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54 Hours: Surviving Startup Weekend Pittsburgh

Kacey Wherley
Kacey Wherley - Brian Cohen
"It's a 54-hour community building effort served up as a competition within the innovation ecosystem," said organizer Kit Mueller about Startup Weekend Pittsburgh. He was sitting on stage in the basement of a church in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood on Sunday (April 7), preparing to shepherd nine teams through five-minute presentations of their business dreams. 
 
More than 100 people, most in their twenties and thirties, had shown up two days earlier to pitch ideas for startup companies -- ideas they'd been developing for months and ideas they had thought of that very night. "People spend time with strangers on an idea that probably won't work," Mueller said.
 
But he said it as if it were the most worthwhile activity in the world.
 
Mueller is an entrepreneur from suburban Sewickley and co-founder of RustBuilt.org ("shedding a light on the collective and valuable innovation and entrepreneurialism of the Rust Belt"). When Startup Weekend opened, 14 ideas had enough believers in the audience to form teams of software developers, app designers and other tech types, as well as writers, marketers, business students and the just plain obsessed. The goal: "To test an idea," said Mueller. "You have designers trying to work their developer muscle and vice versa. You have people wanting to see what this whole entrepreneur thing is about."
 
Some were there to recruit potential partners for ideas already under development. Working beside each other over one intense weekend, they would find out how well and how diligently they work under pressure. Somewhere in this crowd, Mueller mused, there could be a "rock-star co-designer in waiting."

Endurance is Key
Nine teams lasted the weekend of "little sleep and crap food," in Mueller's words. They took their idea, interviewed potential customers, researched competitors, devised a business model and built a functional prototype -- an app and a website, in many cases. Then they prepped to present their ideas to each other and local judges: Rich Lunak, president and CEO of  Innovation Works; Audrey Russo, head of the Pittsburgh Technology Council; Matt Newton, vice chair of M&A Tristar Investors; and Don Morrison, head of BlueTree Allied Angels and the former CEO of American Eagle Outfitters.
 
Each five-minute presentation was hardly enough time to demonstrate how the product worked, that it had a potential market and that it could make money. But the prizes were significant: Space at incubator Revv Oakland, an interview with local startup accelerator AlphaLab, free hosting by a local Internet provider pair networks, tee-shirts for your startup's logo and more.
 
This was the third Startup Weekend Pittsburgh, and previous winners were doing well, Mueller pointed out. First-year winner Treatspace, which connects health-care providers and patients, gained a spot at AlphaLab, had eight employees today and was "ramping up," he said. Last year's winner, ThoughtfulHusband.com, which aggregated a girlfriend or wife's interests from Facebook and other sites into a useful present-buying guide for the puzzled spouse, is now Lily & Strum and "raising a bunch of money," he reported.
 
Mueller jumped off the stage to announce the lineup of teams making their presentations. "First: Fanbase," he said.
 
"Don't get used to it," someone in the crowd shouted.
 
Indeed, it was a tough night for some great ideas. Six of the teams went home empty-handed -- apart from the work they put into the project and the partnerships they had formed, of course:
  • Stay Safe promised "Quick and easy peace of mind" by providing emergency kits to consumers. Contending that most people put off buying supplies for surviving a natural disaster, chiefly because they have too much to purchase for too remote an occurrence, the creators of Stay Safe proposed to collect people's gender, location and a few other factors and send them the correct supplies for one low price. 
  • Because lets people present and vote on suggestions at their workplaces, allowing managers to respond to popular demands and persistent complaints -- even those presented anonymously, from the bottom or the top.
  • The creators of Nymbus (motto: "Reimagining audience interaction") passed out QR codes for the audience to use with their smartphones, showing how their app already functioned. As presenter David Wright pointed out, concert audiences today either hold up their phones in lieu of a match, to show appreciation, or are distracted by their phones in the middle of a song. Nymbus will allow concertgoers to interact with musicians via their phones instead, forming "a tool for artists to use to create that personal connection with the audience" -- at least en masse. With Nymbus, artists would be able to control the phones' screens, flashing colors across the arena -- as Wright demonstrated in this church basement, causing phones throughout the audience to pulse in fluorescent green on cue -- or even sending sounds to the phones as parts of songs.
 
  • Ink Pad is an appointment tracker, transaction maker and gallery app for tattoo parlors, an industry in which cancelled appointments currently cause large losses and most customers pay cash.
 
  • Story Space allows its online community to upload their own stories and browse others' tales by popularity, region or topic, selling access to potential news-generating items to news organizations.
  • Fanbase, "Where everyone's on your team," connects, for instance, Steelers or Eagles fans to compatriots in foreign cities (i.e., Baltimore or Washington) and then to bars where their teams' games are being shown, making money by partnering with the bars to promote Fanbase events.
Choosing the Best
Picking the winners was tough, judge Don Morrison said: "It's really, really difficult judging. It was a very close competition -- a lot of great ideas."
 
Coming in first was ShareCloset, which the two creators, Andrea Wetherald and Sara Longo, labeled "a good way to activate the rest of your closet … a social media platform that facilitates the process of sharing clothes, shoes and accessories." ShareCloset lets users upload guides to the contents of their closets and then post borrowing terms for their closest friends. Eventually, it will allow users to sell items as well. The site keeps track of who has borrowed what from whom, and gives a return reminder. The pair plan to make money by partnering with designers and retailers, proving them with information about what people are sharing and selling, as well as their wish lists.
 
Second place went to SpareSpace. "There are two kinds of people in the world: people with space, and people with stuff," said the presenters, and SpareSpace proposes to match them in a more systematic, and lucrative, manner than currently available via individual Craigslist ads. 
 
In third place was Brew Metrics, presented by Irwin Hurst, who won the evening's Joe Magarac award for hardest working Startup Weekend attendee, named for the legendary steelworker.
 
Brew Metrics is designed to bring the Pandora/Netflix suggestion process -- "If you liked, you may also like" -- to beer buying. Using 100 attributes for beers, from acidity to a variety of hop factors, the app will match the flavor profiles of your favorite beers to similar profiles in unfamiliar brands, allowing you to save time staring into a store's cooler. Hurst demonstrated that the app was already running on several team members' phones.
 
"Is there an app for free beer?" one of the judges asked Hurst.
 
Without hesitating, he had an answer: "Version 2."

MARTY LEVINE is the editor of sister publication Pop City's For Good section. Send feedback here.

All Photographs by BRIAN COHEN
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