The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Immersion

(TL;DR: The trip to Denver was well worth it… time well spent and many lessons learned.)

What an amazing trip to Denver! If you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you probably had a vague idea of what I was up to, but I want to spend this blog post delving further into what I learned and some next steps from the trip. So, let’s get into it…

Scenic Colorado.

I got to Denver on the Saturday before Denver Startup Week started, so that I could spend some time with my friends in town. I visit the two of them each year, so it was nice to spend the night with them before checking into the hotel near Union Station downtown. Since I saw them last, they have moved from the east side of Denver to one of the northern suburbs, right next to a light rail line being constructed through the area. They had also welcomed their new baby since last year, and it was great to meet the little guy. I tried to offer as much “stay-at-home dad” advice as I could, since dad was planning to stay home and write, while mom starts her post-residency job at one of the clinics in the area.

Knowing how tough it is to get a baby on a schedule, I didn’t want to hinder their efforts, so I checked into the Nativ Hotel, a small boutique hotel about a block and a half from Union Station, in the heart of lower downtown and right off of the 16th Street Mall. If you’ve not visited the heart of Denver, the 16th Street Mall is a pedestrian area for about two-thirds of its length, with free shuttle buses that run every couple of minutes down the middle of the mall. This came in handy when I needed to get from one end of downtown to the other in a timely fashion, as the events for Denver Startup Week were at times pretty spread out.

Soggy guy on a soggy balcony.

The room at the hotel was amazing! Had it not been raining the entire week I was in town, the balcony on the back of the room would have been an amazing space to take the computer or the tablet and get a bit of work done or have a cold beverage in the evening. Several people actually apologized for the weather – cold, rainy, and in the low 50s the entire week – and I had to remind them that for someone from the Midwest, it felt a bit like home! (Meanwhile, it was in the mid-80s and sunny back in Iowa.) I was glad that I had planned to wear long-sleeved shirts and jackets the entire time I was in town. I settled into my hotel room and got a bit of work done on Sunday evening, to prepare for the rest of the week.

It was time to kick things off first thing Monday morning with the Denver Startup Week Kickoff Breakfast. The breakfast part of it actually took place before the programming began, and there was plenty of coffee for a chilly morning of networking and taking in the crowd. There were hundreds of people in attendance, and they were livestreaming the event at Basecamp just across the street from the venue. Several local leaders from businesses sponsoring the week and the mayor of Denver got up and said a few words before Casey Neistat gave his presentation. After enduring the douchebaggery of Jake Paul at the Young Entrepreneur Convention last spring, I had low expectations for another YouTube “star,” but I was surprised. Casey actually opened up about his journey and was honest about mistakes and missteps that he’d made along the way. Maybe the key to enjoying these talks is just to have low expectations about social media “celebrities.”

Quite the crowd at the kickoff breakfast!

After the breakfast was over, the informational seminars began. My first session of the week was the Pre-Series A Panel, made up of angel investors, VC club members, and other investors in the space. While BondingBox doesn’t plan to take on investment, and Cider Finder isn’t close to ready for investment, I wanted to hear first-hand how angels and others choose what they invest in, and how you can work the system a bit to qualify for certain funding streams – the fact that BondingBox has a woman as CFO opens the door to funding streams that Cider Finder doesn’t have as an all-male founding team. Over and over again, I kept hearing that team and traction are the two most important things that angel investors look at, and the term “microvalidation” was used quite a bit – small revenue, but easily and quickly scalable. The investors on this panel were also interest in what the exit strategy is for the team and the company. Many of them aren’t in this for a lifetime investment; they want to see some money back before they expire.

The next session I attended was 29 Mistakes Startups Make, which felt very much like a rehash of the points raised during Venture School. The major mistake that startups continue to make is that they do not find any sort of product-market fit. Some type of testing, either before or during development could solve all twenty-nine of the mistakes the speaker listed. Most could be solved with solid customer discovery before the development process even begins. However, it was nice to hear what I’ve learned over the years summarized in a presentation.

I got a ride across downtown and under Interstate 70 to the TiE Rockies Pitch Competition. I can never pass up a good pitch competition, and the people presenting had gone through the TiE Incubator, which sounds like it has some, but not total overlap with programs being run both in Cedar Rapids and in Ames. Three people pitched their companies, and the winner was this locking pill container that is designed to keep kids from stealing opioids from the medicine cabinet. Although, what’s stopping someone using the opioids from opening the container once, dumping out the pills into another container, and chucking the locking container in the garbage? The other two ideas involved smart buildings and a job search platform for blue-collar trades. The session also was a networking opportunity, and I was able to connect with several other entrepreneurs in the audience.

The Union Station Bash.

