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Startup event lights fire for budding entrepeneurs

Connor Simpson is one of several Spokane company founders who were inspired to jump into entrepreneur status after attending last year’s Startup Weekend. (Dan Pelle)
Connor Simpson is one of several Spokane company founders who were inspired to jump into entrepreneur status after attending last year’s Startup Weekend. (Dan Pelle)

Is it worth $85 to spend 54 hours taking a business idea from rough concept to real company?

If you ask Eric Bandholz, the price tag for the next Startup Weekend Spokane is totally worth it. He calls it an intense boot camp to strengthen the business-building muscles of folks ready to launch a new career.

Bandholz took part in the first two Startup Weekends, held last year. Each event starts with 60-second business pitches Friday evening. Those on hand select 10 business ideas deemed good enough to be developed.

Teams form, and on Sunday evening 10 teams compete for best in show as decided by a panel of judges.

During the first startup event in April, Bandholz pitched the idea for an online app called Tarrango, a way for wine tasters to keep track of their preferences and favorite vintages.

His idea was selected as one of the 10 worthy pitches.

On Sunday evening, the Tarrango team – Bandholz and four others – made their business presentation, providing live demos of how the app would work.

It didn’t place in the judges’ final four, but the competition boosted the idea from project to working plan.

Since then, the idea has moved into a beta development and Bandholz and his partners expect a full rollout within months.

“If not for Startup Weekend, Tarrango would still be just an idea in my head,” Bandholz said.

Brett Noyes, the lead organizer for the weekend, said he expects more than 80 people at the next event, to be held at Washington State University’s Riverpoint Health Science Building.

Noyes’ involvement began after he met one of the founders of the first Startup Weekend, which began in Boston. The founders have since made Startup Weekend into a nationwide program.

Noyes said the weekends draw a cross-section of people: Beyond potential CEOs, it attracts graphic artists, developers, marketing specialists, business managers and others who’ve worked with startups as consultants.

“The goal is raising awareness,” Noyes said. “We want to create an entrepreneurial community in Spokane. This is a fun event that gives people the tools to start.”

He points to three new firms that sprang from the previous events. In addition to Tarrango, they are Barters Closet and Missing Pixel Studios.

Online trading

Connor Simpson, 21, signed up for the first weekend last April. In his 60-second pitch he described plans for Barters Closet, an online network for people or thrift stores to buy or trade secondhand clothes.

Simpson formed the business idea while taking classes at Whitworth University. After going through the three-day crash course, Simpson decided to leave school and work on the business full time.

He’s received guidance and help from his dad, Tom Simpson, a business consultant and company investor.

Barters Closet has three employees and expects to go live in May, Simpson said.

It will make money by taking a 15 percent cut of any sales. Customers who are just making a straight barter pay nothing to Barters Closet.

Simpson said he decided to attend the first weekend “because I thought I had nothing to lose. But as it turned out, it really gave me a jump start and showed that my idea had validity.”

Pixel Buddy

Emerson Shaffer also went through the first Startup Weekend, pitching an idea for a video game company called Missing Pixel Studios.

Its first product, he said, would be an interactive video game called Pixel Buddy that lets players shape the way the game grows or develops.

The goal of the game is for players to keep an animated pet “buddy” alive, with virtual tasks and diet.

Shaffer, a 17-year-old student at Mt. Spokane High School, won’t be pitching this weekend. Instead, he’s serving as one of Noyes’ organizers and an informal coach.

Shaffer said younger would-be business owners shouldn’t hesitate if they’re uncertain about attending the weekend.

The experience helped Shaffer feel validation and more confidence in his idea.

Lisa Shaffer, his mother and founder of two Spokane-area tech firms, said her son learned a lot from Startup Weekend.

“He has applied that to his company and their development of Pixel Buddy. They are able to get an incredible amount of work done to meet their deadlines,” she said.