What did you do last weekend?
Go to the movies? Dine out? How about start a business? That’s what about 100 people did over a long weekend on UC’s campus, conceiving and building a new Web-based company -- that they each own a piece of -- in, oh, 53 hours or so.
The new company is called LifeSpoke and the concept is to create a secure place, accessible online, to share and store all the touchstones that shape our memories of family and friends: family photos, wedding videos, love letters, kids’ report cards, you name it.
That was the winning idea out of about 60 that the group came up with in an enormous, vibrant brainstorming session that lasted until nearly midnight Friday. Today, the company has office space and mentoring available at the Hamilton County Business Center, legal counsel from Thompson Hine, high-speed bandwidth from Profitability.net and accounting services from Right Path.
Although its Web site is still under development, LifeSpoke was a very tangible result of InOneWeekend, a kind of StartUpPalooza event where 100 or so entrepreneurs are basically thrown together in a big room on Friday evening and challenged to dream up, build and launch a new enterprise by Sunday night.
Sound improbable? Here’s how they did it:
After inspiration provided by a keynote from Roy Gilbert, one of Google’s top execs, the group gathered for a session designed to provoke creative, intuitive thinking that can lead to discovery -- the “Aha! Moment.” The session was led by Jeffrey Stamp, a serial entrepreneur who invented Baked Lays chips, started a handful of businesses, chaired a university’s entrepreneurship program and just moved back to Cincinnati to lead his latest venture. Stamp challenged everyone to break out of their usual modes of perception and make the creative connections that can lead to products and services that people want to buy. After a series of high-energy cognitive exercises designed to inflame creativity, the group broke into teams to start pitching ideas. The goal: by the end of the night, agree on one with the potential to move the needle.
With 100 mostly Type A folks in one room all lobbying for their pet ideas, there was potential for disaster. But the group poured forth 57 distinct ideas, each with a name, a business concept and a potential market. They had names like MakeItHappen, ER.com, Venn Friends, Bartertown, Build My Future and Return of the Milk Man. The winner had the working title of LivingHistory.com.
With an idea and the wind at their backs, the hard work began. Based on their expertise, the entrepreneurs broke into teams to start the nitty gritty of building the company, something they had about 20 hours to achieve. Teams retreated to meeting rooms at UC’s Tangeman Center: the branding team worked on the name and the visual look and representation of the company and wrestled with thought-provoking questions like: What are the brand’s moral values -- a question meant to elicit symbols, pictures, emotions and colors to create the brand imagery.
The techies holed up in a room and crowded around laptops with the lights out, working on the architecture and infrastructure of this online enterprise and problems like how to keep unwanted visitors out of the site and the technology behind registering members. They jerry-rigged someone’s laptop to host the site and built a prototype the team leader termed “smoke and mirrors” but which allowed others to see what the product will look like.
The finance group worked the cold, hard numbers and by Saturday evening, came back with this encouraging report: “Bottom line is: this thing is really profitable,” the team’s presenter reported. There was talk of an 85 percent profit margin, which seemed to energize the group even more than the Monster energy drink they’d been swilling all day.
Management and operations looked into trademarking the name and logo, securing a patent, creating a board, deciding how many employees would be needed, and conducted an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. They thought big: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, would be invited to be on the board, they agreed. Another group scanned the landscape for possible competitors and worked up a matrix to compare features and find ways to differentiate their new product.
Elizabeth Edwards of Neyer Holdings, InOneWeekend's lead organizer, roamed among the teams checking on progress, encouraging, guiding and handing out assignments. “We need to balance two critical things: cool and feasible,” she urged one team.
Jon Schlinkert, a Cincinnati entrepreneur whose latest venture is called iStatus, offered his expertise to the sales and marketing team, and shared a tool to help gauge the potential value of their new product.
There were crises: there was no one with expertise in Flash, the multimedia technology that livens up Web pages with animation and interactivity. Cell phones lit up with calls to friends seeking flash expertise.
There was dissension: As the group prepared to vote on the company name, one member disputed the voting method. After an admonition to offer solutions rather than problems, the vote took place as planned.
But by midnight Saturday, everyone knew what they needed to do, each team had a flying start on their deliverables and there had been no fistfights. Things were looking good.
No day of rest here; there was a deadline and lots of work left to do. The teams were back in their workspaces by 8:30 AM, under the gun of a 5 PM deadline. By noon, the Java Monster ran out, but the energy generated by working toward a shared goal seemed to keep the group focused and intent.
There were glitches, of course. After sleeping on it, it seems the finance people said the numbers weren’t holding up. OK, so the 85 percent margin wasn’t going to happen, the money team was still forecasting profitability by the third year.
The tech crew showed signs of strain, voicing an oft-heard complaint in the halls of businesses big and small: “Not enough people; not enough resources.“ “The laws of physics say you can’t do what we’re doing in one weekend,“ one said. “But we’re trying anyway.“
But by 5 PM, the sales and marketers had put together a polished presentation, supported with data, worthy of taking on the road, maybe even to Venture Capital firms. They highlighted the “opportunity gap” between the 69 percent of people who use the “Net every day and the 10 percent who use it to share their personal media. That gap is their market. “We need a way to share our personal media,” the leader said. “I give you LifeSpoke.”
Branding came up with the tagline: “Live. Connect. Share.” A logo was developed; revenue streams were identified, including ads, memberships and retail partnerships; staffing projections were nailed down (three full-timers at first; 23 in “Phase 3”); and the techies displayed the actual site and how it can be manipulated, to a standing ovation.
Someone even wrote and recorded a jingle, accompanying themselves on flute: “LifeSpoke…and now I can hold memories close.”
Their work was done. Or maybe it was just beginning.
Keeping the momentum going will require perseverance, energy and commitment, none of which were lacking during this weekend. Names and contact information were recorded; a legal entity will be created and a steering committee formed.
If the company succeeds, great. But whether it does or not, there was some bigger stuff going on. The creative spirit and energy generated over the weekend should help sow the entrepreneurial spirit around the region, boost the creative energies of independent-minded business people and spark new, potentially profitable ideas in ways not yet foreseen, organizers hope.
“What we hope to build is a community of 100 people who go through a common experience of starting a company that six months from now we can have multiple companies,” says Bill Cunningham, an executive in residence at CincyTech, one of the sponsors.
“This event confirms what we already know,” says organizer Stephen Boord of Neyer Holdings. “There’s a tremendous amount of talent here that we need to unleash.”
David Holthaus is Innovation and Job News Editor for Soapbox.
Photography by InOneWeekend Staff
Photo of Roy Gilbert provided by Google