DogFriendly Durham wins TSW Social Impact 2016

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On Friday night, I pitched a business concept, Dog Friendly Durham, to more than 60 strangers at the RTP Frontier as a participant of Triangle Startup Weekend: Social Impact. And I wasn’t the only one: nearly 30 pitches, none longer than 60 seconds, were presented. 

For those that aren’t familiar with Startup Weekend, here’s a six-bullet point primer: 
  • A bunch of strangers with a variety of skill sets gather in a facility with great wireless 
  • Anyone can pitch a business idea in 60 seconds or less 
  • Ideas are up-voted and the top eight to ten ideas emerge 
  • The folks that pitched the idea rally together a team of four to seven people 
  • That team has roughly 40 hours to build a minimum viable product, validate their business idea, construct a business model, and prepare a pitch deck 
  • Teams pitch a panel of judges in a five minute pitch to conclude the weekend 
This weekend’s event—organized entirely by a local volunteer team—was designed to attract and encourage people interested in driving social change through business, a category we often refer to as social entrepreneurship. 
 
For the rest of this piece, I’m going to share my story: how I took a seed of an idea, recruited a team, built a company, launched a product, attracted customers, pitched a panel of judges and emerged as the winner of Triangle Startup Weekend: Social Impact. 
 

The pitch 

“If you’ve got two—or more—ideas, you’ll want to pitch the best one,” instructs Michael Norton, a co-facilitator of the weekend’s event, “Sure, we know that many of you have notebooks where you jot down business ideas… pick the one you’d most want to work on this weekend.” 
 
It’s like he knows me. I’m absolutely that guy, who keeps a log of half-baked business concepts and fantasizes about living a lifestyle that would enable me to successfully implement all of them. Or at least a few. Okay, so, at least one. 
 
All of a sudden “Pitchfire,” the rapid-pace whirlwind of people pitching ideas ranging from designing easily-shippable affordable modular huts to a mobile multimedia studio for at-risk teenagers to learn digital media tools and create art ranging from music videos to animated YouTube shows, begins. 

It’s been years since I’ve pitched an idea at a Startup Weekend, but this year, at this event, I’m determined to pitch a concept that I think could gain traction in just 48 hours. 

I step to the front of the room, and am handed a microphone. My pitch is simple enough, or so I think. We’ll let the audience decide. 

Jason Parker at TSW
Jason Parker pitched the winning idea at Triangle Startup Weekend—Social Impact February 5-7 at The Frontier. Credit: TSW
“How many folks in the room have dogs or would like to have a dog?” I ask, raising my hand as high as possible. Rule number one of public speaking: people will only raise their hands as high as you raise yours. A little more than half the hands in the room go up. 
 
“Okay, great, leave your hand up. How many people in this room like to eat out at restaurants?” Virtually all the hands go up. The hook is out there, I think, now let’s reel it in. 

“Great, so you guys are a lot like me: I love dogs, and I love to eat.” I take a slight pause, a deep breath and get ready to pitch my concept. 

“I want to create a business that mixes those two things: dogs and food. Here’s the concept: a company that organizes and leads dog-friendly food tours throughout town to local dog-friendly businesses.” This concept is something that my fiancée and I have long-wished was in the market, and since my birthday in November, we’ve been continually coming back to this idea, mostly because we really enjoy our dog (most dog owners do, you’ll find). 
 
“The business model is already proven in the market, but this company would be unique,” I say, cognizant that I’m quickly running out of time. “This company partners with a local animal shelter, pairing tour participants with shelter dogs, and all the profits get donated to the shelter.” 

It’s a sad fact: half of all pets that enter shelters nationwide don’t find permanent homes. Shelters—particularly those in the South—are too often overcrowded. Shelter employees and volunteers—like many of us that support nonprofits—are pouring their hearts into their work, putting in countless hours of unpaid time, working nights, weekends, holidays and yet organizations regularly struggle to raise enough money to keep the lights on. 
 
This is my connection to social impact: can we build a business that benefits animal shelters, providing much-needed resources, with the ultimate goal of increasing the adoption rates for their animals? 

Michael, our facilitator, has instructed everyone to describe what is it they need in a team, and so, with just 10 seconds left, I spit out the first thing that comes to mind: 

I’m confident we can pull this off. I need folks that love dogs, and don’t mind heading out to the dog park tomorrow morning between 9 and 11 AM.” 

The buzzer sounds. I walk off stage, with absolutely no idea how the rest of the participants in the room received the pitch, or if I clearly communicated the idea. It’s a huge leap of faith to pitch an idea to a room of folks you don’t know, and I mentally prepare myself to accept the fact that there have already been many great ideas in the room. 
 
