The Halloween That Changed My Life: Submitting To Thrill Mill’s Business Bout Two Years Ago

I can’t believe it was two years ago when I discovered The Business Bout and rushed to complete an application THAT VERY SAME NIGHT. I had only moved to Pittsburgh from California just four months ago. My “company” at the time, then known as Academica, was only a fragment of its original Startup Weekend team – truthfully, I was the only one who stayed onboard.

The Original Team Academica.

The Original Team Academica

Still, I put together the best possible application that I could, one that featured two Yalies, two former co-workers from my days in television, two classmates from the West Coast, and three people I had recently met in Pittsburgh. Our projections were highly baseless, our plan of action non-existent. All we had was our convinction. I had no other hope whatsoever in making it any further than the submission process.

The Original Team Scholar Hero. I'll never let... you get the point.

The Original Team Scholar Hero

I was in Manila when I got a large email from Bobby Zappala say that we’ve been accepted into the first cohort of “The Hustle Den,” the now-retired name of the co-working space owned and operated by the eponymous Thrill Mill. We were offered a full year of workspace, networking opportunities, mentoring, and any other support they could provide.

My first reaction, of course: who the heck was Bobby Zappala?

Turns out some Duke and Pitt Law graduate decided to leave the Pittsburgh legal world and do more for his hometown. A few of his close friends – Luke Skurman, Serge Smailbegovich, Kevin Heher, and Alex Palma – had been running an annual event called the Baller BBQ for years, raising money for a startup prize competition: The Business Bout.

The Original Ballers: Alex, Bobby, Serge, Kevin, Michael

These men had built up so much money and support the next move was to create more opportunities for local startups to grow and thrive. This led to the creation of a co-working space in Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming East Liberty sector, and the re-branding of their event to, of course, the Thrival Festival.

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Moby: The Original DJ (trademark pending)

I remember my first encounter with Bobby – it was a late night in the middle of Broad Street, and a huge-grinning Zachary Quinto-looking dude waited for us outside of a vacant building in a shady neighborhood. He escorted upstairs to show us our new home for the next year.

Luke and Bobby, who insists we say he’s the one “on the right.”

The months that follow were incredible. I worked alongside people who were enthusiastic about their work, genuinely supportive of one another, and eager to become close friends, if not “startup family.” We pitched our ideas at Google, stayed in close contact afterwards, and for some of us (especially me), we never quite left… physically.

Working in Thrill Mill.

Scholar Hero in Thrill Mill.

Thus, I know that there are probably a few teams right now wondering if they should pull the trigger and apply to Thrill Mill’s third class. I started my application about three hours before the deadline, and I’ve built a company I’ve quite proud of since then.

What’s the worst that can happen? Here’s the link: http://thrillmill.com/apply/

Lee Ngo
Founder, Scholar Hero
Thrill Mill: First Class Cohort
Thrill Mill Second Class Alumni Mentor

An Ode to Startup Weekend Pittsburgh (from an “Alum”)

The stuff that dreams are made of.

Startup Weekend Pittsburgh Spring 2013 came and went this past weekend with three well-deserving winners out of nine compelling presentations:

  • In 3rd Place: BrewMetrics, an app for beer enthusiasts that recommends other beers to you based on your preferences. Check out their app demo on YouTube.
  • In 2nd Place: SpareSpace, an app that connects people with excessive belongs to people with room to spare in their homes. Their Twitter account is here.
  • Grand Prize Winner: ShareCloset, an app that enables people to inventory, display, and share clothes with other people online.

    They even have a cool graphic and trademark!

Immediately after the judges announced the winners, I knew that some teams were heavily disappointed by the results. After all, Startup Weekend is one seductive beast of a competition, where every team that pitched had confidence enough to stand in front of a very tough crowd, and thus many would feel like they should have won. Personally, I thought this cycle’s competition was so fierce that I couldn’t comfortably predict the top three.

For all the teams that did not place or get recognized for their hard work: I feel your pain, and yours will go away soon.

After all, Scholar Hero was initially conceived out of the previous Startup Weekend Pittsburgh competition as “Academica,” and even we were convinced that we’d knock it out of the park. Of course, we ended up losing to some very qualified teams, but we held our heads high and decided to keep going anyway.

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Our original icon. How vintage.

Outside of the top three that placed back in our late September competition, several teams out of that competition  have continued on and made terrific progress thus far, such as:

  • Fashion Field Guide, an app that aims to provide fashion-impaired men with improved style tips, became the initial product of Engineered Style. This company is now in the current cycle of AlphaLab, a top incubator in Pittsburgh if not nationwide.
  • MegaBits, a mobile app game that is strikingly similar to a particular Japanese monster-fighting phenomenon in the 1990s, was selected by local accelerator ThinkTiv alongside the competition’s winner ThoughtfulHusband.
  • Even our company, Scholar Hero, was named a finalist for the Thrill Mill’s Business Bout just a few months later, and we’re certainly enjoying our new home at The Hustle Den, Pittsburgh’s newest incubator.

All of this became possible with the efforts of Startup Weekend Pittsburgh, and it’s safe to say that this competition changed many of our lives for the better. Thus, for everyone that’s still feeling a little bit down about not placing, just know that it isn’t about winning or losing, given the sheer multitude of factors that go into it.

Visionaries behind two kitchen-based ideas come together. This is when magic happens.

Visionaries behind two kitchen-based ideas come together. This is when the magic happens.

Startup Weekend is really about meeting new professionals in your town and coming together to be entrepreneurs, to create something amazing in a very short amount of time. If you came out of Startup Weekend Pittsburgh having accomplished either one of those criteria, then you came out of it a huge winner.

As for the next step in your entrepreneurial pursuits, well, that is entirely up to you. Good luck!

The views expressed are solely of Lee Ngo and do not reflect or represent the general views of Scholar Hero, Inc.