Startup Weekend West Michigan: The Pitch

This weekend I’ll be attending Startup Weekend West Michigan from 6pm Friday through 4pm Sunday.  It promises to be an awesome event, but up until yesterday I had no idea to pitch.  So I got to thinking, and came up with this idea.  What is said below isn’t my pitch, but it’s what I’ll be pitching about.  It’s kind of a far-reaching idea to put in to 2 minutes, but I think I can manage.

Your online social life and your local community are disconnected.  Maybe some people want it to stay that way, but a lot of people want that connection made for them.  I’m calling this idea, “Social Gone Local”.

It’s not that simple though.  Local businesses already have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and Check-in points on FourSquare.  The REAL question is, “How do I find new businesses to associate with?”.  Addressing that issue is the fundamental problem this startup will solve.

How do we solve it?  By aggregating all of the data from your social networks and building a profile of your interests, likes, and dis-likes.  With this information, we can recommend local activities, restaurants, shops, and events with a fairly good probability that you’ll like it.  Think “Netflix recommendation engine, for life”.

But what if you’re visiting a different city?  Change your location and we’ll give you recommendations for there too.


My History of Failure

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”

This is my third attempt.  I’ve tried twice before and failed, but this time could be different.  It could end up in failure just like the others, but I don’t think it will.  I’m smarter this time around.  I’ve learned from my mistakes, am better at what I do, and I have more to lose.


The first time around was in 2007.  I had just learned PHP and thought I had what it took to make a video encoding startup.  This was before the term “cloud” was popular, and my idea was that users would upload videos to my service, encode them into whatever format they liked, and then re-download them.  For revenue, I thought that a free service could be done by adding advertising to the beginning of the encoded video.  Or, a user could pay small fee to get moved to the front of the queue and have no advertisements.

The idea seemed good, but I wasn’t dedicated to it.  I got a design going and had the back-end encoding stuff working, but I just couldn’t act on it.  Some other things went wrong too.

  • No motivation – I was still in college, didn’t need the money, and enjoyed my life just where it was.  There wasn’t really a huge motivation for me to do this.
  • No passion – I honestly didn’t care about video encoding.  Sure it’s cool, but only cool from a technical standpoint.  It wasn’t something I could really get behind.
  • Knowledge – I really had no idea how deep the programming rabbit hole went at this point.  Not knowing what good design was really put a cramp in how fast I could develop too.  In short, I was inexperienced and it showed.
  • Flawed business model – In retrospect, this should have been a freemium model.  10 minute video for free, anything over is charged.  That way people don’t get annoying advertisements added to their videos.

Should I Get The Book?

In 2008 and early 2009 I worked on “Should I Get The Book?”(SIGTB).  As a grad student reflecting on my undergraduate years, I realized that I spent a ridiculous amount of money on books that I never needed.  After talking to friends and classmates, it seemed this was a universal problem, and my startup idea was born.  This time, I did things right (sort of).  I took a few hours every week over the the summer and started hacking away at it.  By the end of the summer, I had a functioning product.  I did a launch, and the waited.  But nobody came.

So what happened?  Was it competition?  Was it a poor idea?  Well, it was a lot of things.

  • Design – This is huge.  My site design sucked.  I basically ripped off a WordPress template that somebody made because it looked cool.  It had nothing to do with my idea, and it showed.  People coming to the page would say “So what is this about?”.
  • UI – The interface and experience was awful.  None of it made sense, and the changes that people did suggest I back-burnered until I “had more time”.
  • Seed Data – The idea that users leave reviews about whether they needed the book or not was great, except that nobody would do it.  Without having some reviews already in there, I found that people weren’t motivated to leave a review because they thought the site wasn’t being used.  I needed to have data seeded, but I couldn’t think of a good way to do this without paying any money (I had none at the time).
  • Focus – I tried to focus on too many schools at once with the first launch.  I should have started with one to see if the concept would stick.
  • Advertising – On a college campus, flyers and word of mouth is key.  I had zero flyers and nobody talking about me.
  • Karma – Users like getting a reward for doing something.  It doesn’t have to be money, karma works just as well.  Users get to scratch their competitive urge by posting reviews, getting karma, and checking to see if they have more then their friends. I should have done this, but didn’t.
  • Evergreen data – One of the big problems with this data is that the instructor can change books, change styles, or even stop teaching.  The data can become useless quickly.

Once I realized most of these things I vowed to start a re-design with all of these issues addressed.  I was about 25% of the way through the mock-up when I was informed that had a similar feature.  It was easy to use, and they already had a huge user base.  My idea was basically sunk.

While SIGTB flopped, it was important step for me.  I had pushed a project through to completion, learned a lot about marketing, and learned that I really need a co-founder to talk me out of bad ideas.  Most importantly though, I proved to myself that I could accomplish something.  I might have given up too quickly, but I think that the idea wouldn’t have worked well anyways.

CampaignAlytics (Working Name)

I started this idea out in late October of this year.  The idea is that email campaign analytics can be done better.  Currently analytics is rolled in as a feature for big mailers (Mail Chimp, etc), but it doesn’t provide the in-depth analytics that a lot of marketing folks are looking for.  We’re looking to change that.  I’ve been working for an hour a day since November 1st, and have a lot to show for it.  I pitched the idea to a local pitch night, and the reception was great.  We have a lot of great features, and do it all in a non-obtrusive way that is compatible with mailing services, or can be rolled into your custom solution using our API.

I’m taking a different path with this startup, based on the things I’ve learned on the last two.

  • Pay for a design – The first thing I did for this web app was pay for a design.  I got a great deal, and now have a design that I can be proud of and shows off the product like nothing I could have ever come up with.
  • Co-Founder – Having someone to talk you out of bad ideas, and give you a sense of perspective is amazing.  Having someone to discuss ideas with and share the burden is pretty great too.
  • Funding – I’ve come to the conclusion that without a little bit of funding, this startup will take forever to complete.  We’re applying to the seed incubator Momentum and hopefully we’ll get funded.
  • Iterate – I’ve already gone through two different layouts and menu structures for the account/analytics page.  The second version is far better than the first because I asked for feedback from a few trusted people and implemented the changes right away.

The thing I hope you can take away from this is that you are going to fail many times before you succeed.  Being persistent (and maybe a bit stubborn) will take you 70% of the way there, and the rest is on how good your idea is.

Other Programming

Useful Tools for Startups and Freelancers

Sometimes starting a business can seem like a lot of work.  Actually, it can, and will be a lot of work.  However, there are some tools out there for free (or at a small cost) that can make managing your business a lot easier.  After all, don’t you won’t to focus on your work, and not your bookkeeping?  Here’s a list of tools that I’m currently using, or plan to use in the future once business starts to increase.

  • Toggl – Toggle is a free time tracking tool.  You can create tasks, track time on tasks, and run reporting operations.  It’s also handy because it includes a timer that can be accessed via the web or a desktop widget.  That way you can keep track of how many hours you’re actually working on a project.
  • Billing Manager – Billing Manager is a tool that allows small companies the ability to invoice clients, set up payment plans, add customers to Christmas card lists, and a host of other options.  The real winner for this service though is that it allows for online payments, which means you won’t need to handle cash directly.  The software is by Intuit, so you know it can be trusted.
  • Google Docs / Email – You may or may not know this, buy you can set up your companies e-mail to be handled via Google.  Not only can you get email set up via Google, but company chat, and shared documents via Google Docs.