TSW Social Impact
TSW Social Impact drew more than 60 participants February 5-7 at The Frontier at Research Triangle Park. Credit: TSW
One woman pitched a financial literacy platform for parents of would-be first-generation college students, because for that population, 91% of people learn basic tenets of finance from their parents. As nearly one-third of college students are first-generation college students, navigating the loan and college selection process is often extremely difficult, confusing and results in expanded debt for this population when compared to non-first-generation students. 
 
Another pitched the formation of an intermediary organization that would serve program managers of nonprofits that want to modify or adopt a proven program model, but don’t have a background in program design or implementation. Her hope is to apply public health research to maximize the effectiveness of these core programs in populations that would most benefit from successful program implementation. 
 
These are just two ideas that attracted attention when up-voting began. 

Building a team 

In some regards, the next step of the process is what I imagine voting for high school prom king is like… but condensed into just five minutes and based solely on the impressions that strangers have of you in just a minute of time. 
 
All participants get three sticky notes, and tag the three business ideas (not theirs!) they’re most interested in seeing happen. Participants are allowed to do pretty much anything to pander to get votes, and I’m certainly not shy. You’ve got to make an impression. 
 
I quickly discover a pretty effective plea, which essentially boils down to an appeal about dogs in shelters. “You like dogs, right? Don’t you think all dogs deserve a happy, healthy home? Vote for me—we’ll make it happen.” 
 
When the dust settles, I have just enough votes to be considered in the top 10 ideas that were pitched. We get 15 more seconds, each, to make a plea for who we need on the team, and then we’re set off to recruit between four and seven people to make it happen. 
 
The first person I find is Alissandra Rodriguez, or Ali, who I recognize from last year’s Triangle Startup Weekend: Education event. She asks me a few tough questions about how we’ll work and partner with shelters, and shares her idea to pair dogs from the shelter with folks that want to participate but don’t have (or can’t bring) their own dog. This will become a core part of the business. 

The second person we find is Heather Zellers, who shared that she had traveled from Richmond, VA, with her two dogs, to participate in the event, and thought we had a market opportunity there, as well. 

Together, we found Carson Cole, another veteran of Startup Weekend events, who was psyched about the potential to successfully build, launch, and test the concept. 
 
At the buzzer, Ali recruited Doug Flagg, a developer, to join our team, and we were also joined by Jim Redden, who pitched a mobile pop-up beer stand for dog parks. With our combined forces, we set out to determine just exactly what we were going to try to do with our next 36 hours. 

Defining the core problem 

In a small huddle room at the Frontier, we asked ourselves: Would we create enough social impact by running dog-friendly tours for people that already own dogs? Could we generate enough profit margin to make a significant donation to local shelters? Who, really, would be likely to participate in this event, and how would we go talk to them? What about businesses—would they be supportive of this idea? 

The most important question, however, was still: how might we increase dog adoptions? 

This was the question that gave us pause—that forced us to think not just about how to make money, but how to actually create an environment in which animal shelters—and their dogs—most benefit from: finding permanent, healthy, happy homes for their animals. 
 
We were running out of time on Friday evening, so we planned to sleep on it (if we could sleep, given the excitement of starting a new business!) and return to the plan on Saturday morning. 
 

The minimum viable product (MVP) 

The RTP Frontier is a dog-friendly facility, so naturally, Heather and I both brought our dogs to help us get the plan off the ground. 
 
We had a few fits and starts on Saturday morning. We started to design a website and then stopped after two coaches, Lucas Blair and Lauren Hanford, encouraged us not to over-think and over-design. 
 
In the end, we determined three potential customer segments: 
  • Local dog owners who fit a typical food tour demographic; 
  • Travelers who wanted to travel with their dog and do activities with them; 
  • People that don’t yet own dogs, but might want to spend an afternoon with a dog from a local animal shelter. 
We were pretty confident that we could run a successful event for either of the first two segments, but that neither of those segments would really capture the essence of our most important question: how do we get more dogs adopted? 

The third segment posed some challenges. It’s a lot harder to identify people that might one day be ready to adopt a dog. What’s the value we would be providing for each of the stakeholders involved in our business concept? 

Our assumptions were fairly straightforward: 
  • Food + Beer + Dogs = great time 
  • Animal shelters would benefit from getting their adoptable dogs out into the community 
  • People would be more likely to adopt a dog if they spent an afternoon with a dog, taking responsibility for that dog, as we patronized local dog-friendly businesses where, if the participants owned dogs, they might return to again and again 
Our solution, then, was to set up and market our first event, a Dog-Friendly Food & Beverage Tour of Downtown Durham on Saturday, February 27th, specifically for people to interact with dogs from a local shelter. 
 
