January 21, 2015
At 2.03 AM on Monday August 1, 2011, on a train somewhere between Redfern and Kings Cross Station in Sydney, Australia, I was exhausted and delirious. I was on the way to my hotel after the Sunday night celebrations. I was caught by the Startup Weekend movement; hook, line and sinker. Since that weekend I have been involved in eight Startup Weekends on three continents and four cities ranging from organizing, facilitating, mentoring, observing, and participating.
People participate in Startup Weekends for numerous reasons. But some participants successfully navigate the event better than others. If you implement the ideas discussed in this article, you’ll get the most out of the Startup Weekend you attend. Use this list to guide you in identifying your goals for attending, then implement the action steps to prepare yourself. The more prepared you are, the more likely you’ll get the benefits and outcome you want.
#1: Overcome procrastination.
The mix of public accountability (saying what you are going to do then 54 hours later saying what you actually did) and a short deadline (picking the critical tasks and ignoring the rest) is a very powerful dynamic. People attend Startup Weekend to learn something new or to be inspired by other participants and the atmosphere. Curiosity is the name of the game here so being willing to say “yes” and get involved is what’s needed to maximise this dynamic.
#2: Meet people you can’t normally access.
Mentors and judging panel members normally don’t consult or offer their expertise, so for participants it is hard to engage them outside of Startup Weekend. Use them during the event. The people who get the most from these interactions are the ones who ask a lot of questions, seek feedback based on their experience rather than opinion and don’t feel the need to justify or defend their product or idea. Mentors and judges are in the same situation as participants – they don’t know many people at the event, so talking to them should be high on your agenda. It’s not uncommon for ongoing contact with them to occur after the Weekend.
#3: Network with potential co-founders.
I have seen many people form teams around an idea that wasn’t ultimately successful at the Startup Weekend but later launch other successful businesses together. Startup Weekend is a test. It is a low pressure, low commitment and low risk environment which mimics aspects of life in a real startup. This team environment allows participants to see how they and others work by ‘looking through the safety of a fish bowl.’ Networking of this type is priceless and very difficult to replicate. If the weekend works out, you have found yourself a cofounder, if not you have only invested a weekend of your time and less than hundred bucks. The key is to make sure you join, recruit or observe a team that has members with the personality types you are looking for in a team outside the weekend.
#4: Deliberate team creation
Identify the strengths and skills you have and the ones you need and be deliberate about building a team around them. Team size is important; in my experience, the bigger the team the more that gets done, but more leadership and delegation is required. Make sure you have defined team roles and responsibilities and a common team goal and objective for the weekend, draft a Business Model Canvass, schedule your time, use a Kanban and implement Pollice verso style voting. Manage expectations so team members don’t quit. Sell and pitch the opportunity to them well – those that stand out have an advantage – developers and designers are hard to come by and diversity is crucial. Discuss what’s in it for team members – why they should build your dream; but don’t go overboard by discussing equity – this stage is dating, not a marriage proposal.
#5: Validate a product
As simple as it sounds, the teams that get out of the building, literally, are the one who validate their ideas. Qualitative validation wins over quantitative in the short time given. The teams that get on the phones or hit the streets gain far more valuable feedback than those who put up landing pages or online surveys.
#6: Sell and make money
This is a consequence of market validation. The Startup Weekend concepts that make money are usually simple and product-based and the team has talked to a lot of potential customers over the weekend. Don’t ask people if they would buy, put up a payment button and ask them to buy. It makes a big difference.
#7: Build a Minimum Viable Product
A judging premium is placed on the amount of work done on the weekend. The judging panel loves to see the rubber-hit-the-road and what your vision looks like as a product – make a prototype and launch it to real people. Don’t be over ambitious and try to build a company. It’s only a weekend and you don’t need every single feature in place. Similar to finding a potential cofounder, be wise about choosing a team that has complimentary skills and experience that cover the full scope of a startup. I have seen far too many teams that are business heavy and only solve half of the Startup Weekend equation.
#8: Win prizes
Read the competition’s judging criteria. It’s an obvious point but frequently overlooked. The criteria are a combination of categories covering customer validation, business model, product/service design and implementation.
Research the judging panel so your pitch is focussed on them. Although the criteria are objective, members of the panel are humans and humans respond to stories. Tell a compelling story and make it real: use elements of the Hero’s Journey as a starting point if you are stuck. Follow a proven pitch structure – there are numerous examples published online. Do any of the panel have a background in or preference for your type of product or industry? Target that person because if you convince just one member of the panel, they will be your best advocate for persuading the rest of the panel. Gain more pitch mileage by strategically omitting information anticipating it will be asked in the question and answer section. Write your ideal Sunday night pitch on Friday night, then work backward and build the product to match the pitch. Prepare early, practice live more than once, talk passionately, but don’t use live demos – they are fraught with risk of technical failure.
What do you want?
Before you attend Startup Weekend, use this list as guide to developing a plan. Then have the discipline to follow your plan and you will be on your way to getting the most out of the event. Remember to sleep during the Weekend – doing more poorly is never better than doing less well.
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