Dennis Wemyss, a graphic design student at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith, and Josh Pham, an information systems student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, planned to be observers at a business event last weekend. Instead, it ended up being one of the most important weekends of their lives.
The two friends, both of Fort Smith, attended Startup Weekend NWA on Nov. 15-17 simply planning to network with other professionals and assist would-be entrepreneurs as they vied to win the competition that awarded the best startup venture.
Instead, they decided to enter their own business concept -- a website called Exposure that connects photographers with potential clients -- into the competition, winning first place, earning a slew of prizes and receiving publicity that they say will change their lives forever.
“It was definitely the biggest weekend of my life,” Wemyss said. “I’ve already received job offers and internships from people I’ve never heard of.”
Pham echoed Wemyss’ statements.
“I probably wouldn’t give this weekend up for anything,” he said. “I’m thrilled that we got first place, but a lot of the credit goes out to the people who put together Startup Weekend.”
Pham had conceived of the winning idea last year but had yet to develop it into an actual business model before the weekend of the competition. That proved convenient, as the competition requires contestants’ concepts for businesses to be nothing more than a basic premise that they will develop into a working business model over the course of the weekend-long event.
Pham and Wemyss estimated they worked a total of 42 hours developing the business over the weekend before the final presentation on Sunday. And Wemyss, who had no background in public speaking, pitched the idea to judges and won Best Pitch in addition to the team placing first.
Wemyss said the conciseness of their presentation, coupled with the fact that they only had three team members -- the third being Darrick Buralli, a programmer at Dillard’s in Little Rock -- helped them to win the competition.
“We addressed a solution to a problem, and we were concise with everything, and I think the judges liked that,” he said. “The average number of people on a team was seven, and we were blessed to have a small team because a lot of larger teams had problems agreeing on what they wanted to do.”
Judges included a Chief Technology Officer from Dillard’s and several Chief Executive Officers of local businesses. The award for first place included three hours of legal consulting from Smith & Hurst, 30 hours of brand consulting from the advertising agency Stone Ward, printed branding materials from the brand agency Moxy Ox, four hours of technical consulting from RevUnit, $300 in field agent credits, and one year gold subscription to the web design website Treehouse for the entire team.
Pham said Exposure was the employment website Monster and image hosting website Flickr “fused into one.”
“Exposure lets you connect to a photographer wherever you need a photograph taken,” he said. “So let’s say you’re going to Hawaii for your honeymoon. You’re not going to want to pay to fly a photographer out there. Instead, you can put a request on our website, and photographers in Hawaii will reply to the request and submit portfolios to show you what work they’ve done. From there, you can decide which photographer you’d like.”
Wemyss added that it has benefit for both the client and the photographer.
“It gives the photographer work and a chance to build his or her portfolio,” he said. “It works out for both parties.”
A first-place finish at the local competition now enters them into the Global Startup Battle, where their idea will compete against others from around the world. But the two aren’t as worried about the global competition as they are about getting their business off the ground.
“Our goal is to have Exposure functioning by the early spring, and by summer, we’d like to have good investment and rolling in regular customer bases,” Pham said. “This competition gave us a great head start.”
Startup NWA Weekend is a grassroots movement to help grow entrepreneurship at a local level. Startup Weekend organizers and facilitators can be found in over 200 cities around the world. Sponsors of Startup NWA Weekend included Innovate Arkansas, Arkansas Business, Smith & Hurst and The Iceberg.