A Personal Reflection on a SocEnt Weekend
5:57 PM, Friday night. Raining in Pioneer Square. Am I good enough? Will I be relevant in this world? Should I be here? Insecurities and self-doubt dart through my brain. Cue Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” drum solo. Alright, a wee melodramatic...
I amble up the multiple flight of stairs to the offices of the Hub Seattle. Tonight is the kickoff of #SocEnt Weekend, a Startup Weekend-inspired event in which seed ideas of social enterprise and entrepreneurship are nurtured to bloom in 50 hours. Organized by a socially-driven group of individuals and organizations, #SocEnt Weekend provides a venue for social entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to a group of their peers, vet those ideas over a grueling two and a half day weekend and finally present the idea to a panel of established thought-leaders in the entrepreneurial community for feedback. And, yes, it’s a competition. The winner gets a three month residency at the Founder Institute, where the winning idea will get further molded into a viable business model.
The room of about 75 is buzzing with people meeting and mingling. Rashmir and Luni call the room to order. Rashmir is the founder and CEO of Nsansa, an organization that fosters and encourages social entrepreneurship. Luni is a serial entrepreneur who has taught at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, whose credo is that business can impact social change. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn kicks off the evening with a call to action. Change starts in the community he says. With the crowd fired up, it’s time to pitch ideas. Potential entrepreneurs queue to pitch their SocEnt ideas to the group. They have 60 seconds to communicate who they are, what problem they are trying to solve, what their solution is and what personnel do they need to get their idea off the ground. No pressure whatsoever.
Ultimately, thirteen ideas are selected to be developed over the next 48+ hours. We’re told to find a team whose idea we’re attracted to and want to work on. I am drawn to a community tool-sharing concept, primarily because it is a very tangible idea in my mind. It is not an app with an API that integrates with Facebook, blah, blah, blah. That’s not my world. Borrowing and sharing tools that you only use once a year for free or at low-cost is an idea I can wrap my head around. Or at least I thought I could. It’s remarkable when you peel back the onion…
In the Seattle area, the West Seattle Tool Library exists, providing a great service to that community. But it is limited in its geographical reach to the rest of Seattle. We hypothesize that there is a need to scale this solution. But how do you scale? How do you monetize it? The basic idea is this: create a pre-packaged, self-contained tool lending library in a shipping container. Drop the container where you need it and you’ve got an instant solution for the problem of a “tool desert”. Peripherally, this could also be a remedy for emergency relief efforts.
It’s Friday at 9:30 PM. We’ve all had a long week. There are roving mentors in the room that are trying to keep us on task. One mentor tells us that our first task is to come up with a name and start working on a website for our endeavor. Sharebox? Google it and it’s already taken. One of our team members suggests adding a “y” on the end. Shareboxy? Sharebox Pro? Sharebox Labs! Aha! Sharebox Labs it is. Whew, one task down 19 to go. Next step: the division of labor. We split up the work and reconvene Saturday morning.
Image via SocEnt Weekend
The main barrier we face on Saturday morning is which version of the business model do we proceed with. After slogging through the weeds for a few hours, we focus and choose the path: a drop-ship model, with monthly members -and- an additional social sharing component for those in the community with special financial need (different rates for non-profits, people with lower income).
On Sunday, the scramble is on. Numbers are crunched and crunched again. How much headcount do we really need? Does the CEO need to get paid the first year? Sweat equity! Does Sharebox need such a robust marketing budget? How about NO marketing budget? Early in the afternoon, we show our presentation to a mentor who gives us his reactions. The submission deadline is looming a few hours away. We’re still refining, refining, refining. Meanwhile, Patrick has been volunteered to make the final pitch to the judges. He has to rehearse even while the presentation is still being changed. Showbox Labs is 7th in line to present out of 13 teams. Patrick does a phenomenal job, concisely and enthusiastically pitching The Problem, The Solution, Who Our Customers Are and The Revenue Stream.
Did we win? No, we didn’t win. I honestly thought we had an outside shot though - I believed in our team and solution. I’m happy I got over my doubts and walked up those stairs on Friday night. Thank you Gene, Michele, Derek, Terry and Patrick.
So what did I learn from the experience? These may not be breathtaking to you but they were significant to me:
- Fail fast. The winner of the SocEnt Weekend, bWallet, didn’t have their final team fully formed until 5pm on Saturday. The team disbanded and reincarnated itself several times before ultimately moving in a final direction because the focus of their idea wasn’t there. Realize what you’re doing is not working, pivot, then move on. Iterate. Repeat. bWallet did this effectively and won.
- I’m not that smart. Well, I thought I was of at least average intelligence. But there were so many brilliant people on the Sharebox Labs team and in the room from various disciplines. Find those smart people to work with that fill the gaps that you lack.
- Mentors are awesome! The group of 15+ seasoned entrepreneurs that circulated in the room cajoled, pushed and focused our teams. They were invaluable. Listen to them as they done this once or twice or 47 times before.
- What is your MVP? Minimally Viable Product. What is the most basic thing that you need to launch your idea? It’s important to focus your idea, and then expand. For us, the Sharebox Lab MVP was a trailer full of tools that could be shuttled from area to area. If there was a demand for the trailer, it would confirm our assumption that there were “tool deserts” out there.
- The social network actually works Part 1. Imagine having to validate an idea on Saturday? We needed to know if an agency like the Red Cross or the United Nations would be interested in a Sharebox as a disaster mobilization solution. I posted a request on Facebook for a contact to either the Red Cross or the U.N. Repeat: it’s Saturday. Remarkably, my friend in New York had a contact who gave me the email for the Director of Disaster Relief of the Greater New York area. I sent the Director an email and he responded! He thought it was an interesting idea and to send him a formal proposal! What just happened? I was flabbergasted.
- The social network actually works Part 2. Use your social networks to bounce your ideas off of potential stakeholders. It validates what you’re doing and provides a data set. 48% of respondents would pay a monthly subscription fee for a tool lending library for example. How did I get that data on a Saturday? I used a site called aytm.com (Ask Your Target Market). Additional tools are: surveymonkey.com, wufoo.com, polldaddy.com.
- Participate in a startup weekend-type event at least once. It’s certainly an all-encompassing experience so be prepared for 14-16 hour days. But if you have even a remote interest in entrepreneurship, this experience will inspire you. You have a lot to offer.
Written by Jimmy Kwan - Turnstone Brand Advocate in Seattle.