Startup Weekend Turns Ideas into Action

Seattle and Washington, D.C., are trailblazers as city governments encourage entrepreneurial ideas that could someday lead to new jobs and real economic development.

by / June 20, 2012
Seattle Skyline Wayne Hanson

Ideas have no weight, no substance, no cost, and yet they have power to create the future. But ideas can be fragile as they materialize in a world set in its ways. Startup Weekend is a nonprofit organization bringing entrepreneurs, programmers, business people and civic leaders together in the name of business creation, jobs and economic development. The meetings are designed to bridge the gap between the sometimes ethereal world of ideas and the “make-a-profit-or-die” world of business. It’s an intense weekend of shaping an idea, building a team around that idea, collecting resources, testing the idea against business concepts and — in a short period of time — coming up with a startup, or perhaps a new awareness about business that will spark a startup.

Take the idea of building an app to track ice cream trucks. To a generation born digital, it’s a simple idea to track the GPS coordinates of truck operators’ cell phones, map them and sell the app. But the idea — tested on the street with real ice cream trucks and drivers— didn’t fly. Well, then, how about having the public spot ice cream trucks and report in? Nah, probably not.

Or the idea of a resume builder. Make a template, click on your LinkedIn profile and presto, you have a professionally designed resume to show employers online or in print. That idea did fly, and the man with the idea won a recent Startup Weekend, and launched Vizualize Me.

Local Governments Get Aboard
The first Startup Weekend with a government focus was held in Seattle this April. King County and the state of Washington partnered with the city to host the event.

Seattle Councilmember Bruce Harrell, featured in a video broadcast by the city’s official TV channel, said that the idea was to open up as much data as possible, bring together smart and creative developers, and help the city come up with solutions.

The event in Seattle began with participants giving a pitch, trying to excite other participants and enlist them as team members. Groups formed and began work; pizzas, coffee and energy drinks disappeared; and ideas took shape. One such idea developed in Seattle was “Let’s Play Now,” an app for pick-up sports activities such as tennis, baseball, football and soccer. Another was a bus routing and schedule application.

Some 30 hours later, and it was crunch time. Each group stood before a panel of judges with five minutes to present their startup, followed by a three-minute question and answer period. Seattle picked three winners. There were no cash prizes, no signed contracts, just ideas that were – hopefully – ready for launch.

Other local governments are engaged in startup activities as both host and participant. Washington, D.C., for example, just announced that it placed third in a startup weekend with its “Business One-Stop” website. “Team D.C.” — comprised of staff from the Office of the Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Economic Development — created a commercially viable online portal to streamline the district’s business licensure process and help startups grow. The portal is a comprehensive resource for corporate, business, tax, incentives, training, contracts, zoning and help with site selection and funding.

Since 2009, New Orleans has hosted an annual Entrepreneur Week, a sort of business development Mardi Gras, and the event – run by nonprofit Idea Village – has become a local phenomenon. Google supports the event, with other partners including HP, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Cisco, Salesforce, many different business schools and organizations. According to Idea Village, the events have provided “Direct support to over 1,798 New Orleans entrepreneurs by engaging 2,028 professionals to allocate over 56,949 consulting hours and $3.1 million in seed capital. Collectively, this portfolio generates over $100 million in annual revenue and has created over 2,000 jobs for our community.”

Got an idea for a business startup? Grab the microphone and pitch it.