Business » Trends

Running Start

Now is the time to for a high-tech startup

by

Last month, local entrepreneurs raced the clock and racked their brains to transform ideas into businesses--and the recession into opportunity. Boise hosted the second Idaho Startup Weekend, and after two days, six teams pitched their ideas for a chance to win some valuable resources to get their company off the ground.

Startup Weekend is a global event in which participants have 54 hours to start a new company. In that time, teams have to come up with websites, Twitter accounts, marketing strategies and a presentation.

Among the six teams were Twitter automator MyWordyBird.com, online media tool Retroper.com and winning idea, Gofi.sh, which won free office space and mentoring help.

"Startup Weekend attracts career entrepreneurs that are eager to meet new founders, and be exposed to new ideas, as well as learn new skills," said Clint Nelsen, one of the three partners of the global Startup Weekend organization.

Nelsen himself is an alumnus of a Startup Weekend event. Three years ago, he attended an event in Seattle and now manages Startup gatherings in 89 cities around the globe. When BW spoke with him, he was facilitating a Startup Weekend in Paris.

Nelsen said he has seen the same number of participants each year, despite the recession. Some see a recession as a golden opportunity for technology-inclined entrepreneurs and creative thinkers to start their own thing.

"Even in these times there is a lot of money on the table for good ideas backed up with a solid team. The hard part is to get to the point where a team has a product developed enough to get investors excited about it," Nelsen said.

And that's exactly what the local Boise team behind MyWordyBird.com is hoping to do. Rhea Allen, CEO of Peppershock Media, Judy Brawer, marketing director for Women's Journals, and Jason Dodd, creator of the website engineering firm nerdydrago.com, connected at the Startup Weekend and came up with a concept they think might take off.

MyWordyBird helps people be vocal on social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook by writing the blurbs and messages for them.

"There are a lot of people out there who sign up for Twitter and think, 'Now what?'" Allen said, adding that 50 percent of people who sign up for a Twitter account don't use it. MyWordyBird helps answer the questions, "What can I say?" and "How do I say it right in a 140 characters?"

Gofi.sh--a buyer-driven game to get the best deals and advice on products and services--took the top prize. Using existing social networking sites, Gofi.sh helps consumers find products they're looking for.

As the winner of the event, Gofi.sh will receive free office space, marketing services and a networking membership.

Gofi.sh, MyWordyBird, Retroper.com and the other three Boise teams all came up with tech-oriented, Web-based companies.

"Tech is very interesting as it's the only industry where you can build a business literally for free aside from investing your time," Nelsen said. "Not to mention that potential to scale and the ability to reach anyone with a computer, in theory, is really appealing and attractive to a cash-strapped entrepreneur."

For Allen and the MyWordyBird team, the initial overhead costs are low. Because they are a web-based company, they can work from home or their current office as long as they have a computer.

"The low upfront cost is one thing that made me think it's viable," Allen said. "To get things off the ground, you can do it on shoe strings or you have to get really creative," she added.

Actually making the company grow and be profitable is the hard part. It can take years for a startup company to break even.

Lisa McGrath, a Boise organizer at Idaho Startup Weekend and co-founder of Social Media Club Boise, said local support is vital for small startups, and Startup Weekend sponsors went out of their way to help.

"This year, the purpose in seeking out in-kind sponsorships that I did--from Nebula Shift, Peppershock, Idaho Technology Council, Tsuvo, etc.--is so that the companies would have back-end support and mentorship after they walked out of startup weekend," McGrath said. "I approach startup weekend planning with the philosophy that we want to continue to support and grow these companies after they launch at Startup Weekend, and these sponsors, many of which are startups themselves, stepped up to do that."

Jess Flynn of Red Sky Public Relations, one of the chief sponsors of the Idaho Startup Weekend, agreed.

"You don't see huge venture capitalists out here so you need the bootstrapping mentality to make it work," she said. "I definitely do think people get more creative [during a recession]. People look at things differently at times like this. They start asking the question, 'What else can I do?'"

Flynn said that there are currently a half-dozen events like the Idaho Startup Weekend, and she suspects they will get more popular in the coming years.

"The more of these entrepreneurial events the better. Our state will be growing forward," she said.

Locally, entrepreneurs can pitch ideas to networking groups like KickStand, Tech Boise, Boise Angel Alliance, the Idaho Technology Council and the Keiretsu Forum, Flynn said.

"You never know if these startups [will] take off and grow," Flynn said. "I think every idea has a chance and some will definitely get some out-of-state recognition. Some already have."

Nelsen said Twitpay, created at a Startup Weekend in Atlanta in 2008, has been the most successful Startup Weekend company so far. It has become the leading provider of social media payments services and raised $1 million in funding a little more than a month ago.

Nelsen revealed that what gets investors interested in a company is commitment.

"My advice is: Make all of the sacrifices you can to give yourself the longest runway possible," Nelsen said. "Angels take notice when someone is not only investing all of their time, but also some of their own money into an idea they personally believe in. It's important to show that the founders are committed and have skin in the game."