As The Pause came to a close, it was time to reconnect QuickScore with the rest of the cohort from the Iowa Startup Accelerator. So, what better way to reconnect with everyone than to go to a giant party for startup founders in a warehouse at the base of the Rocky Mountains?
Honestly, I can’t think of a better way.
I got on the train Friday evening in Mount Pleasant and arrived first thing Saturday morning in Denver, as I usually do on my yearly weekend off from responsibility. My Denver-based friends extracted me from Union Station and we enjoyed an awesome breakfast together. Once fully caffeinated, we made a plan for the rest of the day. We wanted to watch the Iowa/Northwestern game, but we didn’t have any plans after the game was over.
As we were looking for a place to park, we stumbled across both the hostel where the rest of the cohort was staying during the Global Accelerator Network 2016 Rally and Oktoberfest Denver. My friends did not know that Oktoberfest was happening, and since we didn’t have any plans after the game, we decided to see what it was all about.
All in all, it was a great decision. My digestive tract may not have thought that the sauerkraut was a great idea, but my taste buds did. There were several bands playing and plenty of games, along with celebration-appropriate beverages and roasted meat of various origins. I haven’t gone to an Oktoberfest celebration since my friends moved to Denver, so it seemed appropriate to spend the day with them enjoying the sunshine and the festivities.
The three of us decided to call it an early evening on Saturday. The conference started Sunday afternoon, and I hadn’t gotten a terribly long sleep the two previous nights – the night before on the train and two nights before because I was putting the finishing touches on some Web pages. We had a relaxing evening watching some videos online and playing some classic games on Steam.
On Sunday, my friends dropped me off at the hostel where many of the conference participants were staying to start off the walking tech tour. Denver has a pretty awesome startup scene, so it was pretty nice to see how things worked in a larger entrepreneurial ecosystem than the one we have in eastern Iowa. I had a relatively diverse group of people with me on the tour, including some folks from Iceland, a guy from Scotland, and another guy from Japan.
We made three stops along the tour – Dish Network’s engineering hub in downtown Denver, a startup called Parkifi that is improving the parking experience through sensors that connect to an electronic number board that lists the quantity of parking spaces available in a lot, and another startup called SendGrid that works on the infrastructure for corporate e-mail. I loved the office spaces that all three companies had – lots of open office concepts with smaller areas available for collaboration. Parkifi and SendGrid were both doing so well that they had outgrown their office spaces and are moving in the near future. (Parkifi is actually moving into SendGrid’s offices after they move out.)
We then were treated to food and drinks at a local restaurant before migrating to the event center where the conference would take place. Food and drink were never in short supply during the rally. I had actually planned on buying a lot more of my own food and drink during the trip, so it was a nice surprise that we were treated so well on this front. We had everything from German beer hall fare, to burgers from a local food truck, to a high-end buffet. We were also treated to drinks by several companies – the drink currency was comprised of wooden drink tokens which we all called “wooden nickels.” A few people were looking a bit rugged after one night of limitless wooden nickels.
There was so much great information presented during the rally. We watched a documentary on Sunday evening called Design Disruptors that talked about how the design of products, Web sites, and everything else is shaping the future. As a Web designer, I felt that the documentary seemed pretty much like common sense, but it was interesting to see how design has infiltrated so many other aspects of business in the last handful of years.
The bulk of the information during the rally was presented on Monday. We learned that you have a certain window of time while you are building your business to instill the type of culture you want in your organization. Josh Allan Dykstra gave the keynote address on this topic and gave away some copies of his book (I managed to snag one of the last copies available), and then we heard this reinforced by three panelists that had gone through multiple accelerators. Two of the panelists are working on registering as a B corporation, which Team Sexy Life had been contemplating. On my to-do list from the rally is to follow up with either of those panelists on what they have gone through in the process of becoming a B corp. We finished out this segment of the morning doing a “culture workshop” where we worked through a worksheet provided by Dykstra that corresponded with his talk.
We also learned about building successful distributed teams from Jim Coe, who I was able to talk with during the reception in the afternoon. Both QuickScore and Sexy Life have a bit of a distributed team atmosphere, since I work from home on both projects for at least half of each week. Our teams are small enough right now that being somewhat distributed works. However, as Sexy Life grows, we will eventually run up against some of the same problems that Coe was having after his team “became too large for a simple Google Hangout.” We also talked education technology, and I gave him the QuickScore elevator pitch. He seemed pretty impressed with the project, and was willing to help round up some customer discovery leads outside Iowa if we decide to go that direction.
Speaking of the QuickScore elevator pitch – I actually got really good at giving an off-hand 30 to 60 second pitch during all of the networking opportunities we had during the rally. Since “decoupling” from the ISA cohort, I haven’t had much opportunity to pitch QuickScore. Having to give an elevator pitch dozens of times over the course of the event was great practice, and helped me think on my feet a bit better than I was doing in front of the cohort at the beginning of the accelerator. I understood before why accelerator teams need to get up and pitch in front of as many people as possible during their program, but having first-hand experience makes me appreciate and understand it even more now.
The program on Monday afternoon focused more on the mental health and well being of founders. It can be incredibly stressful moving through an accelerator, as you are moving your company multiples faster than you would out in the “real world.” You experience growing pains and setbacks that seem more amplified than if you were just working on your project part-time. We learned of a startup founder who had been praised for his dedication and work ethic that had taken his life just months after the conclusion of the accelerator in which he and his team participated. It was a sobering reminder that sometimes we all just need to slow down, take a breath, and ask for help when we need it.
