Startup Weekend makes successful pivot to virtual event

Katie Ensor pitches her idea at the Startup Weekend finals, ArtConnect

It was a Techstars Startup Weekend Miami unlike any other, as more than 130 participants formed 25 teams and spent more than two days creating, fleshing out, and pitching a new business idea – all without setting foot in the Farmer School of Business.

Due to the pandemic, the event was entirely virtual this year, a challenge that the Startup Weekend organizing team met head on. “Our team practiced many times to prepare for this weekend,” strategic communications and entrepreneurship major Chi Pham explained. “We learned and adapted as we went and we stepped into the weekend feeling confident we could troubleshoot and improve to best meet the needs of participants.”

Teams of students that formed Friday spent much of Friday night and Saturday refining and validating their ideas, meeting with some of the 70+ mentors that were available to them.

“I feel the online format enhanced the weekend by allowing individuals from around the nation to mentor teams and share their unique views. I honestly would love to continue to see an online component to future Startup Weekends for this exact reason,” marketing and entrepreneurship student Phillip DiSilvestri remarked. “I also learned how to effectively collaborate online through various programs such as Miro and Google Slides. Finally I learned how to manage my time when working with a virtual team during a time crunch.”

“I was completely exhausted after spending 16 consecutive hours on Zoom Saturday. But being able to have this great opportunity and learn so much really made it worth all of the hard work,” art and entrepreneurship major Katie Ensor said. “I wish we could’ve been in person to feel the energy but the organizers did an amazing job making the most of our situation.”

Among those taking part in Startup Weekend were eight high school students from across the U.S. “I found out about this opportunity from the business incubator class my high school has,” Lake Forest High School student William Roarke explained. “It was great to work with a like-minded team that was passionate about something so much bigger than themselves. It was also great to make connections and get picked apart and rebuilt by mentors. Additionally, it was fun to see, in a stressful 48-hour period, an idea become a reality and taking that first step into something to change the world.”

“I learned how to be a better team member. I learned the value of rolling with an idea and sticking with it under a time crunch. I also learned how to pitch correctly by incorporating a moving story. I learned the value of taking mental breaks to clear your mind when the team hits a road block,” Centennial High School student Sierra Scott said. “Overall, I learned that sticking with one core meaningful root problem to solve is more valuable than a perfect idea.” 

“I would love to participate in another Startup Weekend because I made a lot of new connections, learned valuable team work skills, and experienced the adrenaline and excitement when it came to collaborating with my team in the ideation process and pitching to investors and mentors!” Scott said.

The student teams pitched their ideas in a preliminary round Sunday morning, and the top five teams advanced to the finals in the afternoon, pitching to more than 30 judges.

First place went to Art Connect, an online marketplace for selling student artists’ work (Robert Gapp, Yiwen Bai, Jiaxi Chen, Katie Ensor, Ryan Finn, Barbara Tsitey)

Second place, and the People’s Choice award, was won by Design Box, a concept for selling building blueprints to interior design faculty and students for their projects. (Alec Donaldson, Eliza Waters, Evie Weiser, Samantha Sauer)

In third place was Stay Connected, a program for connecting senior citizens who feel isolated by the pandemic. (Brendan Gordon, Morgan Shenk, Trevor Harris, Brooke Bollinger, MiKenzie Trout)

Julia Johnson was named the Startup Star for the event.

“I’m not a particularly competitive person, so winning hadn’t crossed my mind all weekend until this morning when the finalists were announced. I was definitely nervous when I realized we would have to present again front of everyone,” Ensor said. “I am very honored and flattered that my team was selected as this year’s winners. We worked really hard and it’s nice to know other people see that.”

"Startup Weekend was a very cool experience! I was able to connect with many passionate and creative people, in an attempt to solve our problem," finance major Robert Gapp said. I learned a lot about the process involved in creating your own business. I also learned the importance of not falling in love with your original idea. My reaction to winning is a feeling of satisfaction as our group's hard work paid off."

“Fantastic job by all the teams. I was particularly impressed by the level of validation that I saw and heard across the presentations It’s rare in general, but given COVID-19, it’s super impressive to see,” judge Tim Metzner, Co-founder, Chief Strategy & Growth Officer of Coterie, said. “In terms of advice, lean on this group of people who are here, especially if you’re going to pursue this idea and want feedback and advice from entrepreneurs.”

“I’m so impressed with how articulate and professional these students are on Zoom,” judge Julienne Shields, Chief Executive Officer at U.S. Assn for Small Business & Entrepreneurship, said. “I really feel like the ideas the students were coming up with were much more global in nature. I love it. I just think it’s great.”

“This was a really rewarding experience that I would recommend to anyone - not just business or entrepreneurship students,” Ensor remarked.

Watch the final pitches