The Entrepreneurs: Weekend Starts Up a Fire

At Syracuse's first annual Startup Weekend, dozens of entrepreneurs pitched, developed and competed for their business models

With conversation buzzing in a room full of people standing around holding pizza and beer, all the basic ingredients for a typical Friday night were in place. And then the Pitchfire began:

Friday evening opened Syracuse’s first-annual Startup Weekend, letting loose a slew of creativity, innovation and quick thinking on downtown Syracuse in a 54-hour event that was a far cry from typical.

The Syracuse Startup Weekend was simultaneously simple and complex. Organizers, like Mitchell Patterson, facilitator of the Syracuse event, recruit a group of developers, designers, marketers, project managers, entrepreneurially-minded individuals and startup enthusiasts to sign up to participate in a fast-track business-creation contest.  Participants spend 54 hours turning ideas into substance. From Friday evening until Sunday at 5 p.m., people of all different backgrounds with all different specialties work together to create real companies from scratch. 

To a skeptic, the concept might seem far-fetched. But to the group of creative, excited individuals who filled the large room of the Technology Garden Friday night, it was a challenge worth accepting. When one of the opening speakers asked the crowd, “Who’s going to start a company this weekend?” nearly every hand shot up. 

When the Pitchfire started, about 35 people of all ages lined up by the podium at the front of the room (from adults in their mid-50s with established careers to students who looked too young to clutch their Budweisers). The rules: each person had 60 seconds to get the crowd excited about an idea that they had for a company or a product. No more, no less.Young entrepreneurs work hard to strategize the beginnings of their business models. Photo by Jillian D'Onfro

Ideas shot out rapidly, across a wide range of subject matters.  People wanted to develop anything from thermometer patches for babies, to a social network dedicated to wine, to a device meant to eliminate sheet music forever.

After all ideas were pitched, the group voted online to select 19 favorites. The chosen ideas were announced and a chaotic team-building process began. Everyone wanted to create a well-balanced, cohesive team—a group of individuals ready to brainstorm, create, struggle and persevere over the next two days.

“I knew I was going to meet amazing people,” said Shannon Lach, member of a team called PartyStarter (a KickStarter-esque site to help host parties). Although the Startup Weekend event culminated in prizes for the best potential businesses, Lach felt that the event’s biggest draws were the networking opportunities. 

“I wanted to meet like-minded people—other people who want to be doing great things, and constantly growing, learning and creating,” she said.

Besides working within their teams, participants could talk to any of the 28 mentors that volunteered time and expertise to the cause. Coming from a wide-range of professional backgrounds, the mentors provided another outlet to bounce ideas off of. They helped each group refine their scope, question their business plan, and form realistic company goals.

By 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, the Tech Garden felt alive with the pulse of an almost manic energy. White boards were strewn with scrawled notes and diagrams. Some teams worked quietly, hunched over laptops, while others argued animatedly, waving notebooks in the air. 

“We can’t waste any more time debating this,” Ariel Norling, a senior policy studies major from SU told her teammates. Norling was part of a group working to create a “less creepy” online dating site.

With less than 35 percent of the total time left to work, teams had to sacrifice debate about the specifics for an understanding of “The Big Idea.”

The Tech Garden closed at 11 p.m., but most teams planned on working later into the night. Startup Weekend is known for being a sleep-optional event.

Finally, 6 p.m. Sunday rolled around and it was time for final presentations. Each team had four minutes to explain their company, the niche it was filling, the problem it solved, and their plan for growth and expansion. All groups gave their presentations to a panel of judges. The winning team would receive $2,500 and free office space in the Tech Garden until April.  

Hard work and long hours equated to live sites and working prototypes. Each team bubbled with enthusiasm giving their presentation. People were excited for their own as well as each other’s projects. When the winning group, StatusQ, a mobile app that would track and map restaurant wait times, was announced, the crowd erupted into raucous applause. Even though only one team received the monetary prize, every group had created the basis for a working, feasible company.

Even though Lach’s team didn’t win the cash prize or the office space, she was excited for the future of PartyStarter, and hopes that at some, if not all, of the members of her team of ten will want to continue with the company after the weekend has drawn to an official close. 

“I wouldn’t want to abandon this idea,” she said, “Not in a heartbeat. Not after all this hard work.”


Photo by Jillian D'Onfro

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