July 25, 2018 — “Hi, I’m Brad,” said Brad Attig, who provides alternative financing guidance to early-stage companies through the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network’s (RAIN) Venture Catalyst Program.
He stood before a packed house of entrepreneurs from up and down the coast and points inland. They were there for the first-ever Startup Weekend Oregon Coast, a production of Oregon RAIN, Lane SBDC, Techstars, City of Florence and Pure Organic Energy.
“I call myself an ecosystem activist,” Attig explained. “That means I believe in doing as much as possible to help create innovative entrepreneurial ecosystems in towns and cities, in particular rural communities here in Oregon.”
The event, which was held July 13 and 14 at Lane Community College Florence Center, brought together entrepreneurs and mentors to pitch initial ideas, form teams and see where their business creativity took them. The weekend, originally developed by Techstars, is similar to the TV show “Shark Tank,” but without the big startup cash and melodrama.
“We’re going to be sharing a lot of ideas,” Attig said. “We’ll be working with each other, saying ‘How do we try this?’ There are no bad ideas. Be understanding that a lot of different ideas are going to come. We all have different backgrounds and ways of solving problems.”
The importance of the weekend was driven home by Oregon State Sen. Arnie Roblan, who started off the program on Friday night.
“The only hope we have is that we grow our own people who are entrepreneurial enough to hire one, two or three people,” Roblan said. “That’s where most of the jobs are in this country, and almost all of the jobs on the south coast. We need people who want to live in these wonderful places and have a vision and idea about building something.”
And that something is a business, which the event looked to foster and, possibly, grow into an actual, thriving enterprise.
“Good luck with this weekend, enjoy the learning opportunities and recognize that it’s never easy,” Roblan said.
Attig began the weekend with an icebreaker. He asked the audience to shout out adjectives and nouns. Ubiquitous, influential, engaging and cannabis were some of the word suggestions.
Then Attig requested the audience break into small groups. Only one rule: participants couldn’t already know someone else in the group. This was about networking.
The game was for the groups to make up a “half-baked, absurd” business idea with the shout out words. They had about two minutes to do so. The results?
“Overstock for bridges.” Does your city manager want to buy the London Bridge, but can’t afford it? Come on over to Overstock Bridges, where we have the best deals on factory warranted bridges to help your city needs.
“Lost cannabis.” Smoke too much premium kush and forget where you put your weed? We train dogs to sniff out and find lost marijuana so you can keep the high going all night long.
“What did we learn from this?” Attig asked. “We made some new friends, we connected with people we didn’t know an hour ago. We realized that some ideas might really seem stupid to begin with, but there are ways to take a look at the market and the needs of people and come up with ideas that, actually, aren’t too bad, on the surface.”
He didn’t suggest anyone plop down $5K to start one of these, but the problems that those stupid ideas solved may hold the seed to something greater.
Next, the entrepreneurs were invited to pitch their real ideas to the room. The pitches with the most votes would move onto further development the next day.
“The anatomy of a 60-second pitch is, ‘Hi, I’m Brad. The problem I want to solve is ...” Attig said.
After that, the entrepreneurs were to name the solution, then who or what they would need to get there, especially someone to help market or engineer a product. They also had to mention the name of the business.
The entrepreneurs began their pitches.
“Hi, my name is Ivy. The problem I want to solve is caregiver burnout.”
Her solution was adult day health centers, a place where those in need of care can temporarily stay to give the caregiver time to relax or to catch up on work. For those being cared for, they get a full day on their own. Her business, Second Home, needed help from caregivers and managerial experts.
“My name is Randy. My problem is sidewalk advertising.”
Randy said the sidewalk advertising industry is huge, with $9.6 billion in revenue in the last couple of years. But there are limits to how much physical space is available.
“The problem is, it obstructs when it tries to attract,” he said.
The solution? Airborne vehicles that travel on telephone wires from pole to pole with advertising, freeing up sidewalk space and enhancing the natural atmosphere of the area.
He was an engineer himself, but needed more to help develop the product, as well as people to make the products.
One by one, a dozen entrepreneurs gave their pitch. A sigh of relief went across each face as they finished. For many in the group, it was their first time pitching an idea to a crowd.
“How did that go?” Attig asked. “Nobody died, right?”
In Attig’s mind, pitching is one of the cornerstones of an entrepreneur.
“The more you pitch and talk about your idea, the easier it is to talk about it. You should be talking to people in line at the grocery store. Use it as market research,” he suggested.
