The Bar is Set Too Damn High

Well, I meant to write a blog post before December 1, but things haven’t slowed down the way I planned over the last few weeks. It has been nice not traveling as much as I have the last few months, but I didn’t anticipate the waves of head colds and other respiratory viruses that have swept through out household as the fall has progressed. Since I got back from Denver at the beginning of October, someone in our house has had some sort of cold or flu-like illness, and I’ve been no exception. I’m currently writing this post in a head cold haze – possibly child-induced, or possibly picked up at one of the events I’ve attended in the last week and a half.

In a way, I’m glad I waited until now to write something. November was a relatively calm month, mostly spent working on BondingBox, Cider Finder, picking up the pieces from the fallout caused by canceling Startup Weekend Iowa City 2017, and cleaning up my home office. The home office, for the last two years or so, has functioned mostly as a pile of “things I’ll get to when I have a chance.” I’ve started a lot of different projects and have a lot of unfinished work left over. Cleaning the space has, as times, felt like a bit of an archaeological dig, and has helped me start to put together my end-of-year post, to be released on New Year’s Eve. It’s remarkable to see the progress over the last year on my projects. However, the amount of work left to do is slightly daunting.

I’m taking a little bit of comfort in the fact that my calendar is about 98% set for 2018. I’ll be going to three major entrepreneurial events: the Young Entrepreneur Convention in Des Moines, April 20 and 21; EntreFest, May 17 and 18; and Denver Startup Week, September 24 through 28. I might be pitching BondingBox at a few more 1 Million Cups locations, depending on the traction we get over the next few months. At most, those would be overnight trips. The rest of my time will be spent working on Iowa City Open Coffee, Startup Weekend Iowa City, and my businesses.

I doubt I’ll be participating in any pitch competitions in 2018 after our experience at the Venture School Surge Summit back on December 1. The event itself was a lot of fun, and the office hours with mentors were incredibly informative. However, things started to go sideways during the alumni pitch competition. I was the first person up to pitch, as seems to be the case each time BondingBox enters one of these competitions. The two pitches after ours were other alumni who seemed from their pitches as though they were about as far along gaining customers are we are, if not a bit earlier in the process. Then, the Tree Pans team pitched – this is something like the third or fourth time they’ve pitched at a Surge Summit, and they are profitable at this point, so I’m not sure why they keep coming back to compete for $3000. The fifth and sixth teams to pitch, UpCraftClub and GermBot, were also companies making a profit already and had been part of the “expert panel” during the lunch break.

At this point, we knew the fix was in. We were competing against already profitable companies for $3000 – companies making that much monthly, if not weekly. This is why they couldn’t fill the 15 slots for companies to compete at the Surge Summit, and we just couldn’t see the writing on the wall.

If the bar has been raised that high to win one of these competitions, we’re not going to take part in these competitions anymore. I guess we will wait until we’re bringing in tens of thousands of dollars a month before we beat early-stage companies for a few hundred dollars of prize money, to “help pay for a patent.”

I really don’t like to go negative about other entrepreneurs on this blog. As an ecosystem, I feel like we need to stick together in order to compete with larger, more mature ecosystems, or in the very least to keep budding entrepreneurs from leaving the Midwest to chase some fantasy on one of the coasts. I don’t want to lump the GermBot guys in with the Tree Pans team or the founder of UpCraftClub. One of the two guys from GermBot came over to us while the judges were “deciding who won” and we had a great conversation about how we could better reach our audience. However, there are people involved in that competition, both organizers and participants, who need to take a bit of time and reflect on what happened that afternoon.

This isn’t the only nonsense of this sort that’s happened during one of these competitions, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We lost to the same team twice earlier this year who showed up late and missed their slot in two separate competitions, but the organizers both times just added them on to the end of the competition instead of disqualifying them. We were excluded from another competition, from what I could tell, because we weren’t a client of the organizing committee. We had our paperwork in well before the original deadline. They didn’t have enough teams registered before the original deadline, so they extended the deadline. We then were excluded in lieu of teams who weren’t any further along than we were at the time, but were clients of the conference organizers.

When these organizers start sticking to the rules and deadlines they publish, we will start competing again. There’s no point in wasting our time with this when we’re up against this level of bullshittery.

