Startup Weekend takes beginners for a test drive

Published in UT San Diego — July 17, 2012

By Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry

The idea for a business often starts with wanting to solve a problem you have. The assumption is that your problem is universal enough that others will pay for your solution.

However, if Nordstrom had asked Neil about whether to open a department store, its fledgling idea would have been doomed. He has not been in a store of any kind since the Beatles first came to America.

In mid-June, when Joel Drotleff and his girlfriend, Maritza Garcia, took their dog Dune to the Harry Griffen Dog Park in La Mesa, they wondered how long they had been there and whether they were using their time effectively. Drotleff thought: I need an app that provides an effort-free timeline of my day.

Two days later, Drotleff pitched the concept (which he called Breadcrumbs) at Startup Weekend San Diego, an event that brought together 80 entrepreneurs, designers, developers and startup enthusiasts at the very hip Co-Merge Workplace in downtown San Diego. Out of 38 pitch-makers, 14 were able to recruit team members who worked for 52 hours — from 5 p.m. Friday to 9 p.m. Sunday. Drotleff was one of those, and Breadcrumbs won the $500 Qualcomm Labs prize for best use of Gimbal, the company’s new context-awareness software development kit for Android and iOS.

Begun in 2007, the Seattle-based nonprofit Startup Weekend has held more than 500 events in 95 countries, out of which 850 initial ventures have been formed. The June event was the fourth in San Diego, and more are planned — including an Aug. 19 session that will focus on military veterans and their families.

“The goal of Startup Weekend is to provide experiential education in entrepreneurship, to take the idea of starting a business for a test drive,” said Julian Bryant, a global facilitator who lives in San Diego. “The participants learn how to pitch, to make a prototype and to think about a business model. In a small way, they learn the beginnings of how to become an entrepreneur.”

Drotleff is a 2010 University of California San Diego alum with a degree in cognitive science who works on usability testing for a large San Diego company. His Breadcrumbs team included a web developer, an Android developer, a marketer and two people with business backgrounds. One other person quit before the final presentation. Drotleff met them all at Startup Weekend.

A pre-Startup Weekend seminar provided tips on pitching and the importance of user validation, Drotleff said. “Over the weekend, we went to Horton Plaza and interviewed people about how they manage their time and asked if they would like a better way to track their time. We made high-fidelity mock-ups of the app, and Qualcomm had developers who came by to help us with the coding.”

In addition to the $500, Qualcomm paid for the Breadcrumbs team to attend a mobile Codefest and Hackathon a few days later. There, the team won first place and $5,000 in the Contextually Aware Apps category. They also received five new smartphones, backpacks and sweatshirts.

“We’ve been doing some great networking. It’s been awesome to talk with the Qualcomm guys on the Gimbal team, and we even had lunch with the engineering team that does the low-level hardware programming. They had some really cool insights about how to reduce power consumption in mobile devices,” he said.

Breadcrumbs has applied for space in EvoNexus, a downtown incubator run by the San Diego technology trade group CommNexus. But reality still hovers above hope, and Drotleff is not ready to quit his day job.

“I read an article that said San Diego doesn’t have the elements for a good startup community. Someone told me that I should move to the Bay Area. Based on the past few unbelievable weeks, I can tell you that innovation and support is happening right here,” he said.

Please email if you are interested in applying for the entrepreneurship course that Neil and I will be teaching at UC San Diego in the fall quarter on Tuesday evenings. A few slots are reserved for working professionals.

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