It also helps with networking. The more people you talk to, he suggested, the greater the possibility you’ll get someone interested in your idea and get them on board.
“One of the biggest reasons a startup fails is because it doesn’t have the right team. They have the right idea, but they can’t get it going because they don’t have all right pieces in place with a team,” Attig said. “Always be pitching.”
The entrepreneurs began signing up to be a part of teams. Six out of the 12 pitches were chosen.
They then worked for the next 24 hours on their project, market research and defining the business’ Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Attig defined that as, “What is the simplest thing you can go after a customer with, and say, ‘If this does this, will you buy it?’”
The teams would learn how to go to market, what type of business model to make, how to make a pitch and, finally, pitch their idea in front of judges.
“Take a deep breath,” Attig said to the group as the entrepreneurs finally finished readying their presentations and prepared for the judges to walk in.
The judges were Kate Harmon, program manager at the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Oregon; Kimmy Gustafson, chapter manager for Eugene Starve Ups; and Jesse Dolin, central coast destination developer with the Oregon Coast Visitors Association.
Reassuring the startups, Dolin said, “We’re like a big family here, so no stress.”
He is himself an entrepreneur, with a business and new startup already under his belt.
“What are the judges looking for?” Attig asked. “Validation. Did you get out and talk to customers? Are you actually solving a problem? Have you identified a target market? Who is in that market that has that problem?”
They also looked for execution and design, and if the product is easy to use. Do the teams have a prototype? A brochure, a flier or a model? How would they market it?
Of course, glamorous prizes awaited the winners of the day.
Third place? The respect of being in the top half.
Second place? A bag of coffee from Surftown Coffee Company.
“It’s really good, from Newport,” said David Youngentob, Coastal Venture Catalyst for RAIN.
The second-place team would also get feedback from the judges and would be automatically entered into one of two Coastal Pre-Accelerator programs in either Lane or Lincoln counties.
“It’s a multi-week program to help you systematically refine everything,” Youngentob explained. “It will help with value propositions, business model, learning to build out team maps, how to think about going out to pitch on a more sophisticated level, and really have your A-game together.”
First place? The pre-accelerator program, feedback from judges and a half-day deep-dive with the RAIN development team.
The winner would also get coffee and a tie-dye hoodie.
“It’s a good weekend for it, with the Oregon Country Fair,” Youngentob said.
With the guidelines set, the final pitches began.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
That is the most popular pickup line on the online dating app Happn. It’s about as romantically inspiring as walking up to someone in a bar and saying, “It’s handy that I have a library card because I’m totally checking you out.”
Statistically, women get way more potential suitors in online dating than men do. Men right swipe on more than half the women they see, while women are statistically choosier. The result? Women get bombarded with messages in their inbox with insipid opening lines.
“The problem we have found [in online dating] is that we have women who are overwhelmed, and men that are undervalued,” the team of the proposed app Personally said. “You have a huge bombardment of messages to women who are overwhelmed, and the men who take the time to respond genuinely don’t get the opportunity to be heard.”
The solution? Go strictly video.
“Personally is a video-only dating platform that creates a more genuine online dating experience,” the team said.
No messages to ignore, no pictures to be unimpressed with, just real-life personality. In a way, it’s the dating app Tinder meeting the social media platform Vine.
“We want it to be a middle ground between Christian Mingle and Grinder,” team Personally said. “By removing flat pictures and boring bios, you really get a sense of someone’s personality. With video, you get to put that back into the online dating realm.
Daters login, see a video, watch it and decide if they are interested. If you like the person, video chat with them directly.
“Currently, the system gives you seven videos,” Personally explained. “The videos are seven seconds each. When you select the video, it pulls forward and you get to watch the video. When it’s done, it goes away and you can’t watch it again. So you have seven opportunities to see somebody.”
Like most dating apps, Personally will have a tiered payment system: Free to use for basic users, but extra charges for add-ons, like viewing a video more than once.
The demo showed a young man simply stating his name and where he lived, while the second video showed him riding around on a bike — shirtless — talking about how he loved the outdoors.
The crowd genuinely felt like they got to know the single man, and were almost unanimous that he had showcased appealing features.
The team is looking for startup funds.
“Have you ever woken up because you were in a deep sleep and there was this annoying lawnmower or leaf blower?” asked the group behind the new startup Plant Whisperer.
People just hate the noise of landscaping, the shrill sound of a weedwhacker, the buzz of a weed trimmer. You can’t yell “get off my lawn” when you’re actually paying them to be on your lawn.
The solution? Go electric.
