Ms. Smith was afraid. Her fear was a common one: if I share my idea, someone will steal it. I hear it a lot when working with entrepreneurs as a part of Startup Weekend. This fear is a consequence of past experiences, missed opportunities and rejection. Asking someone to speak about their most passionate thoughts is never easy. Seeing others go first might have inspired her.
It might have been Zaire. A ten year-old boy, father in tow, who took the stage to share his idea after a little coaxing. But then, who didn’t need a little coaxing the first time they spoke to a crowd? Between football games, rugby matches and robotics competitions, Zaire had been thinking. When I first met him, he wouldn’t say hello or make eye contact with me. I asked him a few questions about what he was thinking about pitching. His dad and I encouraged him to get up and share. And he did.
It might have been Dean, who has been running a shuttle service on the island for almost two decades. The grandson of one of Bermuda’s most celebrated musicians, Dean’s pitch was beautiful. It struck a cord not only with me, but with the crowd. It’s rare for there to be a lot of cheering after a pitch. Dean received an ovation, along with gasps of “what a wonderful idea!” and “how exciting!“
The common thing these three entrepreneurs had was community. They were local, knew one another, and found strength through their common experiences. As with Zaire and Dean and Ayo and Dahji, I believe Ms. Smith saw what sharing an idea could look like. And when she saw that, she chose to stare down her fear, get to her feet and take the stage. And on Sunday? Her team took first prize.
Winning wasn’t without difficulty: Ms. Smith was stressed out. She almost didn’t get her finished presentation to me before pitches began! It’s hard not to be stubborn with someone peering at the idea you love. Telling you you’re doing things wrong and picking nits at every turn. She came to me on Sunday morning, intimating that she was “burned out.” Dreading the thought of presenting in the evening. I asked her, “Why not let one of your teammates take the stage instead?” Her reply was that, “That’s not what a good leader does.”
And, as I had done several times throughout the weekend, I challenged her. Her reluctance, a mix of stress and fear, wasn’t insurmountable. It just needed justification. Her pitch did’t need her to be on stage. Her idea wasn’t just hers anymore. It had progressed by leaps and bounds over the 54 hours of the event. It had also found a community. While she did take the stage for part of her team’s presentation, it was a team effort. She let her teammate take care of her idea for her. A brave act, if ever there was one. Many people don’t realize it, but ideas are our children. We care for them and hold them so tight; it can be hard to let go when the time comes. In the end though, letting go is what the idea needs to grow.
Ms. Smith (and her idea) got out of the building, and into the world. And that’s where the concept stopped being an idea, and became an innovation. Bermuda is a beautiful place. Sunny skies, the bluest water I’ve ever seen, friendly people, amazing food. Their manner of politely disagreeing and criticizing was a little foreign to me. It took some getting used to. What Ms. Smith found was that no one wanted to steal her idea: they just wanted to be customers. They wanted to sign up. To be ready when it was time. They wanted to support her, and her goal. They saw the same opportunity she did, and encouraged her through their positive feedback.
By the time judging wrapped up on Sunday evening, we’d heard nine pitches. 42 original attendees. 20 plus pitches. Nine teams. Nine potential future job creators in Bermuda. While the judges met and attendees ate, we all got a sample of some great local food. After one of the closest crowd favorite votes I’ve seen , we announced the winners.
Third place went to Bermuda Hacks, an online repository and community for people new to the island, and for those familiar with it looking for something they’d yet to discover. Second place went to K.I.M.s List: a site for parents and kids to share and buy educational content. A sponsor offered any team who could show $10k in revenue in the next six months iWatches. Then came first place. We shared Ms. Smith’s idea one last time at the event. But first, a little background:
The economic downturn hit the tiny nation of around 60,000 people hard. Due to the mergers and acquisitions taking place, Bermuda has seen their population shrink. Jobs were moving to cheaper ports in other parts of the world. One positive result of these changes was an explosion of micro-entrepreneurship, particularly around food. As in other places, including Bermuda’s neighbor, there is a growing cottage food industry. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a cottage industry is one that involves the manufacture and sale of goods from a home.
Unfortunately, Bermudian homes tend to be small, and so the kitchens can’t support food businesses as they attempt to scale up or diversify their offerings. With only so much time in the day, and so much space to work with, these people were hungry for help. Ms. Smith wants to create that help. She wants to help her fellow entrepreneurs succeed. Like the other chefs who had joined her team. And so she developed a pitch for a shared kitchen space: an innovation on Bermuda. While it’s a model that has worked elsewhere in the world, could it work in Bermuda? I hope Ms. Smith finds out.
It took a moment. The name popped up on screen: The Kitchen. A cheer went out, and my eyes searched for Ms. Smith. But that wasn’t what surprised me when I found her. It was the look of shock. Before she realized she had won, she had the face of someone expecting rejection. Her idea, in her mind, had already failed. My idea and I weren’t picked. I’ve been there: it hurts.
Then came the tears. As her teammates cheered, she looked up, surprised. A hand went to her mouth, and she stood, already crying. She wasn’t the only one. The atmosphere was wonderful. Everyone she passed on her way to the stage was looking for a high-five or a hug. We all shared in the joy. It was, for lack of a better term, magical.
After cleaning up the venue, we met for the traditional after-party, and I got the chance to talk to Ms. Smith again. She reflected on the people who had inspired her to get up on stage. She hadn’t even made up her mind to pitch when she arrived on Friday evening. And here she was: The winner.
My advice to her was to hold on to the feeling: it won’t last. Darker and more difficult moments will come. My hope is that for her they’ll pass easy. Replaced with joy. Like the joy she felt on Sunday night as Bermuda’s first Startup Weekend came to a close. There was one more piece of advice I gave her: stay tenacious. Stick-to-it-iveness is important as an entrepreneur. Even in the hard times, you can’t let anything stand in your way. You can’t be afraid to be yourself. Even if that means sobbing in public.
I love making entrepreneurs cry.