Startup Weekend, other hackathons, a ‘microcosm’ of business

As a frequent mentor at Startup Weekend and other events in Orlando, Isabella Johnston consistently offers up advice to first-time entrepreneurs or other less experienced attendees.

But her regular engagement also helps her own personal business Employers 4 Change, a platform that helps employers recruit and manage intern- to entry-level talent.

“That’s one of the reasons I stay engaged,” she said. “It’s a regular reminder of how critical customer discovery, for example, is in business. I know I can go out there and remind people to do it but it also reminds me to do that, as well.”

As more people in Orlando seek to start a business or even just re-emerge from a years-long, pandemic-driven self-exile, events like Startup Weekend and others have become more popular.

So many hackathons

During a 12-week period from Jan. 19 to April 5, no less than three hackathons happened in Orlando, including one hosted by the Orlando Magic, the library and Startup Weekend.

A four-event series of hackathons are hosted by the local gaming community Indienomicon.

They offer anyone interested in starting a business a chance to do so with little to no pressure but real-life possibilities, said Rajiv Menon, CEO of Orlando tech firm Informulate.

“They show you a microcosm of the business world,” said Menon, who leads the local version of the national Startup Weekend events. “That’s what it’s really all about.”

In June 1999, the first event ever labeled a hackathon took place in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

The OpenBSD Hackathon brought together programmers – or “hackers” – to write code. The variations on this original concept are countless now, 25 years later.

In October, a hackathon in Orlando tackled social problems through technology.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic’s found ways to build products that guests at KIA Center could use to change the fan experience.

Startup Weekend’s sustained Orlando success

Startup Weekend, meanwhile, remains, perhaps, the granddaddy of them all.

The first was held in July 2007 in Boulder, Colo., and brought 70 entrepreneurs together to create a startup in 54 hours.

The latest one in Orlando, held in April and organized by Orlando Innovation League, resulted in an app that helps DJs, an AI-assisted app for family engagement and an app that connects car owners with open auto repair shops.

“If you know the industry, you’re going to do well at Startup Weekend, especially if you have the idea going in,” Menon said.

The results can be lucrative, as well.

In 2017, a company called Leasecake was born out of a Startup Weekend in Orlando.

Initially, it was a weekend project to see if a lease-management software company would be feasible.

In fact, cofounder Taj Adhav said he wrote his pitch hours before the event and decided to actually go for it after the 39th person pitched, just as the mic was to be put away.

“Startup Weekend was the single catalyst that launched us,” he said. “I am glad I attended and risked it.”

Seven years later, the company keeps growing and has become one of Central Florida’s more exciting young companies.

“Startup Weekend and its consistent annual message reinforces those reluctant or ‘accidental’ entrepreneurs to give it a try,” he said. “It can be a harmless exercise – and no judgment zone – to see if you and your idea have what it takes. It’s a great way to test your mettle if you wish to go the distance.”

‘It was invigorating’

Nym Chevalier Wooten had never attended a Startup Weekend until last month.

Her startup idea, a co-parenting solution that recently moved further into business development, ended up winning the competition.

“It was invigorating,’ she said. “Having to cram in so much information and make so many decisions over a short timespan forced me to dig deep, find untapped creativity and follow my gut.”

She marveled at the selflessness of the mentors who helped make her first event successful.

“They want to see everyone succeed,” she said. “They were outstanding.”

Reese Kelsey says she basically ran into Startup Weekend event on accident.

She had an original idea within the deejay world that she had been sharing.

So when she discovered hackathons, she considered them opportunities to see how far she could take it.

The lessons she has learned have come in droves.

“Walking into a business or speaking with a decision-maker is way less daunting because I’ve done it so many times now,” she said. “I don’t consider Startup Weekend the platform for ideas as much as it is to build the entrepreneurs and build social skills while learning the business side of things, too.”