How Empathy Won NYC Startup Weekend

  • The suffix -pathy means “feeling” or “suffering”
  • The prefix em- means “within” or “inside”
  • The prefix a- means “not” or “without”

By definition, empathy is the opposite of apathy.

- From WhitneyHess.com August 21, 2012

I was less psyched Friday night than I should have been.  Since that bitch Hurricane Sandy postponed the first ever Fintech themed startup weekend, I knew that attending it for this past weekend came at a high personal cost.  It meant having to miss 90% of the surprise 30th birthday party of one of my very best friends on earth, leave whatever team I was on early last night to light chanukah candles with my niece and nephew, and miss a number of lovely gatherings this afternoon in celebration of the holiday which commemorates light, spirit and, well, miracles. 

I showed up on Friday prepared to pitch the same idea that I would have last month (this NOT being the startup I founded and am working on full-time).    The idea was pretty straight forward.  A fundraising platform for entrepreneurs use to raise money from friends and family anonymously.   During my 60 seconds, I asked the room of ~150 to raise their hands if they have ever attempted a friends and family round.  About 40% of the room raised their hand.  I asked those with their hands up to keep them up if it felt awkward.  100% did.

A few dozen people provided their 60 second pitches and then the crowd was meant to give one of their three votes to a startup idea using post-it notes on each pitch’s placard.  The fifteen ideas with the most votes form teams and then we spend the weekend building that thing.

Instead of mingling and pitching my idea for votes,  I was shy & basically went to the kitchen, avoided the crowds & bullshitted with the Microsoft guys.  I eventually rejoined the hoard and noticed that the organizers spelled the name wrong  (instead of “ANONYMOSITY” it was just “mosity”), but I actually had received some votes and I started thinking I might have a chance of getting enough votes to go to the next round.  Then Petra a graphic designer & the only six foot blond of the participants, who incidentally sang in a successful Japanese pop band, said she loved my idea and together we began a campaign to get this idea some more votes.  After the votes were tallied, we were picked last of the fifteen.

So now Petra and I had to recruit a team from the crowd but the problem was hardly anyone would talk to us.  Certainly no one would talk to me if I wasn’t walking around with Petra!  People generally liked the concept, but all he developers kind of flocked to sexier products, even after Petra and I begged them to reconsider.  But then we met Dan K who seemed willing to talk, had some great questions, and had an interest in taking a shot. By the end of the night and not without hesitation he finally agreed to take the plunge with this concept, subject to Volkan, a developer he knew socially, committing as well.  Dan- who 48 hours later- I would declare is, in adrenaline laced, foul mouthed glory, on stage in front of  200 people, the smartest kid I have ever worked around, including 13 years on wall street -after we won the whole damn thing.

Why did we win?  Because we empathetically devised a product based on conversations with people who were going through this process and those who had navigated it in the past.  We knew, from listening to people, that the tasks of discussing specific notional amounts, personally sending documents, and collecting physical checks from personal & familial relationships was awkward, distracting and burdonsome. So we built a prototype quickly and beautifully, making sure it was super easy for the potential investors (also known as the important people in their lives) to safely send money, view all the documents, and follow the progress of the capital raise on one page. The emotional aspect was a strong case for the product’s viability, but we went further, thinking that if our users could email a private link to potential investors, they could painlessly cast an even wider net and have a better chance of raising the money they needed to seed their dream.

In a room full of high profile technology executive judges as well as professional hackers, financial professionals and entrepreneurs all working tirelessly to quickly build the best startup in the richest city in the richest country on earth, the biggest taboo was still money.  And it was heart (and hard work) that won.

…Well, that and the fact that Dan and I were armed with the answers to every question about the legality of something like this.  But mostly it was because Petra believed in me, and that Volkan believed in Dan.

I will treasure tonight, really.

Gratitude to Omar and the judges, every one of the coaches/mentors, Charlie O’Donnell and Nick Ditmore for convincing us to lose the pie chart, Todd Kulkin for the performance enhancing drug known as his legal advice, the NYFTS crew and the participants for supporting us.

UPDATE (12/13/12):  We even got a little press yesterday & proof that I cuss like a sailor, at Forbes/xconomy…

FinTech Startup Weekend Pushes for Innovations That Work with Money