introverted did.
I tried to sell an idea for a T-shirt with a flexible LCD display that lets users upload the images they want to display. Afterwards, I was directed to the back of the room to wait for the votes from everyone else.
The voting process is kind of like being on display at a zoo. You stand next to a sign with your idea on it and people walk around staring at the signs like you’re some rare endangered animal with a name they can’t pronounce. If they like your idea, they give you a tab to put on your sign — the more tabs you get, the more people like your idea. I got eight tabs, not enough to make it in the top 10 (but it’s more than a six pack).
After the best ideas have been chosen, teams form. Individuals go to the guy they think has the best idea and are knighted into his service. Since I was voted out, I went around to all the different groups to offer up my skills which, in a business sense, are limited.
The ideas were just as varied as the people. One guy was trying to start up a brand of beer-based dressing, called Beerssings. Some young-looking people formed together to kickstart their own nail polish marbling, and a Navy vet really appealed to my sense of guilt with her greeting cards for military personnel.
Delbert Dutton, who looked like a bearded friendly giant, had an idea for what he called “Ride-360,” a motorcycle helmet that enabled the wearer to see behind them through the use of two cameras. The helmet would be powered off the bike, and in my mind, was a winner.
Ride-360 had probably the smallest team with just five people. Standing next to Delbert was Cole Weaver. My interactions with Cole earlier that night led me to believe he was some sort of digital prodigy. Then there was the silver fox Michael Zupon, who went by Mick, and his partner Trista who were actually in the process of starting a business: a motorcycle workshop they called Custom Throttle Therapy. The only thing our group was really missing was someone to handle marketing.
We were escorted to a nearby room and given our first hint to check a business model canvas, a table with essential business structures. Value propositions, key partners, distribution channels, costs, revenue channels, everything a new business needs to know before getting started was on that table.
Cole’s mother tagged along to help rack our brains for concepts. Everything from facial recognition for the helmet to a companion mobile phone app was thrown up on a white board as ideas for development.
“I think emphasizing the safety concept of it,” Cole started up.
“That’s my big thing too,” Delbert reinforced, “because I know a lot of riders who are crazy, but safety is their main concern.” Safety and the way the motorcycle’s alternator powers the helmet. Crazy, right?
Mick’s ideas were a little more Hollywood; “Jarvis, turn the safety switch over so we can speak to the helmet,” he said.
“No, I’m serious,” Mick said. “If Iron Man can do it in a helmet, why can’t we?”
It was a good point, and I couldn’t find an answer.
Cole, of course, knew exactly why: “The problem is for voice recognition you’d need to have an internet connection.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about! Internet connection from your phone to the helmet!” Mick said.
”But what I’m saying is if you don’t have the phone, if the reason you need your helmet to call 911 is because you don’t have the phone, then there’s not going to be voice recognition,” Cole pointed out. Oh, right… I knew that.
The banter continued for about 30 minutes, and by 10:30 p.m. our white board turned purple from all of the dry erase marks. We called it a night and planned to meet again tomorrow morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m.
“Jarvis, lights off,” Mick joked as we closed up shop. By the time I got home, I was exhausted and crawled into bed around 11 p.m. in spite of my belief that young boys and young girls should not be in bed before midnight on a Friday night.
I arrived at 8:30 the next morning for an eggs, potatoes and bacon breakfast, eating as quickly as I could. Delbert then signed our team up for some coaching with a patent attorney around 9:40 a.m. I was tasked with some preliminary product research to make sure nothing similar was already on the market. Then we hit our first bump.
The Skully AR-1, an augmented reality helmet currently being kickstarted, has a camera in the back that enables the wearer to see behind them, just like our Ride-360. The AR-1 was even GPS enabled to give direction while riding, but as long as we changed the name we’d have a completely different product; right, Gates?
“If they have that patented we are screwed,” Cole said, speaking everyone’s thoughts.
I looked at the AR-1 with a mixture of awe and hate. The AR-1 was what Ride-360 could have been, if we had gotten there first. In terms of the tortoises and hares, we were the hare.
Jerry Haynes, the patent attorney, walked in and we looked at him with hopeful eyes. Maybe there was some legal loophole we could jump through.
Haynes directed us to Google Patents. I quickly double-checked the AR-1 and found that it utilized a wind turbine to charge the helmet.
“For that,” Cole said, pointing to the AR-1 screen display, “if we don’t include a wind turbine that charges the batteries, would that make it a patentable object? If we say we took out the wind turbine because it caused air resistance?”
“It’s an easier course to add features than to try and take them out,” Haynes said.
“If you take it out and you replace it with something?” Cole’s mother nudged.
