It took two glasses of wine at a Christmas party in 2014 to convince Stacey Donahue to sign up for the B-Launched (blaunched.com) competition through the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. She thought it would mean attending a project meeting every other week and maybe a little work beyond that.
"I did not think I would become the CEO of a start-up app," Donahue said.
Now in its fourth year, B-Launched is a "start-up training program for young entrepreneurs." Each year, aspiring young professionals from varying backgrounds and work experience enter the competition and are grouped into teams—usually with people they've never met—and partnered with experienced mentors.
Donahue, a utilities analyst at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, was partnered with Jeff Heath, marketing coordinator at Business Interiors of Idaho, and Sean MacLachlan, a former HP employee who wrote firmware for laser jet printers. They also had the help of two mentors who had experience in start-ups and market trends.
Donahue's team came together in February with few guidelines other than to create a start-up that could scale up to $10 million per year. They were vying against three other teams for $20,000 in funding and free legal services.
Coming up with the perfect start-up quickly became the most challenging part.
"We had some pretty goofy ideas," said Heath, who serves as chief marketing officer for the team. "One of them was funny cards."
"It was like the anti-greeting card," Donahue said. "Kind of like MadLibs. It would give someone the assist to write something clever and funny, because people like to send cards, but saying 'Happy Birthday' or 'Congratulations' is lame."
They also kicked around the idea of a water filtration company.
"It would provide a lightweight, portable, human-powered water filtration system for disaster relief areas or developing areas that don't have sustainable, working water filtration," Heath said.
Agreeing on an idea was harder than thinking one up. Donahue was passionate about the card concept. Heath let go of the water filtration idea.
"In the beginning, we were trying to be polite but let people know their idea wasn't the best," Heath said. "The politics of normal social behavior and trying to overcome that to get things done quickly and efficiently—some of our meetings were really long because of that."
Ultimately, in April, it was MacLachlan who suggested the winning idea. He envisioned a phone app that would catalog users' interests and suggest events around town based on those interests—something like the Pandora Radio of event calendars. RelEVENT City (releventcity.com) was born
RelEVENT City offers several categories to choose from, such as sports, music, conferences, art, education, religion, animals, comedy, clubs, books and family. The user then selects parameters, such as distance and dates. The app then suggests nearby events, and the user can either "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." The algorithm becomes smarter, selecting events better suited to the user, solving the problem of sifting through endless community calendars with hundreds of events that don't interest many people.
No one on the team had ever built an app before, and they had until May 15 to figure it out.
They turned to MacLachlan, who had the most coding experience.
"I had never built an app or a recommendation system, or used these computer languages," he said. "It's been a major learning curve. I did it with a strong will and lots of Google searching."
The team met twice a week for several hours, learning how to construct an app and how to function as a team. Donahue learned that Heath starts to "claw [his] eyeballs out and cry" after 11 p.m. and Heath learned Donahue doesn't hate him as much as he thought she did. MacLachlan learned how to code.
Days before the deadline, the Donahue, Heath and MacLachlan put the finishing touches on their 11-minute pitch, which they presented to a panel of 15 judges, including Boise Mayor Dave Bieter; a few members of the chamber of commerce; former Idaho Statesman Publisher Mike Jung, founder and former CEO of Cloud.com Sheng Liang, and some founding members of local business incubator Trailhead.
RelEVENT City won first place in the B-Launched competition, followed by a beacon technology that lets waiters in restaurants see how long guests have been waiting, a nutritional energy bar made from hemp and a discount prescription aggregator.
Now that the app has secured a $20,000 boost, MacLachlan works on it on full-time and the other team members' involvement remains strong. They're currently looking for iPhone beta testers to try out the app in January 2016. They hope to officially launch for both iPhone and Android in March 2016. (To be a beta tester, email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The team has its sights set on expanding to Salt Lake City; Seattle; and Portland, Ore.
Even though the project unfolded into something larger than Donahue imagined, she said she's not only looking forward to her future with the app, but she also enjoys its potential now.
"Even since just messing around with the app at home, I've found all kinds of interesting events I wouldn't have known about, like two really interesting educational seminars and some fundraisers for different social causes," Donahue said. "Unfortunately, I'm too busy with this start-up to actually go to any of them, but now I know. It gives me the sense that Boise is very vibrant."