Military families hit ground running at Startup Weekend

First published in UT San Diego, August 21, 2012

By Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry

The 100-meter sprint takes less than 10 seconds. But on the last weekend of the Olympics, another group of 50 competitors began their own sprint — a 54-hour new business creation sprint, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. Welcome to San Diego’s first Startup Weekend for Military Families and Veterans held at the San Diego Hall of Champions in Balboa Park.

Begun in 2007, the Seattle-based nonprofit Startup Weekend has held more than 500 events in 95 countries. The goal is to bring together entrepreneurs who form teams around the best ideas and then to see what kind of projects and progress emerge from a weekend of effort. To date, 850 companies have been spawned from this kind of hothouse effect.

This Startup Weekend was unique in that its focus was on the military. Some participants were active duty, some had family members in the military, and some had been discharged and wanted to start their own business. Both patriotism and passion were in the air.

Fifty people showed up on Friday night, and after some jockeying for position, 11 entrepreneurs formed teams that worked throughout the weekend to define their business model, gather customer feedback, and build a prototype or a mock-up of their product.

On Sunday afternoon, the teams presented what they had achieved, and the quality of the work was high. After thoughtful deliberation (Neil was one of the judges), first place was awarded to — an app that allows you to attach audio to a photo or text message and send it to a specified group of people or a “whisper” to an individual. The company will invite active-duty military, veterans, and their families to be the first users.

Neil said, “It was clear to me that this application solved a real problem — adding words to the picture to send home to my loved ones and tell them I am alive and well. If their only customers are the military, they have a giant market.”

Denise Walker, the only woman to pitch on Friday, was the team leader. In 2007, Walker graduated from the University of Southern California with a business degree after having three children who are now 11, 9 and 7 years old. Next, she worked for a Los Angeles manufacturing company, and then she left in April to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams.

First, Walker followed Rule No. 2: Networking is a profession. Become a professional at it. She attended technology and startup events and joined the board of directors of the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce in Orange County. (She lives in Carson.) To meet more people, she wrote for TechZulu, a website that covers the Los Angeles and Orange County startup scene.

She also followed Rule No. 218: Grand passion and relentless pursuit will take you further than good grades. In July, she was voted one of the top presenters at a Startup Weekend in Los Angeles but couldn’t form a team because most participants had come with colleagues. So she joined another group that ended up winning. At the event, she met Conrad Otter (from San Diego) and Juan Gallardo, a Los Angeles web developer who had served in the Marines from 2000 to 2005. Both joined her team at the San Diego weekend, and she recruited three new team members.

Gallardo said his military experience has been relevant to the startup process. “In the military, I had a mission that I had to get done even if I didn’t have the resources. When there was something that we couldn’t fix, I had to figure out how to do it. Instead of being afraid to fail, I looked at it as a step in the right direction,” he said.

Next steps for the team are to finish the product (they expect to have a working prototype in a few weeks), assign roles and responsibilities, form a corporate structure, discuss compensation and raise money. We will check in with the team in few months to find out how they’re doing.

Second place was awarded to, a crowd-funding platform for disabled veterans who are starting businesses, and third place went to ReaderUp, an app that rewards children for reading. The founder is William Moss, who currently serves in the U.S. Navy on North Island and was inspired by his 2-year-old son. ReaderUp also won the Pillsbury Project Tiki Award, and Christian Salaman, a Pillsbury attorney, will provide some initial legal work for free and also general business assistance.

“The venue was perfect. The pictures and stories of the sports champions on the second floor walls echoed the men and women working down below who had served our country — champions in the Hall of Champions,” Neil said.

Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies, take turns in writing this weekly column about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Barbara at

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