Teamwork key at Calgary’s first Startup Weekend

By Aaron Kroontje, Calgary

I got wind that I could win a free ticket to StartupWeekendYYC from Cybera if I finished this sentence:

The first step to creating a successful startup is…

My response was:

…perfecting your elevator pitch.

And I won! Much thanks to Cybera.  I cleared my plate for the weekend and started looking forward to this little beast with some excitement and nervousness.

Graciously hosted at CoWorkYYC (a co-working space for the self-employed), I arrived and met organizers Devesh Dwivedi and Justin Nowak, and then mingled with other participants. Patrick Lor, a respected Calgary entrepreneur, was on hand to talk about his rise. It's good to see a guy committed to supporting entrepreneurs, and as a nice token, he gave out business cards that provided credits for his company's (Fotolia.com) stock photography collection.

From there, the StartupWeekendYYC moderator, Thubten Comerford, was introduced. Thubten travels to different startup weekends around North America to help get them off the ground. He outlined the initial ground rules, and then we were on to the pitches.

As we got started I was surprised and disappointed by the lack of pitch work that people had prepared in advance. Most seemed to have come with the sole intention of contributing to an idea or a team. Thankfully, several were able to come up with pitches on the spot (myself included), and eventually we accumulated around 15 ideas.  Regrettably, many pitch concepts already live in various incarnations on the web (including my own pitch, as Patrick pointed out).

In short order we arrived at the top five ideas, whose pitchers were then given a bit more time to rework them and request some help. I chose to follow Pragati Chopra because of her passion and the clarity with which she presented. Her idea was to create a community platform that would allow customers to see and interact with the farmers behind their food. This would begin as a social media site to build relationships, and could grow to a system that would allow people to buy directly from farmers.

The different leaders held court in various office spaces around CoWorkYYC, and we started diving into the idea and the logistical problems involved in our business model. "Pivot points" would become a theme of the weekend, as ideas got flushed out, obstacles identified, and new directions emerged. For example, one project started out with the idea to couple project management software with accounting software. But once the team realized this solution already existed, the project evolved into a platform for people to track the metrics of their sex lives. That is one of the more extreme "pivot" examples.

For me, the highlight of the weekend was the talks delivered by Michelle Sklar and Jasmine Antonick.  Michelle is a fixture in the Calgary digital community and regularly offers support to entrepreneurial people such as our group.  She offered a wicked sense of style and contagious enthusiasm.

As for Janice, I absolutely loved her frank discussion about what should not go into a pitch, and her enthusiasm for Canadian entrepreneurs. She also helps put together really cool events to unite entrepreneurs, customers and investors, both here and in Silicon Valley.

Back to work, I ended up developing until 6:30am on Sunday, had a quick nap, and was back at it. I did a code freeze at 2:00 pm and then worked with my great team members Pragati and Joel to finish our presentation.

Basically, all the pitches went off without a hitch, but all could have been vastly improved with help from the likes of Michelle or Jasmine.  Not a big problem though '€” this, like most things over the weekend, represented a learning experience for everyone, most of all the presenters.

The judging and the announcement of the winners I actually found to be quite anticlimactic.  There had been no competitive atmosphere throughout the weekend (more cooperation), so when the judges arrived it was with mixed feelings from the contestants.

The winning idea was a website that aggregates group buying offers and sends them to customers based on their pre-selected criteria. However, I would suggest to future StartupWeekends to avoid judging the projects, and just award prizes for all participating.  

The weekend was a good challenge for myself all around, and I met some great people, learned some lessons, and gained some new perspectives.

It was the first ever StartupWeekendYYC and I am amazed at the initiative and hardwork that was put into making this happen, and I am OH SO THANKFUL that things like this are happening in Calgary. Everyone who volunteered their time is greatly appreciated!

As for the Fall, when the second StartupWeekendYYC is slated?  I'll be giving it some thought.