Side note: the seemingly fairest competition in which I’ve participated this year wasn’t even in the state of Iowa – it was the elevator pitch competition during Denver Startup Week. Believe it or not, when you lay out rules ahead of time, actually adhere to those rules during the competition, and provide feedback immediately after the fact, your participants appreciate it and the competition goes very smoothly. Win or lose, you actually feel like you gain something from the experience.

We did win “judge’s choice” – basically fourth place, since we were the only team that showed traction, but weren’t profitable yet – and a $500 prize. It was a weird ending to a weird afternoon – really, a weird ending to a weird year of pitch competitions. I’m incredibly happy we walked away with something. We’ve put in a lot of work this year, and I think just pitching in front of different 1 Million Cups communities has been the best practice for refining our message. In the coming year, we’re thinking of applying to other 1 Million Cups locations, and depending on the amount of sales we can push out in the next couple of months, we’re thinking of applying to some of the bigger locations in the larger cities. Gaining traction has been our biggest issue over the last few months, and once we get over that hurdle, there’s no stopping us.

When I started cleaning my office, I entered all of the contact information for people I’d reached over the last few months. The list grew to more than 100 names and e-mail addresses before I finished, so we have a list of people who easily could be converted into customers. Before the end of the year, I plan to contact each and every one of those people personally, to see what we need to do to get them over the hurdle and into a BondingBox subscription.

Additionally, at the Iowa Startup Accelerator Launch Day this past Thursday, I was fortunate enough to talk with Matt Patane, the business reporter at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I’m hoping he and I can get together again and talk more about BondingBox, especially when it gets closer to Valentine’s Day. One of the items on my list for BondingBox is to gain more contacts in the media, in order to help spread our message to the masses. Other startups do this, so why shouldn’t we? If we can wind up in a couple of articles, or on a podcast or two, I feel like we will have won a small victory.

With my travel schedule the last few months, I haven’t made it to Cedar Rapids beyond when I presented at 1 Million Cups. It was nice to get up there for the Iowa Startup Accelerator Launch Day. Eyeballing the crowd, I would guess that there were about 150 people in attendance – maybe 200 if you count the NewBoCo folks on stage and behind the curtain. I hadn’t heard much about the teams who had gone through the program this year, and 4 out of the 8 teams from this year’s cohort pitched during the program. A good chunk of the evening was spent talking about the educational programs that they are running out of Cedar Rapids, and what they are doing in corporate innovation.

Part of me worries that they might be spreading themselves too thin. I really hope that I’m wrong about this, and that they meet the ambitious goals they laid out during Launch Day. It would be really cool if they manage to get 100 startups through the Iowa Startup Accelerator per year. However, as I discussed in my previous post and have discussed with some of my fellow entrepreneurs offline, I’m beginning to wonder if “startup burnout” is becoming a reality – that the usual suspects that go to everything entrepreneurial in eastern Iowa are so busy building what they’ve started over the past few years, that there just isn’t enough bandwidth left to expand what exists now. What we need is to draw people from outside the area and to draw people into the ecosystem who haven’t traditionally been invited or interested in what the startup community has been doing. Also, we need to find a way for these new entrepreneurs not only to feel welcome the first time into the system, whether at a Startup Weekend or other event, but feel welcome each time they attend something.

I know that I’m going to try my best to find ways of bringing non-traditional groups of people into the ecosystem. Iowa City Open Coffee and Startup Weekend Iowa City have the lowest barrier of entry to people interested in dipping their proverbial toes into the water. Open Coffee is free and open to everyone, and the SWIC team is going to work as hard as possible to minimize the cost of entry to participants this coming year. We all need to work together to continue growing what we’ve started, and to move outside our bubble.

There’s a great deal of work to be done. My next post will be my traditional end-of-year post, where I recap all of the wins and losses, adventures and excitement of the past twelve months. Going through my 2017 calendar, I filled up an entire piece of paper just writing down all of the events I attended and places I visited. Between traveling for BondingBox and family things this year, I’ve been in three time zones, across six states, from the base of the Rockies over to the central Great Lakes. Depending on the sales for BondingBox and what happens regarding Cider Finder, the net could be cast even wider next year. That’s why I’ll also be putting together a roadmap for 2018 for each of my projects, and I’m going to share some of that with all of you.

Until then, have a wonderful holiday season, and I’ll talk to you again on New Year’s Eve.