“We do our landscaping with all electric tools and manual tools,” the team said. “Using electric alternatives helps us to keep the sound levels 20 decibels lower than gas equivalents. As an added bonus, there are zero emissions from electric tools.”
The group is pegging the retirement community of Florence as the perfect target audience for the service, particularly planned communities like Florentine Estates.
“We help them achieve their goals of a place of relaxation,” the group said.
Plant Whisperer would also be ideal for hospitality industries, like hotels who are concerned about keeping the area quiet for weary travelers.
The team had already been developing the idea for a while, with the developer looking to create a stable job for his son, as well as other youth in the area.
But would switching to all electric cost a bundle for a small startup?
“We’ve found that we can keep it equivalent,” the group said. “We do that by our initial investments in our electric equipment. We get to keep our maintenance costs down and we keep our overhead down, because we like to keep a simple lifestyle that’s peaceful for us too. That gives us the ability to compete.”
With much of the components already in place, “What we’re looking for now is if you know anyone who wants quiet, peaceful landscaping services,” the group said.
Empowered Horizons Retreat
“Our little project is Empowered Horizons Retreat, with the focus on helping veterans transition from military life and service back to civilian life,” the pitch began. “Starting with problem number one. There is no opportunity for integration.
“Problem number two, they’re essentially being forgotten. There’s this gap, this drop at the end of their service. It’s hard to put into words the emotions that come with that.”
Veterans come from a structured environment — knowing when mess time is, when they need to go to bed, when they are on duty. Then they are thrown into a world devoid of structure.
The emotional impact was driven home by a veteran who was in the group.
“I’m a two-time veteran, and I can reiterate that anyone who’s had someone in military, you spend 12 to 15 weeks getting incorporated into the military to be a certain way,” he said. “But then when you finish, you’re done. No debriefing, no reorientation to civilian life. I actually joined the service again after 25 days because I couldn’t stand civilian life.”
Empowered Horizons Retreat’s solution to the problem is reintegration retreats, helping veterans to identify barriers that are impeding forward motion in their lives and achieving personal freedom through self-empowerment, mindfulness and positive activities.
The retreats would be located in peaceful locations, surrounded by nature, and would be particularly geared for those just exiting the service. Counseling would be provided, as well as life skill development training.
It would also be a place where veterans could decompress from the stresses of military life.
They would take the nonprofit model for funding, working for grants and partnerships with Veterans Affairs and Wings Seminars, which help with personal development for veterans.
“What do we need?” they asked. “To develop a partnership with Wings and find a grant writer. Our locations, we have several that we’re looking at. We want a natural setting. We also want volunteer participants. You too can be a volunteer as well as an activity coordinator.”
I Got Next
Here’s the situation: You’re a basketball player, addicted to the sport. The moment you get off work, you want to be on the court making the perfect layup as the other team’s defense futilely flails their arms.
But there’s a problem. Some of your friends have different work schedules. Your best teammate just had a new baby, so any sort of leisure activity has been put on the backburner for the next two years. And then there’s your coworker who’s just plain lazy.
“I want to go play basketball, but I don’t like waiting on others,” one member of I Got Next said. “I like competitive camaraderie. I would like to get back into that with friends, or new friends, and link us to new facilities.”
No need to retire the jersey when you have the I Got Next app. The idea is simple. Sign up, list the sports you’re interested in and find others in your area who want to get active.
The group listed a litany of possible users for the app beyond the lone player. Directors of programs like YMCA who have difficulties engaging their membership could sign up.
“You might have 8,500 members in the county, but only about 3,000 are what they call ‘power users,’ or people who are engaged every day,” the group reported. “… There is a need for an app that would provide postings, alerts and data collection.”
Other programs like Boys and Girls Club could take advantage as well.
The app itself would be gamified, an incentive-based system where users could endorse players through ratings on skill, sportsmanship and just general personality.
“Those with higher experience levels, you’re going to want to drift toward their games,” they said. “It’s like a game within a game that keeps people coming back.”
The group is looking at a flat subscription rate for programs like YMCA. There could be shared advertising, particularly with sports accessory businesses like Adidas, and industry sponsorship for events, with incentives to compete in real tournaments. They could even get endorsements from local collegiate and professional teams.
Is the group actually going to pull the trigger on this idea?
“At hour 36, it seems like a great idea!” they said. “We’re trying to figure out where this would be served best. We have a lot of thinking to do.”
Brokerage in a Box
It was 2008. The housing bubble burst, and real estate brokers fell on hard times.
