Start-up community rises to idea challenge

Text Peter Chastagner

As I enter the Box Jelly, I run into a wall of people. Rechung Fujihara's normally quiet coworking space is loud and packed with people. The areas where you would expect to find desks and chairs and computers are now crowded shoulder-to-shoulder by more than 100 developers, designers, entrepreneurs and observers.

Honolulu's entrepreneur community is a motley bunch. Everyone is dressed for a different occasion, wearing anything from aloha shirts to sleeveless hoodies. But, much more importantly, it is a community that is growing by leaps and bounds.

"Danielle Sherman brought Startup Weekend out here (in 2011) and it just changed the game," says Bryan Butteling, organizer of this year's Startup Weekend Honolulu. "The first batch we had, like 30 people, then it grew to 50, and now we're having events where we see anywhere from 80 to over 100 people coming out here."

That isn't to say, however, that you must be an entrepreneur to stop by the Box Jelly and participate in the whirlwind that is Startup Weekend. In fact, most of the people I talk to have a regular day job. Take Anze Znidarsic, for example. He works for UI Evolution as a developer during the week, but he plans on spending this entire weekend helping a team of strangers develop a brand new business.

Over the din of networking, Butteling announces that dinner is being served. But a slew of last-minute registrations means the pre-ordered pizza boxes will soon be empty, even after an emergency order from Papa John's. The first keg of beer was drained before they even started to serve the food.

Thirty minutes later, event facilitator Andy Sparks grabs the microphone. Sparks, a co-founder of Mattermark and a Startup Weekend specialist, was flown from San Francisco to ensure that the even runs properly. He begins to set the ground rules.

Startup Weekend is a non-profit organization based out of Seattle, Washington. They have held events in more than 100 different countries. The very same weekend, there are 12 other Startup Weekends happening across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. There is even one in Kuwait.

According to Startup Weekend's website, the mechanics of the event are simple:

All Startup Weekend events follow the same basic model. Anyone is welcome to pitch their startup idea and receive feedback from their peers. Teams organically form around the top ideas (as determined by popular vote) and then it's a 54-hour frenzy of business model creation, coding, designing and market validation. The weekends culminate with presentations in front of local entrepreneurial leaders with another opportunity for critical feedback.

According to Sparks, the official judging criteria evaluates execution, business strategy and user experience. But, in the end, each judge has their own predilictions. Eric Nakagawa's philosophy is a mix of abstract and concrete: "I'm going to be looking for a couple of things, something that tells a really good story. After that, it's gonna be how far along technically they've gotten," he says.

Sparks then launches into an icebreaker, which is really a clever ruse to teach participants the proper formula to use while pitching their startup idea: state your name, the problem, your solution and your needs.

We hear around 30 startup pitches -- only the top 12 will be used. One entrepreneur wants to turn the skills of video gamers into competititve job resumés, another gives a very vague pitch about a new marijuana startup that is interrupted by cries of "What do you need? Testers?"

Unimpressed by the ideas he has heard so far, Znidarsic takes the microphone and pitches an idea that has been percolating in the back of his mind. It is an app that will help roommates organize household chores. He calls it Tidy Panda.

Even University of Hawai'i student Amanda Nelson, who told me earlier she had no intention of pitching any ideas, gets caught up in the excitement. "When I found out it was just 60 seconds talking, I was like 'what the heck, I gotta do this,'" she says. So she formulates a business idea that aligns with her passion for elementary education and pitches the hell out of it.

After the pitches, Znidarsic is approached by three participants, all of whom he adds to his team. "I accepted everyone who wanted to join. I think I shouldn't judge. It's startup weekend. It should be open-minded. Any help on the team is helpful," he says.

The four members of Tidy Panda immediately begin making vital decisions about the app. Should they market to college students or to parents? How will the app make money? If a roommate doesn't do their chores, how will they be punished?

"Maybe it will post 'I was a dirty girl this week' to their Facebook page," Znidarsic suggests and the table erupts in laughter.

On Saturday afternoon, the Box Jelly is much quieter than the night before. White construction paper sheets filled with mind maps, to-do lists, drawings and doodles cover at least 50 percent of the Box Jelly's surfaces.

It is lunch, but between mouthfuls of spring rolls, the teams continue to discuss their projects. I watch the Tidy Panda team draw mock-ups for the screens in their app and debate which features to include and which to trash.

I ask them how their night went. It was fine; they left Box Jelly around midnight. Were they planning on working late tonight? No, tonight they are going to have a party at Znidarsic's house. Not all the teams feel the pressure of 54 hours.

The Sunday night venue for the final presentations is a large warehouse off Cooke Street in Kaka'ako. This time, there is more than enough room for the crowd of around 150 to swing their elbows, though many still have to stand. There is a stage front-and-center with a projector splashing huge PowerPoint slides on the wall behind. It is here that each team gives a final presentation to the panel of six judges.

Traditionally, the teams are given five minutes to impress the judges. But today, that time gets cut by 40 percent. It is a major disadvantage for the Tidy Panda team who has a live demo of their app. They aren't able to complete their presentation within the three short minutes they are given.

"We had some funny ideas to put in there, but we kind of ran out of tie to even put it in the presentation," Znidarsic said. Despite the hitch, Tidy Panda garnered enough respect from the judges to earn a Honorable Mention.

Third place is given to the Bitcoin wallet startup Karat. Second place goes to nameHUB, a social network designed around sharing, selling and collaborating with domain names.

The first place prize -- a $500 credit for the private taxi service Uber -- goes to Green Apple, a website that will enable school teachers to crowdfund their classroom supplies from parents and other benefactors. It isn't much of a surprise; the team also won the popular vote conducted on

If Nelso is sad that her startup idea Superhero Factory didn't place, she doesn't show it. Even after 54 intense hours, she is chipper and beaming. She still wears her T-shirt cape and exudes the same intensity and passion for her cause as she did in her Friday night pitch.

She has nothing but enthusiastic words for Green Apple. "I loved that the team that won was based on education," she says. Then she offers a prophesy that perfectly encapsulates the purpose behind Startup Weekend: "I think (Green Apple's success) will transcend into the community."


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