Sustainable Families, Subscription Sales, and Shutting Down to Retool

I left off in my last post arriving back in Mount Pleasant around 2 pm on Friday, just a few hours before the start of Startup Weekend Fairfield. My truck had been sitting there at the Amtrak station for a week, and it was toasty inside when I opened the back window to put away my luggage. Fairfield’s only about half an hour west of Mount Pleasant, so I started up my truck and began down Highway 34.

I stopped by the ffCoLab to meet Kevin, one of my fellow Cider Finder cofounders, so I could get into the house where I’d be staying for the weekend. After traveling on the train, I always feel like I need a shower – you get a bit stinky sleeping in your clothes, sitting in coach. I like to call it “grand funk railroad.” After taking a shower and changing into some clean clothes, I felt much better. I drove back to the colab for the beginning of Startup Weekend Fairfield.

There was a decent turnout for the weekend for the size of Fairfield – probably about 20 people, with 15 or so staying for the weekend. Four teams ended up forming around some pretty awesome ideas. Nearly all of the 20 attendees got up and pitched some kind of idea during the idea storm on Friday evening. I pitched something along the line of Blue Apron, but with a different country’s cuisine each month – something I may pitching again at another Startup Weekend, since it wasn’t picked as one of the ideas to move forward. Although, if I start another startup, my wife may kill me.

Sustainable Families was the name of the team I ended up joining. The other three teams seemed like great ideas, but I hadn’t ever been on a team proposing a non-profit during one of these events. This was the most transient team I’d ever worked on as well. Some of the team members really didn’t seem to get the memo that you’re supposed to work on the project all weekend, and not just pop in and out over the course of the 54 hours. The source of the idea and I put the most work into the project, and Lee jumped on our team during the weekend, since a couple of our teammates flaked out. I built the slide deck and Web site, created all of the social media accounts for the project, and did all of the administrative stuff during the weekend.

Hours of footage recorded, hours of videos exported.

I’ve been in a video editing hole the last couple of weeks, and I came up for air long enough to post this update – I’ve posted over a dozen videos since the last update at the beginning of October between my YouTube channel and the BondingBox channel. I finished the polished video of Startup Weekend Fairfield’s pitch day last week. I also broadcast the proceedings on Periscope – check out the archived version here. Sustainable Families won crowd favorite, but the judges didn’t seem to like that we were proposing a non-profit… even though we demonstrated a need for the project and several revenue streams to fund the project. That was really frustrating. However, the weekend was a lot of fun overall.

Ian, Mark, and I made our way back to Iowa City after everything wrapped up for the evening. We were supposed to have our own Startup Weekend two weeks after Fairfield’s event, but we had to pull the plug on the event. We are going to have a planning team dinner in the next couple of weeks to go over a laundry list of problems that led to Startup Weekend Iowa City’s cancellation. Here’s my running list of why our event failed:

  • The planning committee was overcommitted. This is a bit of an understatement – we were really overcommitted. Between David, Ian, and myself, we had over a dozen different projects going on in addition to Startup Weekend Iowa City. This led to trouble just getting committee meetings scheduled and executed. We really weren’t able to allocate enough time to the cause, and it hurt us. Also, some committee members, for various reasons, either had to leave the committee temporarily or just quit responding to e-mails. Our organizing committee needs to either be larger next time, so that things are better covered, or we need some sort of commitment to a certain number of hours of work.
  • Lack of community support. MERGE was the lone exception here – we had trouble getting community organizations and businesses involved. However, I don’t know if it was as much of them not wanting to get involved, as it was poor outreach on our part. Nobody really led the march in this department, and our development team dropped off the map during the process.
  • Didn’t get the message out there well enough or soon enough. I feel like this was definitely my fault – some people knew about the event, and I announced it at several different entrepreneurial events. However, as I thought more about it, perhaps I was asking the same people repeatedly, rather than getting the message to a wider audience who might actually attend.
  • Startup burnout in the community. Have we finally reached startup saturation in eastern Iowa? Between Iowa City Open Coffee and Startup Weekend Iowa City, we used to have a decent crowd of local entrepreneurs willing to show up for events. Lately, it’s been a major struggle to get people to attend events beyond those at the end of the workday. My new working theory is that our local entrepreneurial community has all found something to do, and we’re wasting our breath repeatedly telling them about local events. We need to figure out new adjacent audiences to target, or find ways to reach out to people who have not found their calling yet.
  • Working with Techstars felt a like a massive obstacle. It took forever to get a meeting with them at the beginning of the planning process. It took forever to get the keys to the ticketing page and community page. It took forever to get the page published. By then, it was too late to drum up enough ticket sales to make the weekend happen. The lesson learned here is that you have to do everything you can to have things in place before you start dealing with Techstars – basically just deal with them enough to be a “sanctioned event” with ticket sales, and to appear on their calendar.
  • Overlap with Iowa Startup Games. The university has basically cloned the Startup Weekend concept exclusively for students and gives away cash prizes. We can’t compete directly with this, and it limits our calendar significantly if we want to bring any sort of student participation into the mix. Either we move our event to the summer, or figure out a way to exist without university student participation.
  • Horrible time of year to have a Startup Weekend. Don’t try to have an event in the middle of high school and college football season. We thought that the weekend before Thanksgiving was a bad time to try to have the event, so we moved it earlier in the semester to the weekend the Hawkeyes didn’t play. In our outreach to previous attendees, our biggest competition seemed to be people not wanting to miss local high school football games across the state. This essentially relegates us back to the weekend before Thanksgiving, or late August if we want to have a fall semester event. We’re not going to try for something between Thanksgiving and Christmas – I personally don’t schedule anything during the holidays, and we’d have even more difficulty getting attendees if we tried.