To test this idea, we wanted to be sure that anyone we met that was interested in participating in the event could sign up and register. As half our team went to visit a local shelter, the other half set up an Eventbrite Page, a Facebook Page and a Facebook Event, and began to spread the word across the Internet. 
 
But… the best way to test an idea and to prove the concept is to go talk to people, so that’s what we did. We hit downtown Durham and walked our proposed tour route to give it the test. Along the way, we interviewed people we met, with dogs and without, and swung by nine local dog-friendly businesses to inquire if they’d like to partner with us. 
 
What we found was a lot of support for the idea—and a lot of interest from local businesses, some of whom verbally committed to participating. By the time it was dark, we’d landed our first two customers, and before the night was finished, we’d sold nearly 30 percent of our tickets. As Lucas Blair, one of the coaches for the weekend told us: “The best proof of concept is a paying customer.” We had multiple. 
 

Pitching the judges 

After proving the concept was viable on Saturday, we turned our focus to framing the concept and preparing a five-minute pitch. Heather and Carson took the lead on designing and framing the pitch, crafting the story we would share with judges. Doug took the lead on researching statistics and building a development plan for a website, were we able to expand to our “full-service” solution. Jim and Ali worked to finalize our business plan, locking in revenue and expense projections based on our initial research and the new information we’d gleaned from our interviews. We also began to consider sponsorship as a viable revenue source, and started calling a few local businesses. 
 
At one o’clock on Sunday, just two hours before pitches would begin, we weren’t finished. We hadn’t even really practiced. We brought our pitch deck—at that point, about 80 percent done—to pitch coaches Frank Pollock and Christina Smith, who tore into it and gave us crucial feedback on how and what to communicate. 
 
Those final two hours are a blur. We decided to split the pitch into two parts: describing the problem, and presenting the solution. Heather took point on the first portion, and I was to describe the second portion. At 2:50, 10 minutes before pitches started, Heather and I were scrambling to memorize our segments and commit everything to memory. Ali and Jim were finalizing business projections. Doug was fact-checking our research. Carson was finalizing our slide design, proofing the presentation and checking with the organizers that our presentation would run smoothly. 
 
Our pitch deck is largely visual, articulating the social problem and the business opportunity, and can be found on Google Slides.
 
We pitched sixth out of eight teams. As always, the pitches were impressive. The eight concepts that began as mere ideas on Friday night actually came into fruition. 
 
Here are the teams that pitched: 
  • Be Healthy Be Good enables runners and cyclists to raise money for local charity, sponsored by local businesses. 
  • Sparkey helps underserved youth ask and find the answer to the important question: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” 
  • Mod-Hut is a shippable modular shelter that could be used for refugee camps or to house millennials that don’t want a mortgage. 
  • Research 2 Practice applies public health research to program implementation for local organizations to adopt functional program models—and drive positive health outcomes. 
  • S4fety offers an affordable SaaS application that keeps you safe by notifying a trusted network and the police when you’re in trouble. 
  • Dog Friendly (Durham) supports local animal shelters—and their dogs—by hosting dog-friendly food and walking tours in your city. 
  • The Malkuta Project is a mobile multimedia studio for at-risk teenagers to create art and transform lives. 
  • F1R$T GEN is a financial literacy platform for the parents of would-be first generation college students, to help families navigate a path to making college access more affordable and financially viable. 

Wrapping it up: what we learned 

In just 48 hours, eight new companies formed in the Triangle. Many teams plan to continue their work—and as they grow and scale, will drive social change in the Triangle and beyond. For example, The Malkuta Project has established partnerships with the Art of Cool Project in Durham this May, and will be bringing their mobile studio to the event. If you swing by the festival, make sure to stop by and check them out. 
 
Our main takeaways: 
  • There are so many opportunities to drive social change: a growing number of entrepreneurs are designing and scaling successful businesses that value social, environmental, and cultural change as a core part of their DNA. 
  • The Triangle is a GREAT place to start a social enterprise: the region has one of the largest B-Corp concentrations in the world, there’s a vibrant social enterprise meetup, there’s strong support of social business at our region’s universities, and there’s multiple investment groups that are interested in social business. 
  • It really IS possible to go from concept to market validation in a short period of time. All you need is a strong and committed team, and the willingness to talk to virtually everyone you meet on the street (at least, that’s what we did). 
As this first-person narrative ends, I do want to again highlight the importance of a quality team. Without this core group, my idea would likely never gained traction. Without the half-dozen coaches and half-dozen volunteer organizers donating dozens of hours of their time, the launch of these eight new companies would not have been possible. 
 
Though we all asked many questions over the weekend as we built businesses, the 60 participants are now asking just one: When’s the next Startup Weekend?