in Entrepreneurship

Lessons Learned: Startup Weekend

Last February I attended a Startup Weekend event for the first time.  As an aspiring entrepreneur still trying to learn the ropes it was an incredibly valuable experience.  I made some connections, worked on an interesting project, and had an all around good time.  It was especially exciting for me as a group formed around the idea I pitched and we ended up getting 3rd place!

I had a lot of questions beforehand so I thought I would try and answer those for anyone considering or already signed up for a similar event.  Note that this is based off of my limited experience.  The Startup Weekend event in your area may be different.

How it Works

On the first night (usually Friday) everyone gathers and listens to a keynote speaker give a talk about entrepreneurship.  After a brief explanation of the format attendees line up and begin pitching ideas.  After pitching there is a time for people to mingle, talk to people who pitched, and vote on ideas.  The top 10 ideas are selected and groups form “organically” around those ideas, meaning that people join the team of the idea they liked best.  Being selected in the top 10 does not guarantee a team, as team size is not fixed and the less popular ideas might not get many (any) volunteers.

After teams are formed the rest of the weekend is fairly straightforward.  Each team works on developing the original idea into a viable business for the remainder of the weekend.  The end result is a five minute presentation to a group of judges on Sunday evening that includes a business plan, customer validation (proof that people like your idea), and demo.  The judges choose winners based on the presentations.

Should I Attend?

Depending on your experience level and what your goals are, Startup Weekend could be a valuable experience. Here I have given common motivations and/or profiles along with whether or not they should attend.

I would like to learn more about entrepreneurship and/or give it a try.

Absolutely Yes.  This is the target audience for Startup Weekend.

I am new to the area and want to network with other entrepreneurs.

Yes, so long as you can commit to the schedule (participating is the best way to network, see below).

I am an experienced entrepreneur looking to play around with a new idea

Maybe.  If you have the time it could be a fun exercise.

I am an experienced entrepreneur looking to build a new company

Probably not.  While I’m sure it has happened, the goal of the event is not necessarily to start a company.  There is a lot of collaboration involved and if you are attached to an idea or want to remain “in control” this is probably not the best way to launch a company.  If this is your goal, it might be good to use the event to meet people, and go from there.

I want to build a cool website/app/gadget

Maybe.  While you will probably have a chance to build something, it is not the focus.  There is more emphasis on building a strong business case than creating a cool prototype.  It is not a hackathon.

Take my pet project and build it into a company

Nope.   Do not pitch any idea you are overly attached too.  Not because it is unique, but because you do not have control.  If a group forms around your idea you will not have the control you probably want, and this could lead to many bad outcomes.

I would like to recruit for or build a team around an existing business

Nope.  This is a hard “no”.  People are there to work on something new, and to experience the process of developing a business from scratch.  Even if a group somehow formed around your pitch your team would quickly break up when they realized it was an existing idea.  If you want to recruit instead join an interesting team and try and network.

Lessons Learned

#1 Practice your pitch

At least half of the people who pitched did not seem to have a coherent idea and had obviously not practiced their pitch.  Maybe the competition is stronger in other cities, but I can almost guarantee that you will stand out if you practice.  The bonus is that it forces you to think a little more about your idea.  Practice your pitch, and make sure to keep it within the allotted time (they will cut you off).

#2 The best way to network is to find an interesting project (or team) and work with them over the weekend

I arrived early to try and network before the event.  I shook some hands and met some people, but it was more social than anything else.  The connections I made were all from my team, and I’m still in contact with many of them today (I may have just lucked out).

#3 Startup Weekend is not a hackathon.

I think a lot of developers (including myself) thought that we would spend most of the weekend coding.  While you could certainly do this it would not be conducive to winning.  The focus is on your presentation, and while a working demo is good, its not the ultimate goal.  At the event I attended the top two groups did not have any sort of demo, just really good looking slides.  In fact, the team with the best looking and most functional demo did not even place.

#4  Be aware of the judging criteria

If anything, Startup Weekend is about one thing: building a strong business case.  Sure, you get points for having a functioning demo, but the most important pieces are the business plan and customer validation.  This might be disappointing to developers, but it is really a great learning experience.  If you are interested in being more than just a pure developer, this is very valuable.

Also be aware that the judging really depends on the judges themselves.  At our event the judges all had a strong business background, and were not as happy with the team that had a cool demo, but weak business case.  I can imagine another scenario in which judges with strong developer backgrounds favor teams with good looking prototypes (although I find it less likely, if you learn anything it is that business case is the most important thing).

#5 Practice Your Presentation, Especially Transitions

The judges evaluate you based on your presentation.  Thats it.  It goes without saying, practice your presentation.  Make those slides shine and consider tools to help you make great slides.

If you have a demo make sure the transition between demo and slides is smooth!  At our event a group had trouble bringing up their demo due to technical problems with the staff/organizers laptop.  They did not get a “do over” or more time.  Suffice to say, practice the transition with staff ahead of time if you can.

#6  Understand The Bike Shed Principle.

The Bike Shed Principle, or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, is the idea that the more trivial an issue, the more time a committee will spend discussing it.

The hallmark example is that of a spending committee approving budget for a nuclear reactor and a staff bike shed.  The reactor is such a large, expensive, and complicated structure that nobody has the knowledge to critique it. They assume the engineers are correct and so they approve it quickly.  The bike shed, however, is such a simple project that everyone on the committee is capable of giving input.  As a result, discussion of the bike shed takes much longer than the more important reactor.

The moral, or lesson, is that because everyone wants to feel like they have input, it is easy for groups to spend a lot of time talking about trivial details.  This is especially relevant for Startup Weekend because (1) you have a group of people with different backgrounds (technical, design, business), (2) limited time, and (3) a lot of decisions to make.  As a group you need to be aware when you are talking about relatively trivial details (the bike shed) so you can move to more important matters.