On Friday evening, as the 125 Triangle Startup Weekend (TSW) participants were pouring into the open coworking space at the new American Underground @ Main campus, I met David (his name has been changed in this article).
David is a software developer and does not work at a startup. He came to TSW because, as he said, "I'm almost 50 years old and I've never developed anything that I was really proud of."
When he said this I was shocked. I almost thought he was lying, but he didn't strike me as the lying type. After my initial conversation with David, I didn't see him again until Sunday afternoon. Between our two conversations, a lot happened.
54 Hours of ExecutionFirst on Friday evening, 56 TSW attendees each gave one-minute idea pitches. Participants chose the top ten ideas, and formed teams (an additional four teams who refused defeat also formed for a total of 14 teams).
Then the work started in offices dispersed throughout the space. On Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning, the teams developed MVPs, formulated strategies and business models, conducted market research, and recruited users. One company admittedly went through five pivots in about 12 hours.
Fifty-four hours of real work, a few rides down the slide, a Spotify playlist, a ridiculous number of tweets, and five meals later, it was time to see what the teams had done. The judges ultimately chose SnapBuddy, a company that helps travelers capture photos of their trip by connecting them with photographers in their destination, as the winner.
On Sunday afternoon, after his team presented what they had accomplished, I saw David again and asked him if he was proud of what he had developed. He said he was. And however cliche it may sound, I swear he was more alive than when I saw him on Friday.
Maybe he had just gone down the slide. That thing will give you a jolt.
I don't know if he'll pursue working at a startup, but David has now experienced that feeling with which many of you reading this article are familiar. That feeling you get when you have a vision and then you build it. A feeling that, in almost 50 years, David had never felt.
That's amazing. David's experience in and of itself makes TSW a success, but it's also indicative of a larger achievement. The achievement of a step toward expanding our thriving but too self contained startup community throughout the local region.
The Local Growth of the Triangle Startup Ecosystem
The Triangle has the makings of a strong startup ecosystem. Now, naturally, we're trying to build it up.
While some growth will come from attracting new ecosystem participants from outside the region, our greatest potential assets are right in front of us: The local people and resources that are already here but aren't yet part of the ecosystem.
This group includes developers like David. And in a region with multiple world-class universities and a leading research and development park, there are a lot of these people and resources. But they're not always being reached.
Occasionally, during conversations with friends who are lawyers or teachers or employees at large corporations, I realize that they have no idea what I'm talking about when I mention what, to me and you, are well-known Triangle startups. They also don't know about the most highly capitalized accelerator in the Southeast, or the two new Chapel Hill venture labs, or the recently re-branded HQ Raleigh that's outgrowing its venue on Hillsborough Street.
Some of these friends are potential entrepreneurs, but if they don't know that we have a thriving startup ecosystem, they're much less likely to contribute to it. Local institutions that could be more involved in the startup community are not always aware of the opportunity, either.
Startup Weekend attracts, by design, both active entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs. Many will go back to their day jobs on Monday and never join a startup. And many of them should do just that. They wouldn't thrive in startup life.
But some would love it and have a lot to offer local startups (I know of about five startups looking for developers or designers right now).
TSW expands our startup community throughout the local region by bringing together current and potential ecosystem participants and giving the potential participants two important things.
1) An awareness of the entrepreneurial opportunity in the Triangle.
2) The experience of what startups are all about.
As a side note, TSW offers experienced entrepreneurs many benefits, too, but I'm not getting into that because this article is already too long.
Through their participation, current ecosystem participants such as the TSW Organizers (e.g. Mital Patel), the attendees with startup experience (e.g. Arik Abel), the coaches (e.g. Justin Miller of WedPics and Joe Davy of BuyStand), the judges (e.g. Scott Moody, Jason Massey, and John Austin), the featured speaker (Chris Heivly), and the sponsors (e.g. Bronto), demonstrated the entrepreneurial success and opportunity in the Triangle.
Through 54 hours of execution, attendees like David also left knowing what it's like to work on a startup. They got 'that feeling.' All of this together at one event is good for David. And David's experience at TSW is good for the growth of our startup ecosystem.