A weekend of entrepreneurship bootstrapping

As many of my friends and some of my former colleagues are aware, I have been working on starting my own business. Since starting a business is something that I have no idea about (nor do any of my friends and colleagues), I decided to attend events where people like me can get some help. Turns out that although is it not easy to get the right help, we are not quite left floundering. One of these events is the 54-hours long Weekend Ventures where people interested in starting a new business come together to bootstrap their business. The latest one held in Mumbai was this past weekend and I attended it. Note: Since quite a few people were not keen that their ideas be discussed outside the event, out of respect for them I won't do that in this article.

There are no pre-qualifications necessary to attend this event, although if you don't know English, you will probably not be able to participate effectively. Apple Mac users should definitely get a dongle to connect their machine's DisplayPort to the VGA input of a projector when they present their ideas.

Day 1 - 25th Oct.

One day before the event I realize the venue has been changed. It was revealed later there was a fire in the building at the first venue and so there was a shift at the last minute. No matter. I reach the venue ( Somaiya College of Engineering in Vidyavihar, Mumbai) 15 minutes before the scheduled start time of 6pm. Since this is India, the event started at 6:30pm. The good thing was that the organizers had arranged for tea and snacks. Over tea, I mingled and chatted with a couple of folks who had come to attend it. At this venue, I also noticed a 3D printer (from ahagadgets ) which somebody had used to print out tiny (about 2cms tall) chess pieces. It was cool to see the tiny layers making up the figure (when you squinted at it from 2cms distance). Anyway, on to the meat of the story.

There were 43 attendees registered. About 37 showed up. Only 1 girl. Only 1 elder (55+) gentleman. The rest were young men. The organizer claimed that about 30 registrants were people with ideas, 7 were developers, 3 were designers and 3 were students. Two pieces of advice were given to us. (1) Be lean. (2) Work, don't talk. So onto the tasks for Day 1.

8:30 pm Only the top ten ideas would survive this evening. You had to pitch your idea in 60 seconds and get your idea selected. The breakup was 5-10 seconds about you, 10-20 seconds about the problem, 10-20 seconds about the solution, 10 seconds about the people you need (designers/coders/social networking gurus/MBAs etc.). The audience would vote (each individual in the audience got 3 votes) and the top 10 most voted ideas would be allowed to proceed further. The rest? Go home or be a collaborator. 24 ideas were pitched (max 1 idea per person). By 8:30pm, 10 were selected. I had not pitched. I was enjoying it so far.
10:00 pm By 10, the leaders of the accepted ideas had to form a team of no less than 3 people. No person can be part of more than 1 team. If you cannot form a team, you cannot proceed further. 9 teams were formed. 1 was abandoned. I joined a team of 2 others who had studied in IIM Bangalore. Both of them were consultants elsewhere.
All night: Homework:
  • Create a webpage for the project with a signup form for recruiting people who want your product
  • Create a survey form that collects responses from real people on what they think of your idea.
  • Complete the Business Model Canvas for the mentors who would be coming tomorrow.

Day 2 - 26th Oct.

After a frantic 3 hours stealing code (a.k.a. copy and paste), I managed to create a website with a signup form that pushed the information into a database and after the site went live, I went to sleep around 1am in the morning. Woke up at 7am.

10:00 am The organizers brought in poha and tea for the participants at 9am. Turned out about 8 people had stayed back the entire night. The rest had gone home. One team had worked from the bedroom of their main idea guy the whole night. At 9am, more than half people looked tired and had dark circles beneath their eyes. My other team members had been responsible for creating the survey and completing the Business Model Canvas. They had not done it. I did not fret. Instead I started work on the Android app for our project.
2:00 pm We had two meetings before lunch with two mentors separately. Each mentor was from a venture capital company. One of these two gentlemen had flown in from Gandhinagar for this event. They listened patienty to our ideas, poked holes at our assumptions and then recommended a course of action that would make our business more likely to succeed. Each mentor had a different take on the problem and on one of our ideas they even conflicted. On the whole talking to them cleared up a bunch of misconceptions. It was a fruitful morning. My partners also created the survey form and opened it to FaceBook and completed the Business Model Canvas. Lunch was Pav Bhaji. Delicious!
Rest of the day: Coding, product development, brainstorming etc. etc. to build a MVP (minimum viable product). Most of the participants left by early evening to work in peace and quiet in their homes. I am sure more than a few needed some rest. A few remained. I finished my Android app and went to sleep once again around 1am. The app was crude but functional. We were ready to ask our users to test it.

