Summary: I have done a few startup weekends and customer discovery events in total and have found some common patterns.
Make sure you have alerted friends and acquaintances about the weekend so that they know they probably won’t see much of you. This helps clear any potential distractions. It definitely helps to clear your plate as much as possible. At one of the competitions I had to fix something at work that couldn’t wait, and it took half of Saturday up. As you can imagine, it was frustrating for me and I wasn’t much help to the team.
Before the event might be a good time to start eliciting help for electronic voting. Something along the lines of, “hey, I’m doing a business competition this weekend, and part of our final score comes down to people texting a certain number.”
For the sake of everyone at the event, if you are pitching an idea, do some basic groundwork on the idea. Nobody wants to hear your pitch if the idea has already been done or is way too big for a startup weekend or is mumbled. You are just wasting everyone’s time. If you have an original take on an existing idea, fine. Just make sure you know enough about the environment you are considering working in to actually know about prior art. An hour of your time saves sixty people from hearing and voting on a minute pitch. It might sound equivalent, but it’s a net gain in terms of attention and energy. There were about forty pitches at the last startup weekend that needed to later be voted on, which took time.
Along the same lines, when at the pitches, listen for ideas that are pretty well-defined and that preferably have some sort of validation already. About the worst thing you can do is spend half of the weekend figuring out what you actually want to work on. About as bad is trying to do something for awhile and then basic research suggests that the idea has already been executed well by someone else. At that point the team flails for a few hours. Not a good start.
I generally pitch something that meets the criteria above and/or look for an idea and team leader that I think I will be able to work well with. I also check out the people who are joining the team and try to make sure that they are an impedance match. Talking with people before the event gives an idea of who I can most easily work with. You don’t have much time to butt heads, so picking a good team is really useful. Plus, nobody wants to spend the whole weekend working without having a little fun. I want a good story to tell, and picking a bad team, even if only for a weekend, is not a fun story to relive.
If you are just doing a small event, the same pitching process happens, and you can just pick the best idea out of the ones that you have come up with. Make sure to write down the other good ones in the event that you are going to do another event and want some ideas.
A New Team
Being productive with a team of strangers works best when you get off to a good start. Here are some patterns that I’ve observed.
Go around and introduce yourself and explain why you are interested in working on this idea. This lets everyone get to know each other, notice any biases or preconceived notions, and generally start forming around the idea of working on a shared project together. You can see why everyone picked this idea and team as the one they wanted to work on, and it leads effortlessly into the next time block.
This time period is always interesting because people may still join or leave the team. Just stay focused on the process, and the introductions and problem solving will work themselves out.
Next, everyone goes around and says at a high level what they think the idea is as they heard it from the person who pitched it. This puts the idea out there in a few different forms. After this comes a period of adjusting to the different viewpoints and emphases. Hopefully everyone is generally on the same page, and gelling occurs as you work out the key things that need to happen.
Generally at this point, it makes sense to solidify the problem you are trying to solve. Any talk of product or solution should be written down on a separate sheet of paper, preferably at the other side of the room. You must figure out the problem you are trying to solve before you can reasonably attempt to solve it. This will help marketing and development efforts greatly. You may identify many different problems or potential stakeholders, but for the sake of time it makes sense to focus only on the most valuable or easiest segment.
At this point in the process, I think it makes sense to take a step back and do some administrivia. Figure out who will be your team communicator that talks with advisors or other teams and communicates at startup weekend status update meetings. These can consume a lot of time, so it’s best to have one person to handle this. This person is still involved in the workings of the startup, and also has this extra role.
Keeping with administrative tasks, one person should be the head time keeper, in charge of letting everyone know when the next meal or meeting is. At this time, go over the whole weekend and get a lay of the land. You want to budget enough time for everything that you want to do during the weekend. Ask everyone if they are free for the whole weekend. Maybe someone has a soccer game that they need to watch, maybe someone has a party that will take a couple of hours. It’s useful to know these because then it isn’t a surprise and everyone feels that they can do what they need to do without being “that guy”.
Are We At The Solution Part Yet?
Well, if you are using a lean startup methodology (generally most applicable to Lean Startup Machine events), now is the time to validate that this is actually a valuable problem to solve. It’s part of producing the value that you need to produce (validated learning.)
Next, figure out a potential solution path. This should include what specifically you are going to build next, what the goal is for the weekend, and extensions. It’s good to start with a vision of greatness and then taper it down so you can show some progress. For more tips on defining the solution, check out Jared Brown’s post on defining the message of your startup.
If you are using lean startup techniques, at this time you should validate as you are building the solution to ensure that you are building the right thing and that it resonates with people.
Iteratively build until you just about run out of time. I suppose not much needs to be said about this.
Finally, work on the pitch to make sure that you don’t blow your time. Often you will only get a few minutes to describe what you did during the whole weekend to a group of people that has heard nothing of your idea. I’ve seen way too many teams blow this with irrelevant information. You are completely wasting your time if you talk about any of the people on your team unless they happen to be super-famous. The judges don’t care about who is on your team, they want to see what you got done or learned during the weekend.
Although I recommend practicing the final presentation a few times, it’s definitely not enough to have a good pitch and no product. A demo is worth a thousand words, which happens to save you quite a bit of time. You need to have something to show. If you can’t make a full product, make a prototype. If you can’t get to a prototype, lay out some screenflows. Any artifact that represents your thinking and the conversations you’ve had is better than just words. Arguably the screenflows should come before the prototype so that at any point you have something that best represents your product.
Random Thoughts And Question
I’d enjoy seeing some more non-tech startups at startup weekends, and even working on one. Also, some more non-profit or philanthropic companies would be interesting. The key here is coming up with a business model and proving the validity. It seems like this would be doable in a weekend.
Have you done a startup weekend? Does this experience relate to what you have seen? I haven’t won any, so maybe I’m going about this all wrong…