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Startup Weekend Experiences [Entrepreneurship
Posted on January 21, 2015 @ 07:23:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Last weekend I participated in a "Startup Weekend" event for the first time. You can find out more about startup weekends and upcoming startup weekends at StartupWeekend.org.

Startup Weekend Logo

Our particular version of it started on Friday at 4:30 pm and involved around 80 participants, mostly from local universities which included students in business, computer sciences, and agriculture programs. I say agriculture programs because this particular startup weekend had an agricultural bias as it took place on an agriculture campus. We began with networking games so that the people in the room could begin getting familiar with each other. This took place for around 45 minutes. After that there was rapid fire pitching where everyone who wanted to was given a minute to pitch their idea. The quality of the pitches was frankly not that good but some stood out more than others.

As the pitches were going on a title was given to each pitch (by a facilitator) on a large sheet of paper that was eventually taped to the wall. There were several such papers taped to the wall. We were all given three stickers that we could put on the three pitches we deemed the best. The top 8 pitches were asked to pitch again so that people could decide which pitch they wanted to work on over the weekend. I picked a local food startup and worked on that startup idea with 7 others over the weekend. We began working on the startup idea on Friday evening until 9 pm, then from 9 am to 9 pm on Saturday (when the bulk of the work gets done), and finally from 9 am until 2:30 pm on Sunday when we started pitching the 8 startup ideas to judges.

The process can be very intense as groups work to acquire enough conviction in the idea to want to develop business models, financial spreadsheets, customer validation data, powerpoints, websites, and social media accounts for the startup idea. In our case we made very little progress until Saturday afternoon and then in about 10 minutes the pieces started to fall into place as we made a small pivot on the idea. After that it was a matter of working out the details.

During the process various mentors would come into the room and give you their 2 cents on the idea. Teams that were intensely divided on the direction an idea should take began to jell over the weekend.

The final pitch event took place on Sunday at 2:30 pm. We had a panel of 6 judges come in to judge the 8 pitches and select the top 2. The participants at the event had the opportunity to select the 3rd place finisher. The judges were recognized leaders in the local business community so had some credibility in being able to select the best startup ideas.

What impressed me about the final pitches was how far the startup ideas progressed over the weekend from rough ideas to pitches with polished powerpoints, financial analysis, customer validation data, websites, and more. It is really quite amazing what can be accomplished in the span of a startup weekend.

I'm happy to report that the startup project I worked on won first place. The originator of the idea got to take home $6500 to help start up his business. The credit goes to the team that had a variety of skills that resulted in a startup idea that was deemed the most ready to hit the ground running (other projects were deemed to have too many elements that were outside of the startups near term control so would be delayed in starting up).

I would encourage anyone who hasn't participated in a startup weekend to try it out at least once. A few caveats: The attendees are mostly university students, often taking business degrees or degrees that have some entrepreneurship or "starting lean" elements to it and this event if often promoted as an adjunct to such courses. I would personally like to see more of a mix of ages so there is more business experience in the room but the enthusiasm of youth is a plus. The process is susceptible to block voting as participants come with friends and may choose pitches more on the basis of friendship than merit. Also, one minute is not a long time to pitch your initial idea so it will tend to favor ideas that are simple to express and relate to. Trying to explain a niche opportunity might be difficult with no props and 8 sentences to do so. Finally the process was a bit too indoctrinating in some respects for me in that the lean startup approach might be preached as gospel at these events. I think there are some good ideas in the starting lean philosophy but it scares me when I see students thinking there is a simple recipe to starting a business. The starting lean approach, however, has produced the startup weekend concept and format and should definitely be congratulated for that achievement.

Even though the process is imperfect, I do recommend that you try it out at least once as there is much to learn from the process, the enthusiasm, and the camaraderie that develops over an intense 54 hours. It is an opportunity to experience the power of teamwork as people with a variety of skills and experiences come together to work on a startup idea.

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