Last year at a Startup Weekend, I was introduced to the most amazing six-year-old entrepreneur, Ashwin. We worked together on his product, Gap Tooth Stickers. After I wrote about it here on the blog, the story blew up, and Ashwin became a bit of a celebrity-news appearances, and calls from Shark Tank and national talk shows. Personally, I got emails from folks inside of Google, all the way to entrepreneurs from the UK and China. It was pretty incredible.
So when Ashwin's mother reached out to ask me to be a mentor at the first-ever Startup Weekend: Youth Edition, I jumped at the chance.
On Saturday, I headed down to City Hall, not really knowing what to expect. Circumstances had kept me from catching up with the organizers of the event, so I was going in blind. I had a rough idea of the day's format, but I figured my job was to show up, drink some coffee, and watch some kids bounce around some wacky ideas for a few hours.
Boy, was I wrong.
The idea of SWYE was to give the kids a compressed Startup Weekend experience along with a few improv sessions to spark their imagination and some group discussions with some entrepreneurs. We quickly learned that wasn't going to fly-these kids were here to work.
After initial introductions and a brief keynote, we began asking the entrepreneurs for business ideas. Some of them were silly (Yelp for restrooms), some of them were incredible (a deep sea diving apparatus to test lava from the center of the earth), and some of them were blindingly how-is-this-not-already-a-thing obvious (a stock market geared to kids). Some of them were feasible businesses, and some of them weren't, but all of them were easily as good as anything I've seen pitched at a "normal" Startup Weekend.
The great thing about kids is they don't let their imaginations get shackled by the limitations of the real world. A lot of the ideas came from places adults wouldn't consider-one young girl pitched an idea of an app that enables latchkey kids to check in with their parents when they're headed home from school. A team of teenage boys pitched an ink that disappears over time so that their textbooks wouldn't be ruined. A rather brilliant 11-year old girl pitched an idea to make remembering your tests and study groups easier, and came ready to code the thing herself. Ashwin pitched an idea of a video game that teaches kids how to make video games, complete with a sketch of the interface. Any of those ideas would fit in at an "adult" Startup Weekend, but not many of those would have come from the minds of adults.
The entrepreneurs split into teams, and again, there was some concern that the kids might not work well together, or be shy, or get upset that their idea wasn't choses, or would let one strong personality take over the group. But just about none of that happened. The kids worked well together. Kids who came in a group welcomed new kids into the group, and the older kids didn't overpower the younger kids. There weren’t any cliques, or any “cool group”, as far as I could tell. They all came together with the singular goal of working on a common goal. Quite frankly, we adults could learn a lot from them.
I wound up working primarily with two teams; in the morning, I worked with Magink, a temporary ink that fades over time. The idea came from two teenagers, Chris and Blake*, who were frustrated that after spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks (they have to pay for them now! In middle school!), that the value of them plummets at the end of the year if they write in them. And the administration frowns on them selling their books to other students. Their idea was to create, patent, and sell an ink that would automatically fade to blank at three-, six-, or nine-month intervals. The use cases quickly grew beyond teenage notetakers, and we realized that while we had a pretty broad market, it would be best to focus on the use case that Chris and Blake were the most comfortable. I worked primarily with them on their final pitch, but the younger entrepreneurs jumped right in and chipped in to help define their problem, detail their solutions, and validate their assumptions. I even helped two of the girls, Nina and Alicia, come up with ideas for their logo. It was pretty amazing to watch.
The second team presented an interesting challenge. I found myself staring down an unexpected foe-one that would challenge every fiber of my being. A foe that would question every core belief I’ve made in my fourteen-year career.
StudyBuddy is an Evernote-lite, note-taking app for students. It would enable students to record their classes, and add bookmarks and footnotes that are tied to the timecode. Their goal was to build a lean, focused note-taking app that did one thing, and one thing well. Early in the afternoon, it seemed like we wouldn’t get to this point-these were five preteen girls who spent the first hour bickering, and there was one preteen, Ellie, who was clearly more advanced than the others, and had no problems letting everyone-including me-know it. We weren’t getting anywhere-it was starting to remind me of my first Startup Weekend experience. The other girls were getting frustrated, myself and the other mentor were getting frustrated, and, perhaps by divine intervention, everyone took a break.
While I was working with another team, one of the girls came up to me, and asked me a question. Then another one. Then before I knew it, the five of us and I were just talking, and I found out a little about them. April was shy, but she liked to draw. Sara liked to dance. Ellie was quite the little mastermind with coding Java and HTML, a feat I remain completely impressed by, as I can’t code my way out of a paper bag. Once we started communicating, the girls got super engaged, and things started progressing quickly. I quickly tasked the girls with duties-Ellie, now our CTO, started writing out the code for our website (by hand. Really). I named April our Creative Director, and she wrote it down on her piece of paper, and looked up at me with the biggest smile I’d seen all day, one that will probably melt my heart whenever I think about it the rest of my career. Stephanie pitched the original idea, so she was our CEO. Brynn spent the day figuring out pricing, so she was our COO. And Sara? She had the most important role of all-Chief Dance Officer. And she owned it.
All in all, it was a pretty amazing day. I got to spend some time with Ashwin, who now insists I call him Boss, and who proudly calls me his first employee. Although I think my main job is resetting his digital watch every time he messes it up. I got to work with some outstanding young entrepreneurs, who inspired me to look at my career with fresh eyes. I’m thankful to the organizers for putting it together, and humbled that they saw me as someone who could provide guidance and mentorship to this group of extraordinary young entrepreneurs. I can’t wait for the next one.
(*Names changed to protect the underaged.)