It’s amazing how much can happen in a year. I am an interaction designer by trade and an entrepreneur at heart. I’ve carried several titles this past year—Senior Designer at Eaton, Cofounder and CEO of Spacefinity, and currently, Cofounder and Technology Lead at Roket.
A year ago, I was leading a team of over forty engineers to solve complex product-development and user-experience problems within the electrical sector at Eaton. I enjoyed the responsibilities. Eaton was my first “corporate” job. The friends I made and the lessons I learned made up for the business casual attire I was forced to wear and the grueling daily commute. Although I enjoyed my role at Eaton, I was always on the lookout for my next challenge.
Steel City Codefest, a collaborative app building event, was my first hackathon. Eaton encouraged us to take a swing at building something around power management, so they covered our event fees. It was an intensively collaborative weekend camped out in Google’s offices. When the dust settled, our power monitoring awareness app, Enlightened, won. Maybe it was the twenty-four hours without sleep or the gallons of coffee, but it was exhilarating. In the days that followed, there was some discussion at Eaton about creating a “Shark Tank” for new ideas within the company. It would allow us to continue our work on the app while keeping our jobs. Unfortunately, the concept didn’t materialize, leaving our little app orphaned.
The Codefest was another great opportunity, but there was an even bigger one on the horizon—Startup Weekend. My goal for the event was simple: get over my fear of public speaking and build something cool in another hectic weekend. I prepared for a month, maybe two. I had an extensive spreadsheet filled with ideas. It was difficult, but I narrowed it down one—an online marketplace for self-storage.
Every day for a month leading to the weekend, I recited my sixty-second pitch again and again during my commute. I was going to nail that pitch and get over my fear of public speaking. By the end, I could recite that thing in my sleep. Finally, the weekend arrived, and the pitch went perfectly. Spacefinity was selected to move forward. We formed into teams and got to work validating our concept. Sunday night, pitch night, came quickly. In a scramble, we pieced together our pitch deck. The pitch went far better than I expected. We nabbed second place. And we built something cool. Mission accomplished.
- Have a great team. Team formation happens quickly. Make sure you have a business person, a marketer, a developer, and a designer. Each role is critical.
- Build an MVP. Without a rigid focus on a minimum viable product, your little idea can grow out of control. Focus on the pain points you’re solving for and ditch the rest.
- Tell a story. Capture your audience within the first ten seconds of your pitch with a story that everyone can relate to. It should involve a real customer, a genuine pain point, or an interesting metric. Use images or syncing messages in your slides. Limit the text.
- Practice the pitch. That pitch is everything. Sell the audience your vision. I spent hours and hours practicing the final pitch. I knew I had it when I nailed it without the slides. Don’t rely on your presentation to feed you your pitch.
Startup Weekend came and went in a blink of an eye. The team applied to Alphalab, a Pittsburgh startup accelerator, and was accepted. All of a sudden, that one-line idea in my spreadsheet became a real business. This was going to require my total focus, so I quit my job at Eaton.
Alphalab was an amazing experience. The wealth of knowledge I gained and the people I met provided me with opportunities that were unmatched by any others in Pittsburgh. The business grew a ton during those short twenty weeks. We had a real product, with real users. Spacefinity had everything from a walk-in closet to a garage down the street, and even an airplane hangar. It was quite humbling to watch it grow. I can’t thank my cofounders enough for the hard work it took to make it a reality.
It was Thursday evening after a long day. It was finally time relax, have a beer, and watch TV. It was right around ten o’clock when I received an email from Greylock Partners, a venture capital firm in San Francisco. I was invited to present an in-person pitch for feedback—at two o’clock the next afternoon. Remember when I said you should constantly practice the pitch for Startup Weekend? At that moment, I was thankful for all that practice. So, there I went. Plane ticket purchased, laundry started, and nerves on edge. With two hours of sleep, I was practicing my pitch on the plane, flying to a place I’d never been, about to present to a leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
The pitch went well. The Valley has a far different perspective on startups than is found in Pittsburgh. The firm’s feedback focused on increasing our raise size, defining unique success metrics and of course, moving out west. It was humbling to hear Greylock casually compare us to one of their portfolio companies, Airbnb. They mentioned Airbnb used real photos of spaces in their original pitch, and urged us to do the same.
This surreal opportunity would have never happened if our team wasn’t actively making it happen. We applied for the opportunity. Only five companies across the country were chosen. It was a great ride and well worth all the effort.
Startups are part of my DNA. They have played a primary role in my career. This leads me to my next company—Roket. Yes, it’s missing a letter.
David Crawford and myself founded the consulting firm in Pittsburgh as two leading product-design and brand-development experts. As entrepreneurs, we get excited about helping startups grow. And with more than twenty years of combined experience, we can provide support at any stage in the startup lifecycle—from ideation to acquisition. Our partnerships produce smart products, desirable brands, and memorable experiences for startups in Pittsburgh and beyond.
You never quite know what’s next when you’re hustling in a startup. In the morning you may be celebrating a small victory, but by lunch you’re crushed by a single email. It’s a roller coaster, but it sure is fun. The only way you get these chances is to get out there and make that pitch, have that meeting, or show up at that event.