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Dispatches from Seattle Startupville

MOZ CEO Rand Fishkin asks a question many a founder has asked. Credit: Photo: Matt Fikse

Seattle is nearing the crescendo of its annual frenzy of events for, by and about technology startup companies — officially crowned Seattle Startup Week this year.

Last Thursday, 11 companies pitched at national startup accelerator TechStars’ Seattle Demo Day. This week, the Seattle Interactive Conference will take over the Washington State Convention Center, expected to draw a crowd of thousands, and Social Venture Partners FastPitch competition will hit the stage at Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall November 13th.

One of the crown jewels of Seattle Startupville’s annual geek week is Seattle Startup Day, hosted Friday by Crosscut’s digital compatriots at GeekWire. The event drew a roster of notable CEOs and VCs and hundreds of mostly youthful and certainly earnest entrepreneurs, pitching their businesses in the hope of getting noticed — and funded.

The ecosystem in Seattle is running at full tilt and, as GeekWire’s Todd Bishop explains, Startup Day is designed to accelerate that; “to give people the knowledge and inspiration to try a startup, or to change their own organization’s culture.” (Thankfully, Friday stopped short of veering into the headspinning thin air that The Stranger’s Paul Constant chronicled in an epic screed after last year’s “Startup Riot”.)

Governor Jay Inslee kicked off the day with a keynote that invented a new indicator of economic success: Innovation per Dollar. Washington state, said the Governor, “leads all of geekdom” in its innovation per dollar. That’s thanks to the legacies of Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon — not to mention the gaming industry, which, according to the Guv, tops Hollywood in revenue. About 70 percent of that is based here in the Northwest.

Inslee didn’t pull any punches on the education pipeline though. Companies like Microsoft, he said, have four thousand computer science job openings, while college students “literally wait in line” to get into those programs at Washington’s universities. “That is simply nuts,” he said. Inslee pledged to increase higher ed funding and open more university slots in science, technology, engineering and math programs to meet the demand.

Other dispatches from Startup Day:

MOZ CEO Rand Fishkin, always an audience favorite for his polished presentations, talked about how to build a startup team. His conviction: Building the right corporate culture is more important than individual performance.

RivalIQ CEO T. A. McCann explained when to start, fund, kill or sell your new company. His advice was straightforward except, perhaps, in the blinding light of a founder’s personal passion. McCann’s parting shot: always know your exit criteria, so you can actually take it when the time comes.

SquareHub CEO Dave Cotter took the most personal approach, sharing his own life challenges: a failed marriage, stress, a stroke that left him blind in one eye, and the addictive adrenaline rush that startups offer. But his disarmingly personal pitch was for the things that matter more than valuations, dilution and a killer A round: family, personal relationships and The Big Exit.

Most interesting was the competition between three tiny ventures — Atom Orbit, Graphdat and Book Trope — which were voted onstage by the audience to pitch a panel of well known venture capitalists. Three minutes. Tell us your story, your vision, your plan. Afterward, the VCs explained the process of trawling for the next Amazon, Expedia or Facebook — a process that made one thing unsettlingly clear: A VC’s motivation to invest in a company and a founder’s obsession with their idea, though connected, are not equal. In this competition, the professorial pitchers from Atom Orbit won the round, collecting a $1,000 personal check to continue work on TeamFusion, a platform that provides mobile access to business data.

It’s not altogether clear how much actual stabilizing, growing or profiting is taking place in Startupville, but those things can wait — for awhile anyway. Churn is a standard byproduct of startup frenzy: Most successful speakers had been through multiple companies, failing fast and often.

In the end, success in Startupville is a numbers game: Only a few make it to the stratosphere — and one in a million make it into orbit. As a practical matter, the journey is the thing, not the destination.

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