So, what are we going to do next year? Are we going to plan SWIC 2018? Should we plan something similar, but with a broader focus – a judged hackathon or an arts/maker/business weekend, perhaps? This is where you, the reader, come into play. We want to talk with people in and around eastern Iowa – a bit of customer discovery to see if our assumptions are correct as to why SWIC 2017 didn’t launch. I’m going to be contacting some people over the next few weeks who want an event like this, and other people who have attended SWIC or SWCR in the past, but weren’t willing to put down the money or devote the time to our event this year.

If you want to help with the event next year, or just want to contribute some ideas, please get in touch with me if I don’t contact you first.

To make matters worse, I was planning to attend Startup Weekend Cedar Valley after we pulled the plug on SWIC. My digestive system decided that I needed a weekend off – my wife, kids, and I contracted some kind of digestive distress the week leading up to the 13th of October, leading to a lot of sleepless nights in the bathroom. Maybe this was the ultimate sign that SWIC was not meant to be this year. Out of our entire planning committee, Mark was the only one able to attend SWCV. He took our in-kind sponsor donations up north to Cedar Falls. A lot of it was food, and we didn’t want those goods to expire and have to be pitched before the next Startup Weekend event in the area. I’m still waiting to hear back from him about how that event went, and whether or not he and his team won anything.

In better news, BondingBox has finally made a couple of sales, both one-time and monthly subscriptions! Over the last month, we’ve continued doing outreach through 1 Million Cups events. On October 11, I traveled to Rockford, Illinois, to their event in the central business district. They haven’t been running 1 Million Cups there as long as some of the locations in Iowa, and the organizers were still working on getting local business owners to participate and attend. David and I made the trip to Cedar Falls on November 1 to present at 1 Million Cups there, which just happened to be the 3-year anniversary of 1MC in that location. Traveling throughout the Midwest to the different 1 Million Cups locations has been a lot of fun over the last couple of months, as each location takes the basic premise of the program and puts their own spin on what 1 Million Cups should be as a part of their community.

Now that I’ve finished driving all over the place, we’re going to focus on online outreach over the next month. David’s wife Robyn has joined our team and has taken on some of the communications and outreach that David and I were doing before, like the newsletter and the social media accounts. In the next week, we’re going to get our Facebook and Google ads put together and launched, and we will start reaching out to online influencers, bloggers, podcasters, and journalists in an effort to get on their radars and calendars. Also, I have a stack of business cards from my travels that require follow-up. In a way, I’m glad that I’m done with almost all of my travel for the year – we may attend the Venture School Surge Summit on December 1, but it’s not set in stone yet. I have a huge pile of stuff to go through in my office that requires follow-up or reconnection, some of it dating back to my trip to Des Moines in April.

Besides traveling and presenting, I also helped out with some mentoring at this fall’s Iowa Startup Games – basically Startup Weekend for university students. I’ve helped out with mentoring the last couple of semesters, and they asked me back for another weekend. I feel like I did some good, and some of the students who participated in the weekend have added me on LinkedIn. Some great new ideas came out of the weekend, and I’m hoping that the teams that did well continue on over the course of the next few months, and possibly are part of the JPEC Student Accelerator next summer.

During the weekend, I found that most of the questions I ended up answering were less about Web design and video production – my freelancing skills – and more about what I’ve done over the last couple of years to build BondingBox – customer discovery, the mechanics of a Startup Weekend, and tips on pitching. As I’ve started to lay out my goals for 2018, one of the things I should concentrate on is updating my “official skill set” as a freelancer to include the things I’ve learned as an entrepreneur over the last two years. I’ve done quite a few pitches, not only for BondingBox, but also for the other Startup Weekend projects on which I’ve been involved. Thinking about it more deeply, I basically coached Rachel on presenting Sustainable Families, and I have an entire collection of Startup Weekend pitch decks that I end up sharing at each weekend I attend. It’s time to update my portfolio and LinkedIn to reflect this – add another thing to the to-do list for early 2018.

I’m hoping to post again before the end of November. Luckily, I’ve just about finished all of the video projects I’ve taken on this year. I have another batch of videos that I’m finishing in the next week or so – keep an eye on the BondingBox Facebook page and my YouTube channel for those. Also, if you made it to the end of this post, I’d really like to hear your opinions on what we should do about Startup Weekend Iowa City in 2018. I’d really like for it to happen, but the organizing committee could really use your input. Shoot me an e-mail or a tweet, and let’s talk.

I hope all of you are hanging in there and staying warm, as fall seems to be quickly transitioning into winter here in eastern Iowa. The forecasters are talking about a cold winter this year – good for someone who needs to get a lot done around the house and in the home office this winter. Stay in touch, and we’ll talk again soon.