This year’s Soda City Startup took place at the USC Moore School of business Sonoco Pavilion on November 3rd – November 5th. In a nutshell, the competition teaches you how to start a business in 52 hours. That may sound like a huge undertaking, and indeed it was. But thanks to help from the fantastic co-organizing team, who are business owners, teachers, musicians, designers, Soda City Startup Weekend was one of the most memorable event of the year.
The selected ideas ranged from a peelable paint that allows college students to freely decorate their rooms, to a device that will automatically fertilize your plants, an educational program to prepare our future generation for space travel, a calendar app that shows everyone the events in Columbia, a case that floats your phone if you drop it while you are reeling in your big catch, an app that reduces wasted time at work while saving the world at the same time, an app that helps indecisive people make up their minds on where to eat, and finally, an app that lets people rent out their unwanted outdoor gear for money.
The event costs $50 to register, which is a very good deal considering participants would be getting three days of meals and get to meet some of the sharpest minds in business. During registration, each person would select one of three tracks – a designer, business, or developer. During opening day on Friday, everyone picked up their lanyards with their name and title as well as a folder containing detailed the agenda information. After the participants picked up their packets, they proceeded straight to the buffet tables. The selection was quite large and it had something for everyone. I had a healthy helping of rice, vegetables, grilled salmon, and icing-covered cupcakes. As I devoured this delicious food, I savored every morsel.
At 6pm is when the night officially started. It kicked off with our own Kevin Felder aka “Big Red” emceeing using his radio voice to stir the crowd into a high energy state – telling us what to expect and about the exciting time we will have.
Remember playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors” when you were a kid? Think this silly game has nothing to do with business? Think again! Because that’s what we did at startup weekend. In quite epic fashion. The idea works very simply: every person would turn to someone nearby and and play “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with him or her. Whoever wins the best 2 out of 3 would find someone else and repeat the process while the loser would follow behind to cheer him or her on. This continued until the room had been divided into two sides – not unlike east vs west.
Next on the line up, Dean Schuster from True Matter gave us a great lesson on how to build a good product and how to discover users. He reiterated that most ideas begin with assumptions, and we simply don’t have the tools necessary to nail down a product until we have tested it out.
After Dean finished, we had Sakesh from South Squeezed, a local cold-pressed juice shop share his story of launching his company despite countless obstacles.
At this point, everyone was sufficiently inspired heading into the pitch competition. To begin, everyone who had an idea was asked to form a line. The rule is, everyone would speak for 1 minute. They would tell any idea they had for a business, why it’s useful, and the talent they are looking for. The pace was intense. At the minute mark, the chime would sound and the next person would go.
Once everyone had a chance to present, it was time to vote. The 8 teams that received the most votes would advance, while the remaining folks would join one of the 8 teams. For this, a large poster-size sheet was hung all around the room with the name of the company or idea. Every participant was given 5 post-it notes to cast their vote by taping them to the idea they like best. It was a fun and also intensive moment. Some ideas attracted significantly more votes than others, such as Peel n Paint and 1 million trees. The other ideas were Buoy case, Enterstellar, Where To Eat, and 4-day Calendar.
Now it was time to join the team. Most people quickly assimilated but I took my time to talk to the leader of every group. In the end, I joined the auto plant fertilizer team because it was something I found most interesting. After the teams were formed, many teams busily got to work in the adjacent classroom while others went home. My team and I exchanged each other’s contact information and came up with a plan to meet at 8am the next day.
By 9am Saturday, we decided that it was time to validate our idea by talking to users. Taking a quick stroll down to Soda City Market, we quickly found that experienced gardeners didn’t want a gadget that made gardening easy because they actually enjoyed working hard to see the fruits of their labor. However, There were many young adults who had no ideas about planting who were looking for a simple way to get started. They needed education more than anything else.
After I shared some of these initial ideas with my team, we found some existing products that were similar to what we were building. Such as several plant feeders that provide notifications for watering and fertilizer. So we started looking at some complimentary ideas. One was an automatic composter that turns trash into fertilizer and feed directly into the plant. Another was an app teaching novices how to garden. Unfortunately, no one on the team had expertise about these things and we were ready to try something different. Long story short, the new idea that we settled on, “Lendout”, had been rejected earlier during the initial pitch – but our team decided to go for it anyways after abandoning the plant fertilizer concept.
At Startup Weekend, there is never a dull moment. Every few hours, attendees got invited to a workshop to learn about a new skill, such as Greg Hilton’s workshop on learning to pitch. To add to the excitement, there were also about 20 judges around to help out teams as much as they could, which sometimes added more confusion than clarity.
At this time, I decided to leave Lendout to join 1 Million Trees because I believed I could make a bigger impact. They were also trying to figure out how the product should work and who it is for. I would help them make the mobile app mock up. Luckily, around this time we had several coaches come around to prod us, challenge us, to think differently about our business model. Some coaches loved the idea, while others identified strong reasons why it wouldn’t work. We even had a group of smart high school students who advised us on what should be feasible. In the end, we took the best advice available to us and got to work. By the time we came up with the basic template for the app, it was 10pm, and it was time for me to go home. But my team members remained and continued working on the business part.
Sunday started off similar to Saturday, but the feeling of urgency was much greater because the cut off time for the presentation was at noon and I was just starting to code. But somehow I also felt a deep calm inside because I have been in similar events before and know that as long as I can focus without distraction, I can finish the screens in time.
After we had sent in our final presentation with the slide decks, it was a huge relief. There was no more left to be done except wait for the presentation. The presenters were scheduled to present in alphabetical order, which meant that our team, Altruli, would go first.
At the presentation, there were only 6 teams, down from the original 8 that we had.
The teams up to bat were: Peel n Paint, Lendout, Buoy Case, Altruli, Enterstellar, and Where To Eat. Every team would have 1-2 people present and afterward the entire team would go on stage to answer questions by the judges. All the presentations were so fantastic, that even the judges needed time to deliberate to determine results.
While waiting for the results, the organizers put together some programs for our enjoyment during the deliberation. First, there was Anna, who dazzled the audience with her beautiful dress and a song that sounded much like Marilyn Monroe. There was a panel of five notable people from the startup community who introduced us to the resources in the area. Among them were the USC incubator’s Caroline Crowder and the Columbia Office of Economic development’s Sergio Aparcio.
A minute before the judges announced the winner, the suspense in the room was thick. No one had a clue who would win because the ideas had all been so good. But it was finally revealed that the winner was Lendout, with Where To Eat as the runner up. The result surprised almost everyone since Lendout was not even one of the the original ideas and had pivoted half way through. But as the judges explained, they liked Lendout because it is novel and believe it has a good chance of going to market.
My final Soda City Startup takeaway– if you believe enough in something, you can achieve anything. A valuable 52 hours indeed.
Photos by Sergio Aparacio