By Melissa Chipman
For the first forty-five minutes, I am the only woman at the event.
It’s Startup Weekend Louisville, a 54-hour marathon event that gathers developers, designers, and business people and propels them from startup pitch through business creation to presentation to local entrepreneurial leaders.
And it’s a room full of men at the U of L Med Center 2.
We eat from a buffet provided by Taco Punk.
And then the presentation starts. Just minutes after Zachary Cohn, the Seattle-based representative from Startup Weekend, starts to speak, a second woman shows up.
By the end of the night, I’m no longer sure that she’s stuck around.
Startup Weekend is a boot camp for entrepreneurs. There have been more than 700 Startup Weekend events in 85 countries from the United States to Kenya to Mongolia. Three hundred and twenty cities have hosted Startup Weekends, but this is the first time the event has been in Louisville.
More than 70,000 people have participated in Startup Weekends worldwide.
This weekend alone, there are 14 Startup Weekends happening everywhere from Louisville to Auckland, New Zealand.
The non-profit organization is headquartered in Seattle where Cohn works also with Google, national sponsor of the event.
Local host sponsors are University of Louisville and Forge. Adam Fish, of Forge and Roobiq; Nick Such of Awesome Inc. in Lexington and BuildingLayer; and Nick Huhn, a digital strategist and consultant brought the event to Louisville.
The kick-off guest speaker is Fred Durham, former CEO and founder of Cafe Press. Durham described himself as a “recovering entrepreneur” who began Cafe Press in 1999 in his garage in California.
He’s a slight man, wearing a striking red tee-shirt with the words “Cassius Clay” on it. Appropriate, of course, that his tee-shirt makes an impression as Cafe Press made its bones by printing tee-shirts on demand and has grown to offer more than 600 customizable products on demand.
It’s been a huge success, Cafe Press, but this was Durham’s tenth business, and up until Cafe Press took off, he described himself as a “serial failure.”
He says, “If you’re going to fail, do it fast, and do it cheap.”
While his other nine businesses felt like trying to “push a car uphill,” when he launched Cafe Press he said it was like trying to “push a car downhill.” It ran away from him and his partner, and they had to scramble to fulfill the promises that they made to potential clients.
Durham sold Cafe Press right before it went public, which, he said, is the right way to do it. He came to Louisville to transition the business to the new CEO, and he ended up falling in love with the city. He completed the transfer and then moved his wife and children to Louisville.
He’s confident in the “possibility” inherent in “Possibility City,” and hopes to start a small-business incubator in the city in the next year.
Durham gave this advice to the Startup Weekend attendees: “If you can fail for 99 bucks [the cost of the event] in a single weekend the way we used to fail for a million bucks over the course of a year… shit, that’s a really big deal.”
After Durham speaks, Cohn launches a very welcome alternative to traditional “ice-breakers.” It’s a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors… WAR!” where attendees battle each other in a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” where the losers must cheer on the winners. By the end of the contest (which takes less than five minutes), two winners are left, backed by 30 or so roaring cheerleaders. Adam Klaers, owner of Xterra Consulting and Derby City Pedicabs emerges victorious.
Then the meat of the evening begins, 16 attendees give 60-second pitches for startups. Ideas range from tangible products to aps to services. And after the pitches conclude, we’re given 25 minutes to network – to ask further questions of the pitchers, to see if the pitchers need our services.
By the end of the fifteen minutes, I’ve given out nearly all of the healthy chunk of business cards I’ve brought, and then we’re asked to vote on our favorite projects.
I choose to throw my support behind two projects, both of which are, in their startup phase, Louisville-centric. Seven projects receive enough votes to be pushed through to development phase, and only one of the two that I supported makes the cut. So I join that team.
We split off into business meetings, each attendee rallying behind the startup that they most supported. And business plans start to emerge.
I have to admit, ever since I paid the $75 early-registration fee and committed to attend Startup Weekend, I’ve been concerned. I know that the Louisville startup and tech communities are heavily man-centric and not as welcoming as I’d like to non-tech folks. I worried that as a female, creative professional, I’d be the last kid picked for the dodgeball team.
But fifteen minutes into the business meetings, Dave Durand of Forest Giant pokes his head into my conference room and tells me that even though his idea hadn’t made the cut, he’s still forming a team (totally allowable in Startup Weekend rules). And he wants me to defect.
And after much bellyaching and feelings of betrayal, I do.
We’ll see how it all works out tomorrow.
But I still don’t get the man-centric nature of these events.
Why is the Louisville startup/tech community so dominated by men?
Hopefully I’ll be able to unpack that this weekend.
About Melissa Chipman: Melissa Chipman is Louisville-based journalist and editor who recently made a career change after 13 years of teaching at elite private schools in Louisville and New Orleans. Chipman has a BA in English from Columbia College of Columbia University in New York City and an MA in English from the University of New Orleans.