Startup weekend not what Cobbers expected

Photo submitted by J. Alan Paul Photography. Christoffer Birch-Jensen takes on an opponent in the final round of rock–paper–scissors during an icebreaker at Startup Weekend in downtown Fargo, held March 8 and 9. Birch-Jensen was one of four Cobbers to attend the event. He did not win the round.

Zach Lipp, Christoffer Birch-Jensen, Matt Gantz and Levi Bachmeier signed up for the Startup Weekend event expecting 54 hours of serious work committed to ideas that would significantly influence the community. Once they arrived, they witnessed something else.

Startup Weekend, a nonprofit initiative that promotes entrepreneurship, came to Fargo on March 8 for the weekend with eight teams competing to be the top Startup project. The event revolves around giving groups of professionals and non-professionals 54 hours to pitch an idea for a business and then to plan the implementation of that idea.

The program was met with mixed feelings.

“I was dissatisfied because it was so different from what I was expecting,” said Zach Lipp, a freshman majoring in business with an economics concentration. He attended the first day of the Startup Weekend but left on the second day.

Lipp was hesitant after he heard the pitches on Friday night.

“I was expecting a different kind of business person,” he said. Lipp said that he had anticipated pitches for nonprofits, brick-and-mortar businesses and the like. Instead, most pitches were for cell phone applications.

“I thought the ideology of the event was great, but the practicality of it wasn’t there,” said Levi Bachmeier, a junior social studies education major.

Bachmeier said he would have preferred that brainstorming and research went into creating the pitches, rather than having an end product in mind throughout the entire process.

A pitch that stuck out in Lipp’s mind is BeerFlowers: an application that allows a person to order alcohol to be delivered much like a bouquet of flowers.

Pitches ranged in seriousness—from Shirt Roulette, a website in which people can swap shirts with people from around the world, to TherApptainment, a mobile program that “gameifies” physical therapy and helps physical therapists check-in with their clients remotely.

Another application pitched at the event was called “New York Sock Exchange,” in which a person can pay a membership fee to have a new distinctive pair of socks delivered to them by mail every month. The socks would be donated to charity at the end of the month.

Greg Tehven, one of the organizers of Startup Weekend, pointed to the New York Sock Exchange as an example of a business model in which companies can do good with the resources available to them.

Tehven, a social entrepreneur originally from the Fargo area, focused on how events like Startup Weekend can build community. Tehven has organized past Fargo events like TEDxFargo and Fill the Dome, an area-wide food drive.

“It’s important to shine light on the fact that Fargo has amazing, talented people,” Tehven said.

Tehven stressed that while the Fargo-Moorhead area is not generally viewed as a place that breeds innovative business models, it is home to adroit people who can create things and businesses that benefit the community.

“Our economy is built by small companies. The more startups we can support the better chance our local economy has to thrive,” Tehven said.

Lipp pointed to the size of the community as being a hindrance on the kinds of pitches that were presented at Startup Weekend.

“A big thing about events like this in Fargo-Moorhead is that it tends to appeal to a fixed set of people in the area. If there was a more diverse set of people, it may have not focused as much on mobile apps and more on social entrepreneurship or brick-and-mortar businesses,” Lipp said.

Tehven and Lipp were both impressed by the amount of community support for the event, which involved local businesses providing space and food for the participants. The Fargo Theatre, Atomic Coffee, Sundog and Mezzaluna supported the event, among many other businesses.

Startup Weekend events have happened around the world in communities of all sizes since 2007. According to Startup Weekend’s website, there have been 1068 of these events in 478 cities, ranging from New York City to Izmir to Cleveland.

While Lipp was frustrated by the event, he believes a lot of it has to do with the event not being as accessible to students as he had expected.

“I think the problem is that we were on the less valuable end of two spectrums. We couldn’t help with coding or design; we could only help with marketing,” he said.

Startup Weekend’s website identifies attendee’s backgrounds as being about half technical, including coders and designers and the other half business-oriented, including marketing, finance and law.

“The teams wanted to make supergroups made up of masterminds,” Bachmeier said. He said that this made it difficult for non-technical attendees to learn a lot from people with more technical experience.

Tehven said that while college students don’t have the work experience of other participants, their presence was beneficial.

“Everyone can add value to an event like this,” Tehven said. “It’s a learning experience for everyone.”

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Emma Connell

Class of 2014 at Concordia College. Majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. Involved in Student Government and, of course, The Concordian.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    So I agree with the students on their judgment of “Novelty Type Ideas” taking a disproportionate share of the spotlight, but People… we need to take a look at this from a real perspective. Startup Weekend isn’t about launching real businesses in 54 hours. That’s nearly impossible and foolish. Sometimes it happens, but the purpose of Startup Weekend was to break the ice here in Fargo Moorhead. Apps are meaningless, much like the awkward first minutes meeting your roommate or in the beginning of a job interview, but you have to get through them to have something to talk about, some common bond to tie you together for the meaningful things to come. Startup Weekend isn’t about getting designers, developers, and marketers together for a weekend. It’s about getting them together for the long haul. It’s a shame that someone didn’t see past that, and called an early quits, but the fact that they wanted it to be more than they perceived is an opportunity knocking. It WAS more than you perceived, and things, big things, are going to be happening in Our Valley because of it. We live in a community that for a long time was a shrinking population. Intelligent, driven people with great ideas would follow their smarts getting the degree and checking out to opportunity in greener pastures where they might be able to pursue them, or hang their ideas in the closet in exchange for a “job” because it’s just not possible here in Fargo Moorhead. It’s definitely a risk you have to take, but the biggest takeaway from Startup Weekend should have been that we have the people, the resources, and the motivation as a community to help businesses start, scale, and stay here in Fargo Moorhead.
    Zach Lipp – Sorry you missed out, but it’s not a complete loss. You recognized that you thought it could have been better. So let’s make it better. We need all the leaders we can get in this community if we want to be the new age of Startups from “The Valley”. Here’s an opportunity for you to do something you feel strongly about, and we all would be glad to have you fighting the fight with us.

