LSU Community participates in Startup Weekend

What a way to spend a weekend: Rapid-fire brainstorm sessions; focused research efforts; and learning, learning, learning as members of teams brought together just hours before from among a group of strangers—all of whom arrived hoping to launch their own businesses—develop six focused ideas into viable startup companies.

3D scannerTeam Zipfic worked on an app to allow writers and readers to connect through both classic detective fiction and original short works. Frank McMains

Part of a larger international organization, Startup Weekend Baton Rouge is one event out of many across the nation that gives budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to network with others like themselves, to learn from those who have successfully created their own startups, and possibly to leave with a business already well underway.

From Friday, August 16, through Sunday, August 18, 2013, in Baton Rouge, several volunteers representing a number of organizations, including LSU, worked with six teams of participants to develop ideas for new startup companies. The ideas ranged from a self-help iPhone/smartphone app for people with ADHD to business software to keep attorneys on track with trust fund accounting. Only one team would come away with the grand prize: a marketing and business design package from Reputation Capital Media; a six-month lease at either Springboard Baton Rouge or Tech Park U; a branding package from Catapult Creative Media; printing services from Tri-Star Graphics; legal services from Simmons & White; and an invitation to present in front of potential investors from the South Coast Angel Fund. The total value of this prize package is over $16,000.

Wendy Overton, a director with LSU's Division of Continuing Education, spearheaded the event, working with both LSU and community resources to bring together the volunteers, businesses, and, of course, the participants for this weekend-long encounter. Overton's association with the nonprofit organization Startup Weekend began over three years ago as a way to leverage resources from a variety of sources, including LSU, to assist budding entrepreneurs in developing their innovative ideas into startup businesses.

"Startup Weekend provides a wonderful opportunity for those who are interested in starting a new business to connect with successful people who are already running successful businesses, to get advice on their ideas, and to find others who are in similar situations," Overton explained. "The creative energy generated in the room where we meet becomes almost a physical presence, and the participants become highly motivated. That's exciting."

Overton has pulled together an impressive team of volunteers from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and specializations to work with the participants. Seven of those volunteers serve as her team of organizers: Phillip Jackson, a software developer with Voter Voice, a political communications software company; Natalie Binford, owner of, and creative director with, Brandskin Media; Mary Ellen Slayter, an experienced marketing strategist who is the owner and managing director of Reputation Capital Media; Adam Culpepper, lead Web developer and programmer at FUSE, an Internet media company; Aaron Landry, a user experience (UX) designer with Envoc, a Web and custom software development company; Dominque Rodgers, the office manager at Reputation Capital Media; and Alex McConduit, children's book author and entrepreneur from New Orleans. Each of these media experts offers participants the benefit of experience gained in real-world situations.

3D scannerThe Mobile Surge team members present their concept to the judges. Team members are Mike Gennaro, owner of Barndog Mill, Mohamed Khan, and William Eldredge, who is with AGN Solutions. Frank McMains

In addition to this core group, many others were instrumental in making the event a rousing success. For example, Stafford Kendall, principal at Covalent Logic; Stephen St. Cyr, president of Vivid Ink; Isral Duke, director with Duke Branding; and Jeremy Starns, solutions director with Sparkhound all served as coaches during the two-day marathon workshop. Taking on the job of making a very difficult choice, David Crais, founding president of Physicians Proviso as well as Crais Management Group, LLC; Clayton White, an attorney, a partner in Simmons & White Consulting, a member and organizer of the South Coast Angel Fund, and who also has a background in science and business; and John Schneider, also an attorney and the president and CEO of Vision City Development Group, LLC served as judges at the Sunday evening presentations and award ceremony.

Many of the coaches and judges for the event are also LSU alums, and they see Startup Weekend Baton Rouge as a means to remain in touch with the university as they give back to the community. Mary Ellen Slayter, for example, graduated from LSU in 1999 with a degree in agronomy. She spent eight years as a business editor and career advice columnist with the Washington Post before returning to Baton Rouge to start her own company, Reputation Capital, which is located in the Louisiana Business and Technology center, an incubator run by LSU.

"I started this company in December 2011," Slayter recalled. "I had observed over the years that more and more brands were getting into the ‘news' business, and I figured they needed help. It turns out I was even more right than I projected—we've grown to a staff of eight in less than two years. Our clients range from tiny startups to the Fortune 500. I never really wanted to leave Louisiana to begin with after graduation, but there just weren't many jobs here at the time. It took me 12 years to figure out how to move back home."

Slayter also returns to her alma mater when she is hiring employees. Dominique Rodgers, Slayter's office manager and another volunteer with Startup Weekend, is an LSU student, as are two current interns with Slayter's company.

