Inside the genius, madness and mayhem of Nelson’s 54-hour start-up endurance event, the Innovate Start-up Weekend

Last weekend’s 54-hour marathon Innovate Start-up Weekend has been and gone with 55 entrepreneurs, designers and developers coming together to pitch, build and pitch again their finished idea.

The results are in, with two of the projects announced as equal winners: Bleeep (for their model to provide an overlay on films watched online to make them more family-friendly), and Keen (for their innovative concept to connect employers and temporary workers). The winners will share the prize which includes a place on the forthcoming Co.Starters programme to be run by INNOVATE Nelson, as well as six months use of co-working space at the Bridge Street Collective. 

Blogger Jeffery Kohen was there as a mentor and found out vicariously just what it takes to go from would-be entrepreneur to actual entrepreneur, all in the space of 54 semi-sleepless hours.

Jeffery Kohen

I have to say, I was not looking forward to Start-up Weekend.

I have weekend-thing-o-phobia. Anything that starts Friday and doesn't end till Sunday gives me the willies. Like fasting, or prolonged dental pain, it’s like entering another world no one knows you're in, and all you really want is to escape, eat a hamburger and watch TV.

I can't tell you my turnaround on this one was immediate. I arrived Friday night to a dinner of chili con carne on rice – no veggies – and 27 pitches of business ideas, a third of which would be chosen for development over the following 50 or so hours.

Though the ideas were promising none were really interesting to me. I'm a product guy and nearly everything suggested was a service or an app. As a mentor it’s hard to generalize your experience to fit just anything. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find common ground between what I know and what these teams might need. I was afraid my input would be lame.  I was afraid there would be nothing green to eat until Monday.

What followed, of course, not only put my fears to rest, but my worries gave way to a giddy energy that had me running back and forth between groups, checking on progress the way one might at a sand castle contest. Honestly I don't know how any of us, mentors, organizers or participants, knew what to do.

This was Nelson's first Startup Weekend. But somehow everyone immediately understood their roles and the tasks ahead. The starting gun fired. Everyone rushed to their work stations.  They identified their talents, brainstormed what they wanted to achieve, divided up responsibilities and dug in. We would be there until at 1am – some later – and back at 7am – some earlier – to be repeated on Saturday, and most of Sunday. 

In that period I witnessed 55 highly motivated, open-minded, crazily creative, puzzle-loving souls turn mere concepts into businesses ready for planting in the real world. The breadth and depth and detail into which these ideas were developed was more than impressive; it was moving.

Startup weekends are highly emotional. Remember, a third of these people who had pitched instantly had to overcome the disappointment of having their ideas rejected, and apply themselves to someone else’s. Half of the crowd just showed up to help wherever they could be useful, only vaguely knowing what to expect. All present had to wrap our heads around the “lean canvas” we were provided, a blotter-sized page of squares and rectangles of subject headings, the sum of which, when filled in, would give shape to a business model. 

“Validation, Model, Execution”; these were the three key criteria upon which all teams would be judged, and which everyone had to remember throughout development. Is there a market for your business? Go out there and prove it. If you find the answer is no you'll have to come up with something else. Convince us you know how you’re going to make your business happen. Show us exactly how it will be done.

“Us” in this case was four judges who showed up late Sunday afternoon, having witnessed none of the frenzied work that went into the final presentations, and having no sympathy for the effort or exhaustion. The judges had big expectations that everyone knew exactly what they were doing, and could justify it. 

The teams and concepts:

  • The Thrive team designed a business to lease electric bicycles to businesses as substitute transportation to work. 
  • Arctica took us into a 3-D, virtual reality model of a blueprint or a property for sale.
  • Keen (one of the first-equal winners) instantly matches semi-skilled workers with employers, as rapidly as a school needs relief teachers.
  • Nailed It organizes all options provided by home builders to buyers, and communicates up-to-the-moment plans and changes on the project to all concerned parties, so the left hand always knows what the right is doing.
  • Fired Up helps Year 13 students find a path forward in life.
  • Food Baby helps locals and tourists find just the right restaurant and organizes delivery for those who desire.
  • Bleep (also first equal) provides streaming movies edited for language, sex and violence, and allows parents to do their own editing.
  • Ferment It has developed a tempered box for beer brewing operated by remote control from a smart phone.
  • Real Safety helps companies organize all aspects of worker safety compliance.
  • Home Story is an app for homeowners to organize a complete history of projects, subcontractors, receipts, permits, certificates, photos etcetera for your home, like a service record for a car, or a hospital chart for a patient.

Between Friday and Sunday evenings, every one of these concepts was fleshed out to the point they were ready to show to an investor.

And me? I discovered I’m not totally the useless retiree I thought I was. The mentors shared fully in the sense of pride and accomplishment felt by the participants, just like the organizers, Lord love 'em, who gave the gift of Startup Weekend to our community, hopefully for years and years to come. 

Not to worry, by Saturday morning boxes of fresh fruit arrived, and a vegetable was served with every meal.