Lean Startup Story: From Volunteer to Entreprenuer

Editor’s note: With the Lean Startup Conference in full swing, we want to take a moment to thank our volunteers. Today’s piece comes from Andrew Birkett, a college student, entrepreneur, and volunteer for the 2015 Conference. Be sure to say hello if you see him.

Volunteers at The Lean Startup Conference 2014

I was incredibly fortunate to attend the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco last year. As a college entrepreneur being granted this opportunity was a truly incredible thing. I have never been able to afford to eat out at fancy restaurants, nevermind travel and attend conferences with such extraordinary entrepreneurs in attendance. Had it not been for Intuit I would not have been able to go. Intuit sponsored my attendance and paid all of my expenses, which is something I am incredibly grateful for. 

First things first, San Francisco is a truly incredible city. The vibe and general atmosphere is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is incredibly hard to explain, but I will put it this way, as a 20-year-old no one was demeaning or rude to me and no one questioned my ability to start a company. In Florida, this is not always the case, some experienced entrepreneurs will see my age as a weakness; in San Francisco my age is seen as an advantage.

I attended the event with three other University of Florida students (Go Gators!) and we were able to tour an incubator, WeWork, while we were there too. WeWork in San Francisco is a really cool space that does not feel anything like an office. I instantly fell in love and joined an incubator as soon as I got back to UF. So far I have only listed the things that are supplemental to the conference that can be gained just from going to such an entrepreneurial city. Below I will talk about the conference itself.

There were a lot of things about the conference that truly blew me away. The first being the fact that unfortunately San Francisco had a horrible storm during the event and the power went out citywide. The organizers kept the event lively and created networking events where I met some truly awe inspiring entrepreneurs and heard about some really cool companies from around the world. Despite a serious challenge they stepped up and made it an even better event (just like an entrepreneur would). (Read more about the infamous power outage here.)

Second there were a lot of great sessions on marketing and Lean Startup principles that I have been able to utilize for my board/card game startup, Atheris Games.  I learned everything from how to get more responses to emails (subject lines matter) and how to use humor in business. Furthermore, I learned how to develop a product on a shoestring budget.

This is probably the most relevant thing I learned. Let me explain. At the time of the conference my company was working on our first game, Holeshot Heroes – an automotive themed card game.  I believed, and still believe, that this game could be an incredible success. The problem is the artwork for a game that uses custom automotive designs is quite expensive. (I have to source automotive designers, which are more specialized and more costly than most other artists.) By the time of the conference I already had almost all of my money into the game and I was not near completion. Pivot!

I started working on a second game. I had been working on Holeshot for over two years and every time I had a game idea that didn’t directly fit with a car theme I wrote it down. I took the best ones and created a WWII themed game. I was just about to start prototyping when I decided that, as a writer, I had to find a more interesting theme.

I got to thinking and the war game became Cul-De-Sac Conquest – a game about annoying neighbors. We got the gameplay right and began testing it at trade shows using nothing but Yu-Gi-Oh Cards with sticky notes on them. We paid an artist to make one character card and the graphic designer that designed Holeshot did the layout for us for cheaper than his usual rate. We used this one card to show everyone what it could look like. Everyone seemed to love the game even though we only had one card to show.

Once we built up a large enough audience and felt confident in our ability to sell the product, we paid to have a few of each card developed and have a campaign designed so that we could fund the game through pledges on Kickstarter.  Our campaign funded our $10,000 goal in only 52 hours, which is incredible for an early stage startup with little marketing dollars! We still have a long way to go to profitability, but it is a huge step in the right direction. Hopefully over the course of the rest of the campaign we can get closer to that profitability range or even become a fully profitable company with games in several retail outlets across the US (two smaller games stores already pledged to sell our game.)

Check out the campaign here.

We’re really excited that we were able to fund so fast, but we have very little into the development of the game so if it didn’t fund so early on it would hardly have been the end of the world. If we had not spent so much developing Holeshot, we could have been in an even less dire spot. The lesson has been learned though. More money into a company or product does not necessarily make it better. I would recommend spending as little possible while getting the general idea across.
With the truly limitless potential of 3D printers and other prototype development tools there is absolutely no reason to spend a ton of money creating most products anymore. We live in an incredible time. Make use of it! Start your company with as little money as possible, bootstrap for as long as you can, and work harder & smarter – you’ll do just fine. ?