The final four are just the beginning: Rochester’s first Youth Startup Weekend cultivates youthful enthusiasm for entrepreneurship

During the third weekend of March, Rochester teens had an exciting opportunity to learn entrepreneurial skills and to become part of the Startup Weekend global phenomenon by creating and pitching their own startups. The ultimate goal was for each team to develop a fledgling startup with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), or be on track to produce one, by the end of the 54-hour competition.

Despite hectic student schedules and a late-season snow, eager teens gathered at University Center Rochester on Friday evening, March 18th, for Rochester’s very first Youth Startup Weekend. From the initial pitch session and team formation through Sunday afternoon’s final pitch competition, the young participants were stretched and challenged, actively learning important entrepreneurial concepts and skills through the Startup Weekend format of collaboration, adaptation, and rapid iteration based on customer feedback.

Opening Night: Initial Pitches and Team Formation

Startup Weekends are fast-paced, immersive experiences—this one was no exception. Lessons in key entrepreneurial principles began immediately, even before the initial pitch round.

After explaining the key concept of a MVP—the simplest version of a startup’s product or service that still delivers its core functionality to the customer—emcee Michael Norton introduced the teens to the anatomy and art of the pitch. The teens then participated in a rapid-fire group brainstorming and pitching activity to get their creative juices flowing.

Next, the initial pitch round kicked off the 54-hour countdown.

Teen participants had sixty seconds to pitch their ideas to peers. In addition to identifying a problem and proposing a solution, each pitcher explained to the group why his or her particular solution was unique and what kind of team and skills would be needed to build that solution. Individual participants pitched fourteen ideas in all, after which all the participants voted to determine which ideas would move forward.

Teen participants were instructed to vote not by choosing which ideas they thought were the best in the abstract, but instead by choosing the three projects that they most wanted to work on during the weekend. That self-selecting process emphasized the concept of “Team >> Idea”—that having a strong team excited to work on a project is a better driver for a startup’s success than is an idea by itself.

Final Pitch Competition

The fast-paced weekend culminated Sunday afternoon with a Shark Tank-style pitch competition. The four teams pitching were DyverseUniverse, Smashoid, VolunTappr, and CampStarter.

Smashoid’s “fun and feverish” mobile game Dot Smash targeted socially connected entertainment. Each of the other three teams, however, created a tech-based platform or tool for fostering and strengthening real-life community connections. DyverseUniverse pitched a non-profit diversity outreach organization targeted to middle schoolers. VolunTappr pitched an app to connect volunteers with fellow community members or organizations in need of assistance. CampStarter pitched a website through which teens could share skills and interests by organizing their own summer camps.

Judging and Awards

The judges were local experts Emily Benner, Senior Vice President of Research and Product Development at Preventice Solutions; Dr. Mustaqeem Siddiqui, a Mayo Clinic physician and a Medical Director with Mayo’s Global Business Systems division; and Andrew Danielsen, Director of Business Development at Mayo Clinic Ventures.

The judging criteria consisted of three key elements for entrepreneurial progress: customer validation, MVP design and execution, and business model development.

Although the judges acknowledged the teens’ relative inexperience, their questions probed how well each team had practiced those three entrepreneurial elements while refining its initial startup idea and developing its MVP.

The judges’ questions themselves were important learning experiences for each team. In particular, the judges emphasized the importance of developing a clearly defined value proposition, identifying a customer base, obtaining useful feedback, differentiating oneself from competitors, and, of course, generating revenue.

The judges presented four awards, one for excellence in each of the three categories and an overall grand prize.

DyverseUniverse was recognized for Excellence in Customer Validation, Smashoid for Excellence in Business Model, and CampStarter for Excellence in MVP Design.

VolunTappr won the grand prize for overall excellence.

In addition to the public recognition, VolunTappr’s prizes include a legal consultation from Rochester law firm Dunlap & Seeger and the opportunity to interview for a Techstars++ residency. Now rebranded as Volunteerium, the all-female team is developing their app further in order to enter Technovation[MN]’s upcoming Appapalooza pitch competition.

Promoting an entrepreneurship culture in Rochester and Southeast MN

Perhaps the most exciting moment of all came Sunday afternoon when emcee Michael Norton asked, “who learned something new this weekend?” Both the student participants and the adult mentors raised their hands.

The Rochester Youth Startup Weekend organizers hope that the enthusiasm sparked by this exciting and successful event will generate additional momentum for holding a second Startup Weekend in November 2016, open to participants of all ages from Rochester and Southeast Minnesota.

By making Rochester’s Youth Startup Weekend a reality, these eager teens have gained extremely valuable new skills, self-knowledge, and a growing entrepreneurial mindset that they can apply in all areas of their lives—and of course we hope that some of these exciting projects will continue.

The teen participants also showed the adults that it’s possible to take the risk of giving ideas a chance to grow!