A commotion of activity (and coffee) surrounded 50 students on Sunday afternoon, on an otherwise chilly day at Austin’s famed business accelerator Capital Factory. They weren’t pouring over their iPhones, studying their fantasy football teams, or looking at Instagram. No, these students were on the verge of getting up in front of some of Austin’s movers and shakers to pitch a startup they created only two days earlier, from a team cobbled together in the same span of time.
Needless to say, they were pretty nervous. None of these entrepreneurs, who ranged from wide-eyed Round Rock High School students to McCombs MBA students with years of experience in the workforce, had ever faced a challenge like this. Sunday’s pitch-off event was the culmination of a program called “3 Day Startup,” put on by universities across the globe. Its mission is to “kick-start new student-run companies and build entrepreneurial capabilities in students and their university communities.”
The first 3 Day Startup program launched in 2008 at the University of Texas. Since then, 90 companies have come out of the program, which has popped up at over 120 schools scross six continents. It’s not just a rote exercise, either: Companies started because of this program have raised over $90 million in venture capital funding. Just this past week, a company that came out of the Cornell program was acquired by Google.
Around 50 students are chosen for each program. Most, if not all, come with their “next big thing” idea. I started my Friday night sitting with a group of students dubbed the “Freshmen Founders, and listened as they pitched their products. They ranged from a high school senior creating a business for privatized buses in his native country of Nigeria to a college freshman who decided to get on Tinder two days before, but only to do market research for his political dating site.
Once all the participants were finished presenting, a tense vote occurred to determine which startups the participants would work on. Slowly but surely, teams began forming. That first night, some teams stayed up as late as 1 a.m. working on the prototypes for their eventual presentations.
Saturday morning brought a few light workshops (and mounds of coffee) over topics like “Working With Technical Co-Founders” and “Customer Discovery.” Much like the prior day’s workshops, some teams took their customer discovery phase late into the night. Foodjump, a company that provides a “unique” food delivery experience, received their first few customers at midnight.
I went out on Saturday with a team called “Rouse,” which has created a social alarm clock app. Using a bucket of day-old VooDoo Donuts, I watched as Mike, an MBA student, interviewed a variety of potential customers, from sorority girls fresh off of a night on the town to the guardsmen at the Starbucks building on 6th and Congress. The question was whether they would be interested in waking their friends up with a short video of Drake singing, or some other funny message. The discoveries team Rouse made were imperative to the direction that Joel, the developer on the team, was going to take the prototype.
Finally, Sunday was spent preparing pitch decks. The program’s organizers enlisted mentors — some from the Austin business community, some former 3 Day Startup participants, and some UT students — to prepare the teams for their pitches. Participants were coached on everything from posture and speaking ability, to the amount of research on their respective slides. While the pitches were spectacular and the spokespersons for each team answered the questions from the investor panel elegantly, it was clear that three days of creating a business had taken its toll.
While some of the participants stated they’d continue pushing on with their teams and new startups, others were less enthused. One particular participant who had his idea rejected early on Friday said he would continue with his own entrepreneurial pursuits. Another hopeful founder inquired if he could join one of the other teams. But, that’s business. Not everyone becomes successful and gets bought out in the startup space — yet another lesson best learned over the course of three days, as opposed to three years.
The 3 Day Startup program will return to UT Austin in the Spring of 2016. Do you think you have it in you to take an idea to a business in three days? If so, find yourself in Austin.