“They fled the larger franchises and went into independent brokerages to save cost during the market crash,” the creators of Brokerage in a Box said. “Ten years later, these independent brokers are really struggling to keep up with the larger franchises out there.”
The group listed two choices that brokers have right now. Sign a 200-page document with high fees to get back into the franchises, or join an independent and pay small fees. The problem with the latter choice? Lack of technology to support the business. They can’t compete with the big firms.
“Our solution is to create an online platform which is circled around business operations and creating an alliance of independent brokers,” the group explained. “They can use this system to operate their business under their own brand name.”
There’s a lot of tools out there to help independents, but they are piecemeal, sometimes charging high prices for one program, such as marketing suites or custom realtor websites. The big idea for Brokerage in a Box is to put all the tools necessary together for one monthly fee. The advantage is the totality of services offered.
“We’re going to have a $350 office set up fee, and a monthly realtors fee of $10 per agent, per month,” the group said.
It’s a big market, with the group reporting that 84 percent of all real estate brokerages list as independent.
The group came prepared for the weekend, already having a sizable business plan already written up for the judges. They also have a booth reserved at the National Association of Realtors conference in Boston in November.
“We’ve spent around $80,000 and we’re looking for a seed around $250,000 specifically to add computer programmers and developers to advance our program,” they said.
“I don’t know if you’ve been to a conference, but I’m sure you’ve probably felt like a lost puppy,” was Mingle Conf.’s opening pitch line. “You’re wandering around the room, with sometimes 1,000 people there. You have no idea who to connect with. Everyone is just a face, a sea of people.”
The worst is when you start talking to someone who seems interesting, but in reality isn’t. Forty-five minutes go by and any and every excuse you have to get out of it is swatted down.
“And I hate it when I meet someone at the end of a conference when I could have met them on day one,” the group said.
Enter Mingle Conf., an app where conference goers can add their name to a roster before the conference begins, listing what they are looking for, who they want to meet, what they want to get out of the conference, and give a little information about themselves like the name of their company.
“We’re trying to encourage people to connect with each other at the conference, either by messaging directly or finding groups interested in the same topic,” the presenters said. “Just really encourage interpersonal meetups at the conference. Also, it gives them ability to search for who is actually going to be at the conference.”
The potential client base is huge. The group said that there were 2 million conferences held in 2013 alone, with over 250 million attendees pouring through conference hall and hotel lobby doors.
“We’re looking at annual conferences with more than 500 attendees. We also figure that at $4 an attendee, that is also a sweet spot,” the group said. “The [conference organizers] can put that into the ticket. That’s not a big deal. For the smaller ones, we would do for free, just to get the app out there.”
In addition, the group said it wasn’t looking to make billions off the app, instead taking a conservative profit margin. But they also said the avenues for dividends were large, with cash flows from event organizers, branding opportunities for sponsors and, of course, the opportunity of aggregating the big data of who is attending these conferences. These could be gold for organizations looking to create, plan and build attendance rosters for their next meeting.
After the app is built, the majority of costs would be maintaining sales professionals to push the product, and that’s the resource the group is looking for right now.
Attig took a poll for the crowd favorite of the bunch, the winner of which would win bragging rights. Personally eked out the win.
“I gotta tell you something, I liked all of them,” Attig said. “You all got good ideas going on.”
The group of entrepreneurs talked about what they learned, how they learned to succinctly pitch their product and how they learned to think a startup all the way through. They also learned how to ask investors for money.
So really, they were all winners.
“On average, 12 percent of teams that compete in a startup weekend move on with their ideas in one way, shape or another,” Attig said. “I want you to know that maybe two or three of you will move on. Maybe all of you. Some teams will fail, and that’s okay. You might go somewhere, meet someone who was on a different team. I would encourage you to keep your process going to work on these things. Don’t stop learning.”
As for the judges, they chose a different winner. Third place went to Personally, and the runner up was I Got Next. The winner went to Mingle Conf. All three happen to be web-based platforms with an emphasis on social interaction.
From here on out, it’s up to the entrepreneurs to decide if they want to continue their work on their new businesses. They are equipped to stand up in front of investors and say, “Hi, I’m an entrepreneur.”
After the Pitch
What’s happening now?
For information about RAIN and its programs, contact Coastal Venture Catalyst David Youngentob at [email protected], follow RAIN on social media — Twitter: Oregon_RAIN, Instagram: oregon.rain, Facebook: OregonRAIN.org — or online at oregonrain.org.