Gotta Start Somewhere (Startup Weekend)
I have to admit I was completely mistaken in almost every assumption I had about my first Startup Weekend. Which is silly, because they’re not unclear about it. The first thing you’re told is “Startup Weekend is a 54 hour frenzy of business model creation” that begins with finding an idea and a team and ends with a presentation to local entrepreneurial leaders. Yet still, as I sat among a crowd of expectant strangers in Gangplank Chandler, waiting to hear the startup pitches on opening night, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how it would play out. I thought back to the pressure drills we did in grad school, where everyone in class had to break off into groups, develop a project in 8 hours, and get graded. “This is familiar,” I thought as I looked around during Hour 1 of Startup Weekend, “I know how this works.” I then spent the evening meeting my fellow participants and joining a team.
By the following morning, my team had adjusted the scope of our project to focus heavily on coding and design, with less emphasis on storyboarding or marketing. In other words, there wasn’t really a need for my services, and I was done before I got started.
So, I spent Hour 16 eating the nice lunch that the Startup Weekend folks thoughtfully provided for us and figuring out what I should do next, since the Grad School Model of How Things Get Done worked out so well. I walked around the room and asked if there was anything I could do to help. The people I spoke with were universally friendly and welcomed support. Over the course of Hours 17-24, I pitched in and had fun working with various groups on their social media campaigns, project management and market validation.
Since I wasn’t immersed in a single project, I was free to listen and observe. I had initially found the framework for the weekend a bit open-ended and vague, but as I watched the Startup mentors work their way through the room, offering guidance, feedback and even playing devil’s advocate, I saw the purpose behind the openness. I had been thinking about Startup Weekend in terms of achieving a concrete “thing”, but I soon realized that this was about failing -- quickly, repeatedly and thoroughly. And that’s hard to plan for, so it’s probably better to just encourage it and see what happens.
I also learned the term “pivot” because I heard it repeated a lot that day (thankfully, no one mentioned “synergy”.) It was explained to me as actively experimenting with your business model, adjusting target audiences, deployment methods, revenue models—anything that pushes evolution forward. I took it to mean, “get ready for lots of iterations,” hopefully resulting in one that could be developed in the next 24 hours.
The mentors were right in their encouragement to pivot, and pivot often. The teams that I saw make real progress were the ones that didn’t get too attached to their initial idea or product. They were able to hash out problems and stay productive in the face of all kinds of unexpected challenges. The teams that wouldn’t budge from their template lost momentum and got derailed at the first obstacle.
Even though I watched it unfold, I couldn’t have predicted what it looked like at the end. Every single team that had been formed the first night made it across the finish line, and they spent Hours 50-54 of Startup Weekend wowing those of us in the audience. It was astonishing and humbling—I had so much fun cheering and clapping for all of the presenters that I think I’d like to try it all again next year.