By Marla Shaivitz (Co-Founder, Localize)
The first time I heard of Startup Weekend was in March of this year, when I was doing research for an article on Los Angeles Startup Weekend’s winning team, Zaarly.

I interviewed CEO Bo Fishback and found his enthusiasm and excitement for Zaarly contagious. At first I thought the hook for that article was going to be about the initial investment the team received from Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore -– I was so wrong.

It soon became very clear the story was bigger than the celebrity involvement and had to do more with the potential and possibility the team found emerging very quickly around their idea.

That interview, coupled with watching a video I came across about Philly’s Startup Weekend, got me hooked. I knew I wanted to be a part of Startup Weekend too. I registered for Baltimore Startup Weekend, committing 54 hours of my life, to something unknown but filled with the same potential and possibility.

Watch the video (above) produced about Baltimore Startup Weekend titled “The Entrepreneurial Spirit” where four teams are followed throughout the weekend — my team Localize is one of them.
My Background in Technology

I write about a lot of startups as a contributor to Tech Cocktail, a media company that showcases emerging technology news, people, startups, products, and innovations. I also have the privilege of working as web technology director for an east coast health foundation, where I need to keep up-to-date on innovations in order to make recommendations to best serve various initiatives. Prior to this though, I was a founding member of an Internet strategy consulting company. And before that, I was working for a dot com that eventually went dot bust. I’m drawn to innovation and innovators, so Startup Weekend seemed right up my alley.

Attending Founder Friday Baltimore Before Startup Weekend

Before the Startup Weekend, I attended Women 2.0 Founder Friday Baltimore. I thought it would be a smart move -– it was. I didn’t know anyone going to the event, and I had a pretty good idea based on the last few web technology conferences I’ve been too that there wouldn’t be a lot of women there at the Startup Weekend. I was right about that too.

Founder Friday drew women from all situations, a recent college graduate, a few entrepreneurs looking to establish contacts, a few designers … and each had her own reason for attending. For me, it was easier walking into the Startup Weekend event having made at least a few acquaintances. Was it an advantage? Again, for me, I believe it was. I had the opportunity to meet Monica Beeman, the organizer of the dinner and founder of Women.Tech who helped my team make key connections throughout the weekend, and I also met a soon-to-be Localize teammate.

Baltimore Startup Weekend

I didn’t pitch –- I wrestled with a few ideas in the weeks leading up to the event, but in the end, I listened. And listened … For over an hour and a half, I listened to some super exciting ideas, some that had been done before, and a few that were seriously wacky. With the knowledge about new startups and technology that I had from Tech Cocktail talking through the ideas with the women I met at the dinner, I was piecing together what was truly innovative and using all of this to figure out which team I would join.

One pitch, above all others, resonated with me.

Localize, pitched by Alexa Baggio, proposed the idea of crowdsourcing community development. Imagine yourself, walking down Main Street in your hometown, and seeing a banner on a retail building asking you to text your idea for which business you’d like to see in that space. Localize would be that tool. The idea was forward-thinking and filled with potential, and I knew immediately I wanted to contribute in some way. A team soon formed -– a team like no other there.

In my estimate, about 10 -15 percent of the roughly 120 attendees of Baltimore Startup weekend were women –- and we had four on one team. We soon became known as the ‘all women’ team (although it didn’t end up that way, but it was majority women in the end.) We were a novelty before we even started.

We grabbed a spot to work that was out in the open. In the end, it proved to be advantageous, as is was convenient for the mentors, organizers and other attendees to stop by and offer advice and encouragement. With each inquiry to how we were doing, we practiced our pitch and refined it along the way. We gauged reaction this way, and these interactions contributed to the connectedness of the weekend.

Help was just an ‘ask’ away –- even though Startup Weekend in some respect is a competition with the other teams, it’s extremely collegial. After the fact, I still feel supported by the interest of other teams in our efforts, and it’s mutual -– I root for their success as well.

As a front-end web developer, I was concerned I wasn’t going to be ‘technical enough’

That wasn’t the case at all. A well-rounded team of technical and non-technical talent is gold at an event like this. After a show of hands on the first night in Baltimore, there were as many non-technical as technical registrants. And of those on the technical-side, front-end developers and designers were few. Nicole Formoso, my teammate on Localize, was in high demand for her graphic design skills.

Building a Minimum Viable Product

The focus of our team turned to building a branded prototype that used SMS (powered by Tropo) as the mechanism to collect votes in order to chart crowd favorites. We began the framework for a strategy for real-world viability and later on that weekend, began to explore potential market scenarios.

I went home Friday night too wired and excited to sleep, and ended up doing more research and planning before bed. Saturday was stressful, I’m not going to lie, but it was good stress. It was an exciting, “lose track of time” and “bond with your team over this” kind of stress. Lots of coffee and adrenaline kept me going. Saturday was spent validating, building, and testing our idea on a local retail property that has been roughly four different restaurants in as many years. A banner was hung with a text number and five choices for passersby to vote their choice. The day-long hammering rain did not make this easy, so we had to recruit members of other teams to text their vote to get some data.

Final Presentations at Startup Weekend
By Sunday, we had the data –- things were working, and we were putting on the finishing touches for the final pitch. At this point, we were in a new venue, and everyone was working out in the open, with screens just begging to be looked at -– so, of course I looked. There were some really impressive looking applications, but I didn’t really know what they had beneath the hood, so to speak. I did know that I was looking forward to the final pitches.

We were right in the middle of the lineup of 22, right behind a guy who called himself the ‘Michael Jackson of Healthcare’ -– it’s true. And he was entertaining. Anyway, following the Michael Jackson of Healthcare is tough for sure, but the crowd really got into our pitch when asked to get their phones out and vote for their choice of local a coffee shop, hair salon, bookstore or a rodeo bar –- why not have a little fun with it, right?

After the rodeo bar garnered the most votes and we could see it tallying live, I felt a huge feeling of relief. Exiting the auditorium afterwards, in addition to relief, I felt an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment….and found myself addicted to the Twitter hashtag from the event: #BaltSW. The instant feedback was exciting, and I’d like to say I paid attention to the pitches that followed ours, but I was really reading the tweets about Localize.

If you’re reading this and considering attending a Startup Weekend –- Do it.

You won’t be sorry. I knew even before the event if I didn’t attend, I’d regret it. The experience was transformative; it was everything I thought it would be and more. Localize is moving forward, and the ride so far has been incredibly exciting.

Oh, you probably want to know how we did. Localize finished SECOND!

About Localize
At Localize, we believe in the power of active participation and strive to empower community members with the tools and channels necessary to create their own communities.

Localize gives voice to the collective community by crowdsourcing community development through a platform in which participants can take meaningful action to get involved in their communities. We interface between the public and private sectors to encourage strong and thoughtful business creation and creative community involvement. We believe participation is contagious, and therefore work to continually bring to life the mechanisms that spread ideas and expose possibilities.

Read more about our pilot project and read additional news coverage on our blog here.

Baltimore Startup Weekend pictures courtesy of Michael Rosner.

About the guest blogger: Marla Shaivitz writes for Tech Cocktail, a media company that showcases emerging technology news, people, startups, products, and innovations and is web technology director at a health foundation. Prior to this, she was a founding member of an Internet strategy consulting company focused on the nonprofit and association market. Marla graduated from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She currently resides in Baltimore, MD. Follow her on Twitter at @marlashaivitz.