Day 3 - 27th Oct.

The final day dawned for me at 7am when I woke up. Again about 5.5 hours of sleep. I was beginning to feel tired but I was undaunted. So I left for the event asap. Sunday morning is when the world wakes up late. (Except the people queuing up for idlis and wadas at Kings Circle.)

12:30 pm In the morning, after a full stomach of medu vadas, we asked a few folks at the event to try out our product. They thought it was fun but we discovered that our product was quite fragile. It crashed on some phones. It would easily break in the real world without us guiding the user. No issues; it was a prototype; proof of concept and all that. (I found out later that other teams had used all sorts of advanced stuff like Heroku, Rails, WebSockets and web services to built their products. Ouch, what competition! There was even an ex-Zynga employee with a fancy MacBook Retina pushing his team's web app onto Amazon cloud).
5:00 pm After a pizza lunch (Domino's), we started work on our presentation. Most of it was taken care of by my 2 teammates. I took the opportunity to get some sleep (stretched out on 2 chairs in the corner of the hall). These consultants really know how to put together a fancy presentation.
5:45 pm A slightly successful recent entrepreneur from RoomnHouse (a clone of airbnb) gave a talk on his trials (and his accidental success).
6:30 pm The presentations began at 6:30pm. 1 team had dropped out the day before. So only 8 teams were going to present. 3 judges were supposed to come. 1 was on time. 1 came after half the presentations were over. The third did not turn up. Each judge was from a VC firm. Each team had 10 minutes for presentation and 5 more for Q&A. Most of the presentations were okay. None were outstanding (including our own). The judges asked some questions mostly dealing with revenue. Only one idea about an online marketplace (pitched by an ex-McKinsey guy) appeared to have generated interest in them. It won the first prize. The second prize went to a non-technical business idea related to creatively designed workplaces. The third was a semi-technical idea in which smartphones and internet came together to help animals. An organizer let it slip that my team had stood fifth. Oh well.
8:30pm General Q&A post dinner with the VCs. One VC asked all of us to focus on our presentations to be better. Maximum 6 slides. Use big fonts. Not more than 5 lines per slide. Practice the presentation beforehand. He claimed that the investors pay attention only in the first and last minute of a presentation. So we should make those minutes count. A number of questions were asked by the participants. I list a few below:
  • Q. Is it better to get traction before shopping for VCs and mentors?
    A. Depends. Some mentors with deep knowledge and connections will be able to correct your assumptions long before you have invested time and money in finding out that your product does not work.
  • Q. Should you try to get into incubators and accelerators abroad? Like YC or 500startups?
    A. Definitely if you have a product that is not India specific. If its India specific, it may not be worth it.
  • Q. How can investors help in the next step now that we have presented them with the idea?
    A. Investors are not mentors. After they invest in your company, they will be Board members and they can help you. In the meanwhile take advantage of organizations offering mentorship facilities. You can also become part of incubators and accelerators where you will often find good mentors.
  • Q. What is the minimum equity that investors look for?
    A. It varies with different investors. Generally though, all VCs ask for a minimum of 10%.

After this, there were pictures and sharing of contact information. Dinner was thali from Rajdhani. Good food to end a good event. Came back home and slept like a log!

Post-Mortem: A couple thoughts came to me after the event was over. First, ideas that had already demonstrated revenue (even before coming to the event) got the prizes. Clearly, generating revenue in 54 hours is a challenge and so perhaps you need to come with a team that has had some success if you want to win? Second, this sort of event is excellent to generate leads and potentially hire/find collaborators if you don't know know enough people. Maybe this was an oddity only here, but there were many people with finance background attending this event. So who knows??