“Yeah, we’re looking at alternator charging it,” Delbert threw in.
“There you go, yeah,” Haynes affirmed. “Just taking out a feature is not that great. It’s better if you’re replacing it with something better.”
Haynes added to my stack of business cards before he left. We felt relieved. Our idea was viable.
We began brainstorming again to make our helmet additionally different from the AR-1. We decided to throw blinkers and brake lights on the helmet to increase visibility of the rider.
Then we, like the other teams, started throwing other stuff around. Like ideas. Lots of ideas. Ideas in the air, ideas in the trash. Our ideas were 3-pointers, hole-in-ones, home runs and other sports references. I heard that TC104, Aria Blackwood’s and KC Perley’s room, was really bouncing ideas off the wall.
“Safety and visibility,” Delbert kept saying.
“360 viewing safety features including taillights, blinkers, all that,” Mick said.
“Recording,” Delbert threw in.
“Oh, 360, the complete circle on safety,” Cole’s mother was getting creative. We now had our slogan.
One last helmet add-on from Cole: GPS Onstar-type system in case of a crash.
We all thought it was a great idea. We all thought all of our helmet ideas were great. And then we met with Wayne Patterson. Patterson was the guy with executive experience at some small companies you’ve never heard of like, Nike, Sony, Oakley, Polaris, Mattel. He reminded us that a startup wouldn’t have the funding to test 500 helmets with 500 add-ons at the Department of Transportation level. Also, he pointed out, we’d be liable if a helmet failed.
At that point our team had to start all over. I started for home.
I arrived the next morning a little defeated; we all did. We decided to strip the idea down to the basics, two cameras, two displays (mounting on the bike, not in a helmet) and video recording.
We came up with a PowerPoint that might as well have been put together by Dr. Frankenstein. It was bad, functional, but bad.
We’d be the seventh team to present, and every other team before had beautiful presentations, colorful presentations. Digi-Ponics, who were developing a home horticulture system, had a wonderful mock-up of their product. The judges asked each team two to three questions, tough questions.
It was our turn to run the gauntlet, the bell tolled and we stood on the gallows in front of the crowd waiting to be hanged. Delbert gave his spiel, and the judges asked us one question: Is there any thoughts of an integrated system to keep the motorcyclist’s attention on the road? Delbert replied telling them that was our original idea, and still a future plan, but the costs were too great for a startup.
As soon as we finished, we all took a step outside and celebrated.
“They only asked us one question!” Mick kept saying over and over, grinning. The worst was over; all that was left to do now was wait.
We went back inside and watched the rest of the presentations. After those had finished up, the judges went into a back room to determine how well each team did. While we waited, some t-shirts were given out to individuals who stood out during the event. Practically one person from every team received one. Cole’s mother received a shirt for “best hover-mother,” she joked. I got one for basically just being there as a reporter.
Delbert and I had a heart to heart about his time in the military. I learned Cole was going to compete in a national cybersecurity competition (I knew he was smart, but woah). Mick and Trista invited all of us to come by their shop. The group made the collective decision to continue Ride-360 even if we didn’t win. I offered to help in any way I could.
The judges came back to hand down the verdicts. We got honorable mention for the best pitch. I was surprised, but Delbert was a great speaker. Beerssings got third, partly because their product, a beer based dressing, was used in the dinner. Then second place was announced, and I was really blown away: Ride-360. Our team got second place because our marketing strategy was the best. First place went to Pearlwood Visions, the nail polish marbling kit, because they had the best business model.
“I didn’t expect that,” I said leaning over to Delbert.
“I went by their room last night; they had their shit down,” Delbert said, approving of the judges’ decision.
We celebrated our second-place victory and took photos. I gave my shirt to Cole because there was no way we’d have been able to do anything without him, and besides, now he could match with his mother, and that’s every kid’s dream, right? I wished him luck at his competition. We all exchanged contact information and parted ways.
So what is Startup Weekend? Well, for some it was a competition with unexpected wins and losses. For others, it was a networking opportunity. For me, it’s a story worth telling with worthwhile characters. •
Pearlwood Visions won first place during the Startup Weekend competition with their nail polish marbling kit.
Competitor at the Startup Weekend pitched ideas for motorcycle safety showing technology in development.
Mainstream reporter Brandon Taylor pitches an idea for his product idea, Any T on Friday’s initial pitch night.
Team Ride-360 came in second overall on the final day of Startup Weekend just behind Pearlwood Visions. First place for crowd favorite went to Beerssings.
The Pearlwood Visions business idea was for a nail polish marbling kit that can be applied to any object to give it a new look and use for repurposing.