By her own admission, Sara Smith was scared. She made her living on Maui in the publishing business, and doing communications for the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, but now she was in Honolulu, surrounded by people she didn’t know. It was 2013, and she had decided to take part in the Honolulu version of Startup Weekend.
“It was terrifying for me personally,” Smith said. “I was an absolute stranger there. But I also had anonymity. I was confident that it would never get back to anyone if I failed.”
Consider Startup Weekend to be a kind of quick incubator for entrepreneurs. It’s a simple idea–get an idea, pay a $99 entry fee, then go into a 54-hour workshop with coders, engineers, developers and mentors who will work on thrashing out that idea, maybe even working to shape it into an actual, viable for-profit company. At the end of the weekend, judges give $50,000 to the event’s best project.
Over the last few years, there have been thousands of these weekend events taking place around the world. Formed in Boulder, Colorado in 2007 by Andrew Hype as a nonprofit, Startup Weekend is today based in Seattle, Washington and is owned by Marc Nager and Clint Nelson. Funders include Coca Cola, Microsoft, Google and the Kauffman Foundation.
“All Startup Weekend events follow the same basic model: anyone is welcome to pitch their startup idea and receive feedback from their peers,” states the Startup Weekend website. “Teams organically form around the top ideas (as determined by popular vote) and then it’s a 54 hour frenzy of business model creation, coding, designing, and market validation. The weekends culminate with presentations in front of local entrepreneurial leaders with another opportunity for critical feedback.”
This year marks the first time Startup Weekend will hold an event on Maui. It runs May 16-18 at the Maui Research and Technology Park (MRTP) in Kihei. When asked why Maui was hosting such an event, Powers said the credit lay with Arben Kryeziu, the CEO of Bump Networks and the co-founder of the startup fund Mbloom (Kryeziu did not return repeated phone calls for this story).
“This is totally due to Arben’s pushing and pushing and pushing,” said Keith Powers, an entrepreneur who’s currently consulting with five startups and will serve as one of four coaches during the Maui Startup Weekend. “He’s helping Maui find its feet in the startup world.”
Given the increasingly computerized nature of today’s world–and the prevalence of technology in the economy’s fastest growing firms–it certainly helps to be a coder or engineer at these events, but it’s certainly not required.
“Everyone has this fantasy idea of starting a company,” said Powers “But most people don’t know how to do it. You’re a smart person, but you might not have the technical skills to code up a proof of concept. So you go through this, get feedback from coaches, and get help putting together a full-blown idea into something you can see, touch and feel.”
That’s what Smith was hoping for last year when she went to Honolulu’s Startup Weekend. “I had been sitting on my idea for years,” Smith said. “I was encouraged by mentors to start talking about it, and Startup Weekend was a good opportunity. I had never done it before, and was blindly going through the weekend. I had no idea what to expect.”
Her idea, though it has a tech component, was as far from designing a fancy new mobile app as you can get.
“You take great patterns and the print them on recyclable newsprint using newspaper presses,” Smith said. “It’s a new twist on wrapping paper, and an answer to getting rid of a lot of needless trash.”
What makes Smith’s idea especially interesting is that it’s scalable. No matter where such a company is located, it would use locally sourced materials and locally available presses. “It’s a local product wherever it goes,” Smith said.
For Smith, going to Startup Weekend played a critical role in turning her idea into an actual company.
“It was a frantic pace,” she said. “Trying to hash it out and get as much accomplished by the end of the weekend.”
Smith said that during the weekend she and her team conducted surveys on her idea, actually purchased a domain name and then built a website. They also fleshed out a revenue model and discussed potential conflicts.
Called Wrappily, Smith’s company uses a different website today than that built during Startup Weekend, but it’s nothing less than her Startup Weekend idea made into a reality. For that reason, she’ll be one of the Maui Startup Weekend coaches this year.
“There are a variety of coaches,” she said. “I’m in the trenches, going through it. On that level, I can provide guidance.”
Smith was able to create Wrappily because Startup Weekends are what Powers calls “focal points”–places where creative people can get together to work out ideas in groups. “You need focal points,” Powers said. “Culturally, for some people, that can be a coffee shop. Other times, you need something more structured like a Startup Weekend or an incubator. This is a very quick way to bring things together.”
In fact, Powers sees the Maui version of Startup Weekend as a sign that the island could grow its own community of startup entrepreneurs, designers and engineers.
“Boulder is a good example,” said Powers. “It took about 10 years for it to become a heavyweight startup sector.” During that time, he said they built an “ecosystem” of engineers, software developers, designers, angel investors and mentors.
“But on Maui, it doesn’t have to take 10 years,” Powers added. “It could take three years. There are already tons of people from the startup world who go there for vacation, and they’d love to find an excuse to work there, too.”
It’s a fascinating idea, but building a tech economy on Maui is an old idea. In fact, you can consider the creation of the Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB) back in 1982 as the island’s first shot at creating jobs that weren’t tourist or agricultural-based (current MEDB President/CEO Jeanne Unemori Skog will also be a Maui Startup Weekend coach). Environmental and funding problems delayed the construction of the Maui Research and Technology Park and the Maui High Performance Computer Center in Kihei a decade.
Still, as Mansel Blackford chronicled in his 2001 book Fragile Paradise: The Impact of Tourism on Maui, 1959-2000, filling the MRTP with tenants was a tough prospect.
“A major challenge lay in the dearth of scientists and technicians,” Blackford wrote. Other problems included the lack of a four-year university and high corporate tax rates. A 1994 report on the development of high-tech industries in Hawaii predicted that it would take “at least another twenty-five to thirty years” before such an economy was fully functional in the state, Blackford reported.
Indeed, it may take even longer. Blackford wrote in his book that in 1998, the MRTP hosted “twenty-some companies and organizations” that employed “about 100 people.” According to the MRTP website today, “approximately 400 people work in the Maui Research & Technology Park at over 20 companies.” It’s a solid, though relatively small, increase in employment, but the number of firms doing technical and engineering work in South Maui hasn’t really changed.
Though the conversion of Maui Community College to a full four-year campus in the University of Hawaii system in 2010 is an improvement, many of those old challenges remain.
“People want to live on Maui, but there are a lot of issues,” Powers said. “Big companies don’t want to build satellite officers there because of the cost, and security, but also because there aren’t enough developers and engineers. If the engineers were there, I think companies would find a way to come.”
Perhaps, but recent studies show that the fastest growing startup communities in the nation are in densely packed urban areas. According to Richard Florida, author of an extensive Mar. 31 study of 13 metro areas for The Atlantic, “start-ups based in these metros accounted for almost three-quarters of venture capital investment in 2011.”
There are a number of reasons for this.
“Firms want access to talent, and talented people like to cluster in dense urban areas with thick labor markets, abundant amenities and services, and a vibrant social life,” wrote Florida. “Density is also much more efficient for young companies who want to rent cheap office space and offer employees access to the amenities like gyms, restaurants, and coffee shops that they’d have to provide for themselves on a suburban campus. And these companies can now thrive in smaller urban spaces, as much of tech is increasingly focused on software, apps, and social media, which do not require large campuses.”
While that’s all true, it’s also undeniable that Maui’s upcoming Startup Weekend would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But today, given the success of people like Smith, the notion of Maui nurturing startups is real.
“Just the fact that this is being done is a success,” Powers said.