As the pitch competition wrapped up, I found my way back downtown to take part in the Denver Startup Week Bash at Union Station. Besides the opening breakfast, this was the biggest get-together and networking event of the week. I believe that they said over 1000 people were expected to attend, and I’m pretty sure they were right. The entire giant waiting area inside Union Station and a large chunk of the patio outside were used by the party, and for a good amount of time, it was packed with people nearly elbow to elbow. During the event, I nearly ran out of the BondingBox business cards I’d brought with me for the day. I was able to make dozens of great connections during the bash, and after stopping for a super-late dinner with a few of the people I’d met during the event, I found my way back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

It was an early morning on Tuesday.  Luckily the first session of the morning, Building a Patent Application in 1 Hour, was being held in a coffee shop just a couple of blocks from the hotel. While neither of my startups really has anything patentable right now, I wanted to see how the provisional patent process works. While the session was mostly a demo for a Web app that this patent agency put together, it was interesting to see what needs to go into an application. It’s definitely something anyone can put together with the right knowledge, but you definitely need an attorney to look everything over before you send it off to the government.

A great presentation all around.

The next session was something I’d been looking forward to attending. Building a Brand with Impact was presented by two guys from a creative agency in Denver who had tried their hands at their own agencies and startups over the years. It was great to hear what they had learned over the years, and what they have created at their current agency. They also gave the audience 9 tips for creating a lasting brand:

  1. Define your purpose: What do you stand for?
  2. Create a simple anthem that passionately opens the door to your story.
  3. Tell emotionally intelligent stories: It’s not about facts; it’s about feelings sometimes.
  4. Know thy enemy: Great brands have something to root for, and against.
  5. Really get to know your audience. You can’t perfect the customer experience if you don’t know them.
  6. Create a company culture that passionately welcomes new ideas. It starts at the top, and it also starts at the bottom.
  7. Know what you are selling, because it’s not just your product.
  8. Find your competitive gap: that space your competition isn’t addressing well.
  9. Know your power of why: it will make your “what” and “how” much stronger.

I also managed to win a book just by sitting in the right place in the room. There were cards under several chairs, and if you wound up with a card under your chair, you got a book. Not too bad for 90 minutes of work.

The Ibotta cafetorium.

Next, a panel of experts presented Most Product Ideas Don’t Work. Again, most of the comments had to do with customer discovery. Not performing customer discovery, even after shipping an iteration of your product, can kill a startup. Just because you can build it, doesn’t mean that anyone wants to buy it. Basically, this was Startup 101. Also, collect data starting at the beginning; because it takes way more effort to add it in later than it does to build it as part of the first and subsequent releases.

Rule #1: You are wrong!

After a quick lunch, I attended a presentation on the Art and Science of Finding Customers, the other presentation that I was really looking forward to attending. The presenter was incredibly engaging, and gave us some of his own rules for finding customers – most importantly, rule number one was “you’re wrong!” Throw all of your expectations about who your customers will be and what they want right out of the window, because they will surprise and probably confuse you. When I got the slide deck later on in the week, I was actually surprised how many slides there were! He moved along really quickly, and didn’t dwell on anything. It was an excellent presentation all around, and a highlight of the week.

To round out the day, I attended the Technology Industry Expert Q&A Panel, complete with a bit of food and drink, and some more networking. The discussion didn’t seem to revolve around technology as much as I thought it would – that was more of the foot in the door for successful entrepreneurs to talk about what it was like building their businesses. The great thing about this panel is that they mostly took questions from the audience, as opposed to other panels during the week monopolized by the moderator. This was a great way to end the long day of presentations and panels on Tuesday, and it really got me thinking about what I could do to use technology to improve what I’m offering from my freelance media production house. After the panel, I walked back to my hotel room and was asleep about 20 minutes later.

After a solid night of sleep, 1 Million Cups started the day on Wednesday, as it does nearly every week back home. It’s actually been really fun going to different 1 Million Cups locations to see how different cities approach the format. Denver’s format followed the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City format – 6 minutes for the pitch, and about 10-12 minutes of questions from the audience. However, instead of the usual 2 pitches, they had three presenters in order to fill an entire 90 minute Denver Startup Week slot. The theme of all three presentations was “makers in fashion,” and any of the three presentations could have just as easily been given in Iowa City. It’s interesting that I keep ending up crossing paths with fashion designers, given I have no fashion sense whatsoever. I guess there’s a decent amount of overlap between that industry and entrepreneurship. The questions seemed to be a bit more rapid-fire than the other locations I’ve been to – perhaps the audience is more skilled at moving things along, due to the size of the entrepreneurial ecosystem there.

After the conclusion of 1 Million Cups, I attended the Pros and Cons of Bootstrapping, which was an incredibly informative panel that featured several successful entrepreneurs who had shied away from angel investors and venture capital to build their businesses. I didn’t realize that one-third of entrepreneurs plan to fund their own businesses through bootstrapping, and four out of every ten businesses use Small Business Administration loans or other credit to get the business going. I don’t know if I consider bank loans as bootstrapping, but I guess the definition they were using was “anything not funded by equity investors.” Even with this definition, one of the entrepreneurs talked about using a convertible note, a vehicle with which investors buy into a company. If anything, I think we need a better definition of what is bootstrapped and what is not.