For me, burying myself in work was actually a way for me to get out of a rut I was in after my grandmother passed in 2014. I had been taking care of her during her final 3 years or so along with my first daughter. I wasn’t really working on myself or on any sort of business at that time. Once she had passed, I had a pretty massive hole that needed to be filled, both in my schedule and in my soul. I had really just discovered the entrepreneurial ecosystem in eastern Iowa just before she passed, and I had been building Web sites and making videos for people just for fun up until then. I needed something to take me out of that rut, so I started attending Open Coffee and 1 Million Cups a couple of months after she was gone and the major grieving had finished.
During her last couple of years with us, I really felt like I was spinning my wheels. My life wasn’t really moving forward, and I didn’t really have any major goals. It was more about just making it through one day at a time, between the work of taking care of someone at the beginning of a life and another person at the end of a life. It was an isolated existence, even living in the middle of Coralville at the time. I’m so thankful that I found “my tribe,” as Dykstra calls it in his book, when I joined up with the people with whom I spend so much time now. It was an interesting two years that I’m happy to discuss with anyone going through one of life’s rough patches.
Once the soul-searching was over, it was time to have some fun. Cue the limitless wooden nickels, the food trucks, and the Ping-Pong tables. A handful of us managed to shut down the convention center and took an Uber to Wynkoop Brewery, across the street from Union Station. We played some foosball and pool, and enjoyed some of Colorado’s freshest beverages. A few of us managed to shut down Wynkoop, and at that point, we decided to call it a night. I got about 5 hours of sleep before I needed to be up and running again for Tuesday’s sessions.
On Tuesday morning, I said goodbye to my Colorado friends and took my luggage with me to the convention hall. I wanted to take in as much as I could before I had to hop on the train to return to Iowa, and there sure was a lot to take in. There were different tracks you could take based on what you wanted to get out of the rally. I attended a seminar on building your own personal culture and brand and growth hacking your own brand. It’s something I’ve been working on heavily as a freelancer and would be a perfect topic for a freelancer convention, as you are your company’s brand. A freelancer has to determine his or her brand, like what I’ve done with everything on this Web site, down to the color scheme, font choices, and what my positions are.
We also had an opportunity to learn about some of the perks that are available to Global Accelerator Network startups, including computing power and customer resource management services. There was so much information to take in during these presentations that I am still wrapping my head around everything. Some founders also took advantage of office hours with the sponsoring companies. None of them really fit in with what QuickScore is doing, so I opted out of the office hours. I did make some contacts that I think will be helpful with other projects, but I made these connections on Monday during the social hour.
I then had to make my way back to Union Station to hop on the eastbound California Zephyr. Even traveling for five days, the trip felt like it was over in an instant. I made so many new connections, and I have a pile of business cards that I still haven’t completely worked through. I nearly gave away the last of my own cards – I had ordered 200 cards a year ago, and I only have 15 left. I gave away nearly 50 cards at the rally alone. All in all, it was a great experience, and I’m hoping to make it to another event in Denver next year – hopefully to Startup Week Denver, which I opted out of in favor of the GAN Rally.
The one unfortunate thing that happened during the trip was that my old laptop’s motherboard bit the dust sometime between shutting down Friday evening and Saturday morning, when I tried to turn the machine on again. I knew that 6-year-old laptop was on its last legs, but I was hoping to at least get one or two more months’ worth of work out of it. I’m currently using my backup machine – a nearly 10-year-old MacBook. I’d been holding out on computer shopping until now, mostly because I’m a cheapskate. However, I guess this is the time to start looking. I’ll have more on my search for my new computer in a future post.
So, what’s on the agenda for the next few weeks? A lot.
- The University of Iowa Startup Games (basically Startup Weekend for college students) is happening this weekend, October 14-16. I was asked to be a coach for this year’s games, and I’m pretty excited to help out. I’ve heard some great ideas that have come out of previous Startup Games weekends, and it will be fun to challenge the students’ ideas and make them think a bit harder about what they will propose during pitches on Sunday evening.
- Innovation Expo in Cedar Rapids on October 26. I enjoyed last year’s expo, and this one should be even better. I don’t know how many of the current ISA teams are pitching, but it will be fun to hear how they’ve progressed since the beginning of the accelerator and from their 1 Million Cups pitches.
- ISA Launch Day in Cedar Rapids on November 3. I won’t be pitching at this, but I’ll be cheering the cohort on from as close to the front as I can get. Plus, the party after the party is pretty awesome.
- Startup Weekend Iowa City: Fashion + Tech, November 18-20. I’m planning on attending this new take on Startup Weekend. In other parts of the country, there have been events like this focused on a single industry, such as food and drink or wearables. It will be interesting to see what I can contribute, either on the creative side or the business development side. Plus, I’ll get to hang out with a bunch of my (trendier) friends for a weekend. How can I lose?
I’m hoping to increase the frequency of posts with all of these events coming up, but don’t hold me to it. If you are in eastern Iowa or nearby, you should check these events out for yourself. If not, there are plenty of events like it in your area. If there aren’t events like this in your area, you have the power to start them – just ask the folks that created Startup Weekend Black Hills last month!
I’ll be checking back in after Startup Games this weekend. Until then!