Fire in Your Belly: Design Students Get First-Hand Entrepreneurial Crash Course at Startup Weekend
At Startup Weekend Grand Rapids 2015, participants again gathered to bring innovative ideas to life in collaboration with other designers, entrepreneurs, and business professionals. Making an impact in this fast-paced competition requires long hours and intense effort, but to hear the KCAD students who participated tell it, that’s a small price to pay for a romp in this immersive entrepreneurial sandbox.
A total of 22 students from the Industrial Design program participated in the annual event, held this year at Start Garden. The format works like this: teams form organically around ideas that are pitched to everyone, a frenzy of research and work ensues, and the final concepts are presented and evaluated at the close of competition.
Industrial Design student Ryan Parrish (top right) working with his team at Startup Weekend 2015
“We worked something like 16 hours on that Saturday, but it was invaluable because it teaches you the entrepreneurial side of design,” said Industrial Design student Fernando Ramirez. “It’s incredibly inspiring to see that an idea can grow, in just a weekend, from a seed to a very strong business plan. You just have to have the right people.”
Ramirez and fellow Industrial Design students Amanda Hargraves, Ben Zuiderveen, Kayla Ita, Wes Keely, and YiYao Wu were all part of a team, mentored by Industrial Design Program Chair Jon Moroney, that won the Best Execution award for their concept of Refresh, an eco-friendly lunch container. Like the design projects the students do in class, this one began with identifying a problem. The team started with the challenge of keeping packed lunches fresh, but eventually turned to the problem of having to pack lunches in clunky containers that need to be washed after each use. The solution: an effective and environmentally friendly lunch container that could be sold in bulk and completely composted after a single use.
Team Refresh takes a quick break for a photo-op in the KCAD FlexLab
But unlike with most class projects, the students didn’t have the luxury of taking weeks to refine their design. Ita says that the hyper-focused format of the competition really pushed them to trim the fat from their process.
“It enables you to focus only on the things that really matter, the things that are going to get you to the next point you need to get to as quickly as possible, so rather than getting wrapped up in tweaking this or that, you really just pick a direction and go and see if it works.”
Teams must also effectively balance good design with a solid business plan. Fortunately, Startup Weekend makes that easy to do. Professionals from a number of different fields make themselves available all weekend to give teams guidance and an added perspective. Teams are also encouraged to engage businesses in the surrounding area in a sort of rapid-fire research and development process that can help them fine-tune their design as well as their business model. That’s extremely valuable for student designers whose first instinct is usually to focus on aesthetics or functionality, because it helps them understand that design is only one part of the entrepreneurial equation.
Students Wes Keely (left), Fernando Ramirez (center) and Amanda Hargraves (right) problem solving on the fly
“I think it was a really good learning experience working with people on the business and marketing side, because that’s what really started to shape the story of our product,” said Ramirez.
The experience also reveals ways in which students might be able to broaden their skill sets. Ita was surprised by how effectively she was able to move beyond a design role and into the business side of things.
“It’s understanding how your design can actually make money, how it’s going to be made, and who’s going to put it into their stores,” she said. “That experience is what takes you out of thinking like a student and into thinking about what it might be like working out in the real world.”
Held at Start Garden, Startup Weekend 2015 brings students and professionals together in pursuit of entreprenurial innovation
Student Ryan Parrish had a similar experience after joining Patchwork Tales, a team that was focused on developing a service model rather than a product. The team’s idea was to create an online platform that could connect amateur writers with amateur illustrators.
“I focused on graphic design, and that’s not in my wheelhouse of skills, but you have a group of people around the table saying, ‘we need an icon for this,’ and you just quickly sketch up some ideas and get going,” said Parrish. “It goes from heads down work to total team debate very quickly, and switches often. You’re trying to find what’s viable and filtering everything else out along the way.”
Parrish and his team won the Best Customer Validation award for their work, but the real reward is bigger than that.
The KCAD Flex Lab proved to be a vital resource for students participating in Startup Weekend 2015
“The biggest thing is stretching your design muscles, learning some new skills, and interacting with people who aren’t normally in your network,” said Parrish. “I interacted with someone who was a front-end developer at [local co-working space] The Factory, I had a guy who was a lawyer on my team, so all of those things help you build different design and entrepreneurial muscles.”
Now, as the students take this transformative experience back into the classroom, they’re empowered with the knowledge of what it really takes to succeed as a design professional: technique, perspective, communication, and a whole lot of hard work and desire.
“Startup Weekend weekend is a bit more exaggerated than the real world, but not by much,” said Ramirez. “You need that fire in your belly.”