Of all the sessions I attended, Power of the Personal Network was probably the least useful. It felt more like a course for people who don’t know how to put themselves out there to meet new people and generate new business. I was under the impression that we were going to have a chance to connect with others attending the session, but that wasn’t the case. I can understand why this information would be important to introverts and others not normally inclined to get out there and talk with strangers, but I’ve spent the better part of three years building my brand and my businesses through networking. I’ve yet to spend a dime on advertising – all of my clients have, through one way or another, found me through people I’ve met in the community.

It was a quick elevator ride for such a tall building.

I left the previous session on networking a bit early so I could be a few minutes early to Going Up?, an elevator pitch competition in an actual elevator! This is only the second elevator pitch competition in which I’ve competed – the other was back in April at the Young Entrepreneur Convention, when we were still known as Sexy Life. I didn’t place in the top three, but I did well among the judges. They had someone recording all of the pitches, but I’m not sure who to reach out to in order to find the recordings – I’d love to see how I did after the fact. All in all, it was a great learning experience in an awesome environment.

Miller Lite: Tap the Future Presents Business and Beer was next on the agenda, and was a great opportunity to meet more people with who I hadn’t yet connected at other events during the week. However, it seemed like networking was cut way short so that they could have a panel discussion in the middle of the program. The way the session was advertised, it seemed like it was going to be a social event, not a panel discussion with a bit of food and drink along the lines of the Technology Expert Q&A Panel the day before. The emcee was really terrible, and I didn’t really care to stick around for a Q&A panel without any actual Q&A. I wound up going back to my hotel and having dinner in the restaurant on the main floor.

After dinner, I took a long walk from my hotel to the Pon Pon Bar for the Designer Track Nightcap. I had put all three nightcaps on my schedule, not knowing if I’d want to go Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. I was so exhausted both Monday and Tuesday that I didn’t want to make the trip from the hotel to the bar. However, I thought I should make an appearance on the last night they were offering the opportunity, just to see if I’d run into anyone I’d met during the week. I did end up meeting a few people who I’d talked to during the Union Station party on Monday evening, and we got to talk about what we’d learned during the week. Once the tab paid for by the organizers had been closed, I thought it would be a good time to head back to the hotel room for at least a few hours of sleep, since I’d be trying to sleep on a train in 24 hours’ time. It was a cold, drizzly walk back to the room.  However, the walk was actually really refreshing and allowed me some time to think about what I’d absorbed over the prior three days.

Thursday was a short day, since I was catching the train back to Iowa and had quite a bit of work to do before I had spotty Internet coverage on my phone.  Structuring Equity in Your Startup was the first of two sessions I really wanted to attend that morning, and it was incredibly informative. The presenters were nice enough to send out the slides after the fact, since the presentation was loaded with technical terms I’d not heard previously. I forwarded the handouts on to the rest of Team BondingBox, so they could share in what I’d learned during the two hours.

Luckily, nobody was hit with a steel chair, though there were several available.

After the founder equity talk was over, I made my way over to the Denver Startup Week Basecamp in order to attend the SBA Session with Director Linda McMahon. The Small Business Administration is one of the lifelines entrepreneurs have in funding their new businesses, and it’s something I wanted a bit more information about, as I grow my projects. I learned a bit about what the agency does during the hour, and I’m glad I was able to make it over to Basecamp for the presentation. Of course, the moderator had to ask a couple of questions about McMahon’s past life, behind the scenes in professional wrestling.

Before I left Basecamp, I was able to meet with Jordan, the regional manager for Startup Weekend, and met a potential facilitator for future Startup Weekends in eastern Iowa. We discussed a variety of topics and had a bit of lunch together. Jordan had to leave to attend another presentation, and I wanted to get over to Union Station to grab a table and get a bit of work done. I knew the train was going to be rather late, and cell coverage is incredibly spotty in parts of the route between Denver and Mount Pleasant.

Eastbound train backing into the station, around 11 pm local time.

The train heading back east toward Iowa and toward Startup Weekend Fairfield didn’t leave Denver until after 11 pm local time – normally it leaves around 6 or 7 pm, but the Union Pacific railroad was doing some major track work in the mountains. That meant that the California Zephyr had to reroute to the next closest east-west line.

The next closest line goes through Wyoming. Check out a map – Denver’s a lot farther from Wyoming than you’d think.

The sun came up before we got to Lincoln, Nebraska. At that point, I got up, went to the dining car for a solid breakfast, and was in the observation car working on my laptop by the time the train arrived in Omaha. I did get back to Mount Pleasant around 2 pm on Friday, and that gave me plenty of time to get over to Fairfield. I’ll talk about Startup Weekend Fairfield, give you some big news on BondingBox, a little bit of news on Cider Finder, and what’s going on with Startup Weekend Iowa City in the next post.