Rodgers, an interdisciplinary studies major—concentrating in English, history, and health sciences—in the College of Humanities & Social Sciences, plans to graduate from LSU in May 2014. She will continue working with Reputation Capital Media in, as she terms it, a "Girl Friday" capacity, handling a little bit of everything—HR, IT, finance, and just about anything else that arises.

Slayter's two interns, Taylor Dupuy, a psychology major, and Hannah Hamilton, an English major, spent the weekend of the event gaining valuable experience working with social media, tweeting, blogging, and interviewing almost nonstop with the energy and verve that only motivated undergraduates can muster.

For both of these young interns, this was their first Startup Weekend experience, and both were impressed.

3D scannerWendy Overton, Dominique Rodgers and Phillip Jackson chat while the teams work. Brenda Macon/LSU University Relations

"It has been really awesome to be around people who are so passionate and creative," Dupuy commented. "Everyone here has one thing in common: They've seen a problem, and they want to fix it. This experience has given me the opportunity to see firsthand how much can really be accomplished in a short amount of time with focus and concentrated effort. I also learned that more important than knowing exactly what you want to do with your life is recognizing an opportunity and being brave enough to go for it."

Hamilton agreed, adding, "I see the value in the event now because being here has given me an opportunity to hear some amazing ideas and to meet some truly fearless people. If I had to be a warrior for any event, this would be it."

Rodgers has become as much the "Girl Friday" among the organizers as she has for Reputation Capital. From making sure that the group has food and beverages on time and in sufficient quantity to handling small crises as they arise, Rodgers has become the logistics expert for the event.

"Working with Startup Weekend was a blast!" she commented. "The learning started for me well before the event itself. The actual weekend was great. Watching all the people enjoy the fruits of our labor and pitch and present their ideas was so exciting."

This Startup Weekend event was not the first for several of the coaches. Stafford Kendall, for example, has been involved with the organization since 2011 and spent one of her most memorable Startup Weekend experiences in 2012 on a bus from Copenhagen to Paris participating with the international branch of the organization. 

"It was a great alternative to backpacking across Europe!" she laughed.

Kendall is also an LSU alumna, having graduated in 1995 with a political science degree and with a concentration in Russian, Soviet, and Eastern European studies. Her advice for those who want to succeed in a Startup Weekend is simple: "Do NOT try to make the ‘best' decision. Instead, make all the decisions. Make the decision, implement it, and move on."

That's why the rapid-fire approach of spending 54 intense hours in one weekend works for these participants. The simple plan of taking six good ideas; working as teams to brainstorm, research, implement, and present those ideas; and picking one idea that has the best chance for success gives the participants no time to second-guess, equivocate, or back down. As Kendall put it, "Participating in a Startup Weekend event teaches you all the fundamentals of creating your own business in a down and dirty kind of way."

3D scannerLawyerBooks team members Daniel Pacheco, Jeremy Beckham, and Christopher Gray pause for the camera before making their presentation for the judges. Their concept won the grand prize. Frank McMains

Participation paid off in a big way for Jeremy Beckham, the man behind the idea for LawyerBooks. Beckham, a software developer for Blue Cross Blue Shield, came upon the notion for his startup after his wife, Jenny Donaghey-Beckham, graduated from the Southern University Law Center and began her solo practice. She confided that the many rules and regulations for trusts are very strict, and she was looking for a more efficient system than those currently used to keep accurate records and stay in compliance with the laws. LawyerBooks will take the guesswork out of the process, allowing the user to set up and maintain client accounts and create the necessary reports all from the same software. The regulations are built into the program so that the attorney no longer has to search through the entire set of Louisiana Disciplinary Board rules for each transaction.

He worked with two teammates, Daniel Pacheco, another software designer who also works at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana, and Christopher Gray, a volunteer from Hattiesburg who drove in specifically for this event. The team divided the weekend's work into two parts: Jeremy and Chris concentrated on writing the software, while Daniel put together the overall design and the print materials for marketing the product.

While Beckham had already put a great deal of thought into his idea even before Startup Weekend Baton Rouge, he was ecstatic about the level of assistance and collaboration that the event afforded him.

"This experience has been crazy but awesome!" he explained. "It's stressful and cool at the same time. The mentors, the coaches, and the judges have all been really helpful and, well, amazing."

The participants and volunteers at this event all seemed to agree with that assessment. Under Wendy Overton's management of the event for the past three years, the event has developed a following among South Louisiana business people and those who hope to join their ranks. Because the past annual events have been such a success, she plans to offer this opportunity twice next year, with an event planned for spring 2014. She also hopes to attract LSU students to participate, giving them a leg up on their careers after they graduate.

She sees her participation as a way that LSU outreach can bring about meaningful change, both locally and globally—one manic weekend at a time.