Entrepreneur Kyle Hagel (left) brought some of that fighting spirit to LSM Toronto.
The vast places entrepreneurs travelled from included Calgary, Texas and Mexico. Some came ripe with ideas, others to learn more about efficiency in the startup scene. Lean Startup Machine (LSM) is a high intensity weekend workshop that forces entrepreneurs to go through the process of validating a product in a matter of days rather than months. Entrepreneurs get out of the building (the weekend’s mantra) to find out if people even want their product. Is there a need for it? Does it interest them? Would they pay for it? Would potential customers contribute funds to the future development of the idea?
LSM weekends follow Eric Ries’ emphasis on the validation stage of the Lean Startup methodologies as outlined in his book the Lean Startup. Many entrepreneurs hold onto their ideas like precious babies in the same way I as a writer fight to keep the colloquial sentences editors beg me to change. This weekend wasn’t about who had the best idea or who had the closest iteration to something that resembled a product — it was about who learned the most in rapid succession and if they were able to validate or not validate their idea. Some ideas were killed, but there were no failures. As one of five judges, this is exactly why we almost chose an idea that the creator deemed dead as the winner.
Wheresmysh.it was an idea put forth by Richard Ivey School of Business MBA candidate Robert Mackenzie. The basic premise was to create an application, maybe a plugin, for people to keep track of items they lent to friends. The team bought the domain and created a Facebook page that gained 3,500 likes but zero comments in a matter of hours. They’ve since taken it offline.
What they had was a catchy name, a domain one of the judges offered to buy, and at best, what appeared to be the inklings of an Internet meme. They spoke to customers who didn’t get it, worried it would be something they’d use once or twice but would eventually end up on the fourth page of their apps collection. They wanted things only Facebook’s developers could implement.
Mackenzie is not dismayed, but galvanized.
“I’m more interested in actually figuring out as quickly as possible whether the idea works,” he says. “I’m not as attached to it as I was before or thinking about it as a pearl that I found and have to protect. It’s not that good business models are just dreamed up one day, sometimes they are, but [LSM] teaches you how to actually find it. People will tell you if you ask them.”
Mackenzie was surprised to discover that just because he had read The Lean Startup didn’t mean he actually knew how to apply it. He had to be challenged to apply it and in doing so found great clarity.
“From my perspective, I do tend to come up with ideas a lot but I don’t follow them unless I really have an intuition about it. I don’t have one about [wheresmysh.it], someone else might, but unless I believe in it first, I’m not going to do it.
For me it was important to choose an idea that had the potential to turn into something real. I love the thought of putting something out there, adjusting and molding it, then discovering its actually possible all within a matter of days.
From the judges’ standpoint, or at least mine, there was one idea that really stood out. It was a niche idea, one made specifically for entrepreneurs in Toronto, but it was well validated, well planned and the final iteration of the idea was not the one that was originally imagined. It was called MyCal, put forth by Theresa Laurico the founder of a startup called Socialight. The idea was to create an aggregated calendar for entrepreneurs and startups in Toronto that pulls from major event listing sites, hosts, accelerators, etc. At first their idea was to create a single listing, but after speaking with potential customers she discovered people wanted customized options that were industry specific and could be personalized, so the idea shifted.
MyCal got written letters from a few organizations including Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone testifying they’d participate in the service. They even got some money. While the team only came together on the weekend, they have full plans to actualize their service and have already set November as their launch goal.
“I honestly came here just to learn and I actually wasn’t going to pitch my idea because I was too scared. I saw so many people go up and one of the mentors pulled me aside and said, if you’re scared you need to get up there,” said Theresa Laurico.
While its not Laurico’s first time igniting a startup, it is her first time attempting to do it Lean.
“I work with all the major affiliates and I serve the entrepreneur startup community. I was able to see that there’s this problem with so many event listings from so many providers, but there isn’t a one trusted source that aggregates everything. I really wanted to know what customers wanted. I had to let go of this attachment of my idea. I quickly in the beginning had to be like I don’t care if this idea happens or not, we might come up with something even better after talking to our customers,” she said.
Laurico put fear aside and took control. She molded quickly into the Lean mindset, abandoning ideas that weren’t worth pursuing and validating her questions directly with potential customers. There were moments when her team had to take “happy time” breaks, but in the end they were able to come up with a plan for a product that’s validated.
“I was fortunate enough to have a really strong people. Together we collaborated and came up with a product the market really needs. I’m not sure how we’re going to put it together, but we’re going to launch it and it’s going to happen because there’s a genuine interest,” she said.
There were a few other ideas that really stuck out to me. One was called Shnarped, which was a preexisting idea from AHL hockey player Kyle Hagel. Hagel plays for the Peoria Rivermen. Last season he was tied for most fighting majors in the AHL, racking up 245 penalty minutes and setting a single-season record for the Rockford IceHogs. This translates to an obvious fighter, whose antics in validation this weekend got him kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame. The idea is to create a social networking site he deemed a LinkedIn for pro hockey players. The goal this weekend was to determine how to monetize and while the team tried several they left without realizing yet the best way to go forth. I don’t think this will be the last we hear from them though. Something tells me they’ll stick with it.
One thing I learned judging the Lean Startup Machine was the tenderness of ideas. What it takes to be an entrepreneur is to accept when they need to be modified or abandoned, and that’s hard. Some people left teams, some dropped out of the workshop entirely. A workshop of this intensity tests the strengths and capabilities of people before a product is ever created, but it does it in a fashion that gives them confidence and provides support.
CollApp was an idea put forth by a team who travelled all the way from Mexico. In the end, they scrapped it but left thanking Lean Startup Machine for saving them the thousands of dollars they likely would have spent validating the product over the course of months. To which, they received mass applause.
It was hard to choose a winner because as cliché as it sounds, the only way to fail at Lean Startup Machine is to not try.
Sheena Lyonnais is Toronto Standard’s tech and business editor. You can follow her on Twitter at @SheenaLyonnais.