Confab founder Anette Ceraficki sheds light on how to turn a business idea into reality

jesse1Peter Calverley, a Calgary Startup Weekend judge, debates the merits of the presentations with fellow judges.
Photo by Jesse Yardley
Calgary Startup Weekend is a hotbed of raw ideas and aspirations, but as Anette Ceraficki, founder of Confab and winner of the 2013 Startup Weekend, found out, it can be a springboard to success too.

“It changed my life,” Ceraficki said. “It can change other people’s lives, for sure.”

Startup Weekend is a 54-hour intensive whirlwind of activity bringing various business people together with the goal of refining raw ideas into functioning startup companies or working prototypes.

It’s a global phenomenon with events being held regularly in hundreds of cities, each run by volunteer organizers.

This year’s event – held at Mount Royal University – was attended by aspiring entrepreneurs, university students and even one high school student.

Event organizer Kylie Toh said, “We want to plant that entrepreneurial bug early.”

As a past winner, Ceraficki was able to speak on her experience of transforming an idea into a business.

In early 2013, Ceraficki was looking for a human resources (HR) performance management tool. After searching for existing products, she realized no one offered the features she needed.

“There was a small gap in the market and it led me to an idea,” she recalled.

The February 2013 Startup Weekend was held in the same Kensington office building where Ceraficki worked. A few of her co-workers were planning to attend, so she decided to see what it was all about.

The events at these Startup Weekends are both collaborative and competitive. Participants pitch their ideas to fellow attendees and if successful, to a panel of judges. Winners are awarded prizes such as additional business coaching and tickets to seminars and workshops

Peter Calverley, a successful entrepreneur and chief financial officer of California-based Tela Innovations, flew to Calgary to volunteer as a judge and to help coach participants. Tela Innovations develops technology that improves the performance of integrated circuits by reducing power consumption.

“We don’t really see the same kind of enthusiasm for events like this in Silicon Valley,” Calverley said. “What is happening here is special.”

This year’s event commenced with inspirational talks by Patrick Lor, chief executive officer and co-founder of Dissolve, a stock video footage company. Lor talked about the stresses entrepreneurs face and suggested “finding the middle ground” as an effective way to solve problems.

“Winning proves that [participants] are motivated, creative, competitive and can work in a team,” remarked Roma Sobieski, digital communications manager for Startup Calgary.

Sobieski said that winning is only the beginning. Becoming a successful entrepreneur also requires “leadership, tenacity and passion.”

Lor also said that the lessons learned at Startup Weekends are just the beginning and that despite the fact that “life is not always logical or fair” persistence is a major factor in the ultimate success of a business idea.

Inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs seems to be working: both the winner and runner-up, Cup Canvas and Whimee respectively, were conceived and pitched by university students.

The people who attend Startup Weekend are diverse. Some are idea generators, while others are more suited to building out the ideas.

“Most participants have established careers but are looking for something more,” said Toh. “Startup Weekend helps them take the next step.” jesse2Event organizer, Kylie Toh, addresses the Calgary Startup Weekend audience setting up the next round of presentations. Photo by Jesse Yardley

Toh, like Ceraficki, started out as a participant. Now she’s one of the people working behind the scenes to organize the events.

As for Ceraficki, she didn’t have high ambitions going into her first Startup Weekend.

“I was never interested in starting my own business or being an entrepreneur,” Ceraficki said. “That was never my thing.”

The response she got was more than she expected.

The event Ceraficki attended kicked off with a one-minute pitch delivered by each person with a business idea. There were no PowerPoint presentations, no fancy props. Everyone in the room was supplied with three sticky notes. The goal was to get people to vote for your idea with a sticky note. The top 12 ideas were then developed over the weekend. With the ideas selected, teams of five were formed.

“To my delight and complete surprise, mine was one of the ideas selected,” Ceraficki said. “There were people I’d never met before asking if they could work on my idea.”

By the last day of the 2013 event, Ceraficki and her group had eight screen shots of the HR tool, which they dubbed Parley.

They then were ready pitch their product to a panel of 12 judges made up of investors, business professors, and other established business people.

Impressed with what they saw, the judges handed the Parley team the win.

As a reward, Ceraficki’s team was offered a chance to take courses at Innovate Calgary. They also got a chance to present their business idea to more than 300 executives at the Canadian Cloud Council, where Ceraficki also won first place.

This win “solidified and validated our idea,” she said.

Startup Weekends have been hosted in Calgary since 2011. Toh said the early events drew around 30 to 50 people. Now, with the increased popularity of the event, organizers of Calgary Startup Weekend are planning to host four events per year.

“It’s a hands-on opportunity to experience what it’s like to be an entrepreneur working on a startup,” Toh said. “Plus, startups and tech in general help to spur the industry and stimulate the overall economy.”

Parley — since renamed Confab —underwent extensive testing last fall and will be launched this spring. As for the winners from this month’s event at Mount Royal, only the market can decide if their startups will take off.

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