  2. Avatar

    Adapting this from what I have posted on Facebook –

    I want to say a few things that didn’t make the article:

    Note: I write for myself alone. I cannot assume to know what the other attendees would say.

    I would never call the event “bad,” it was just totally foreign to me. I bit into an orange expecting an apple.

    One of the things I stressed when interviewed (and that I will stress now) is that it was that my disappointment is largely on my shoulders. This appears to have come up in these comments – I could have looked into Startup Weekend more. This was not some fringe Startup Weekend event – compare the pitches at this event to others, and you’ll see great similarity.

    As well, I was expecting more of a buttoned-up event; and this was meant to be a fun weekend. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was just not what I expected.

    So again, let me stress the biggest point that didn’t make the article: my dissatisfaction with the event was largely my own fault, not the fault of the event.

  3. Avatar

    “I thought the ideology of the event was great, but the practicality of it wasn’t there”

    A pitch for building a brick and mortar store in 54hr is not practical. You are more than welcome to pitch one, but people chose ideas that had a good chance of being built by the end of the weekend. Tech ideas are very conducive to that. You get 54hr to learn the process of building a product and to meet new people who share the same passion.

    Build the community up, don’t tear it down. Startup Weekend is a great step towards having the community work together and to inspire each other to push our limits.

  4. Avatar

    I believe the reason brick and mortars weren’t pitched is because they are dead. Very difficult to make one fly in today’s market.

    I also agree with John Schneider.

    1. Avatar

      I spent the week eating my way across the Easter Seaboard and probably doubled both my cholesterol and weight despite walking my poor feet off. Doesn’t seem fair.

  5. Avatar

    With almost any event, it is what you make it. There was an opportunity to start or pitch almost any type of business.

    My team was mostly marketing and design people. We spent a ton of time brainstorming and had many pivots throughout the weekend. Even since then we have made huge changes with our plans.

    With a smaller team, we focused on what we were good at. Most of the businesses pitched required little overhead or startup costs and would need little to no initial investment. There is something very appealing to knowing that it could be a real business without a lot of risk.

    I assume that most of these people who left early either didn’t pay for a ticket or didn’t pay full price. Otherwise they would have had to do a little bit of research to find out about the event. While they would certainly be welcome to come, they would have better managed their own expectations and known if this event was right for them.

  6. Avatar

    Interesting prospective, but a few important parts of the story are missing here.

    While there were a few quirky ideas, it’s important to mention that those ideas didn’t gain much traction. BeerFlowers didn’t even get enough support to form a team.

    The team that won second place pitched a service for connecting 3D printers around the world. I’d say that’s a perfect example of social entrepreneurship. My team pitched a platform for helping non-profits connect with young people and raise small donations. I think the process worked as it should – and most of the poor ideas sunk quickly.

    In regards to the “brick-and-mortar” stores idea, I think it’s fair to say that’s not exactly a “startup,” in the sense most define it. Startups are tech companies, websites, online services – and yes, mobile apps. I think the whole idea of the weekend is to pitch one of these related ideas.

    It’s unfortunate you left early. It really was a great event full of entrepreneurial energy, team-building and fun. Getting ready for the pitches on Sunday was unlike any late-night group study session I’ve ever experienced.

  7. Avatar

    One other thing, it seems a bit unfair of Zach Lipp to cast judgement on the whole weekend when he didn’t even stay for the 2nd day. Did he attempt to contribute to any of the teams? From the sounds of it, he should’ve been all over KickIn, the gamified donation platform for non-profits.

    Regarding Bachmeier’s criticism,”He would have preferred that brainstorming and research went into creating the pitches, rather than having an end product in mind throughout the entire process.” Did he realize that the whole weekend builds up to giving final pitches on Sunday evening? A huge part of Saturday and Sunday was filled with brainstorming and research. I’m not sure if, like Zach Lipp, he skipped days 2 and 3, but it doesn’t seem like the weekend was properly represented by these two individuals.

  8. Avatar

    I also put this on the Startup Weekend Facebook page, but here are my thoughts:

    “He does raise an interesting point. I think a part of the disconnect he experienced between his expectations and reality is due in large part to what many (not all) expect to get out of a startup. Take a look at the first couple pages of TechCrunch and you’ll see what I mean. All of the businesses getting notable funding? Tech/mobile startups. Many entrepreneurs are hoping to strike it rich like the founders of Instagram did – acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. Instagram is a social app that puts a filter over your photos. Not innovative or solving real world problems by any stretch of the imagination.

    It’s for this reason that I didn’t pitch Fargo Makerworks at Startup Weekend. I had a feeling that many would be expecting to come together, pitch, design and build an app/service, and have something to demo by the end of 54 hours. A B&M business? Not as easy to do. What do you show? How do you demo your work? May it be more meaningful and impactful than a service that autodelivers socks? I certainly hope so. Is it the type of business that Startup Weekend is designed to help? I don’t think that’s the case.

    As for Zach Lipp? I’d like to chat. There may be a need for someone with your perspective at Makerworks.”

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