The prize in not in winning, the prize is in the experience.
At this point, I’ve experienced Startup Weekend from many angles; as a participant, a keynote, a panelist, a mentor. The goal of this post is to compile my observations into a “best practices” script of-sorts, and in doing so help you make the most of your experience.
First, a high level: In my opinion Startup Weekend is NOT about starting a real company, but rather, proving to yourself that it is in-fact possible to start your own company. Sure, some companies do form out of the weekends and go on to raise real capital, but I feel that this is more of an edge case than a standard.
So if you’re not here to build a real company, what are you here to do?
1) People, people, people.
For three days, you’ll be surrounded by a handful of talented technologists, business minded folks, mentors, and investors. Take advantage of this fact. It isn’t very often that you get a group of capable people together in one room all with the shared goal of building something great.
With that said, don’t be on a mission to shake hands– be on a mission to make friends and build lasting relationships. I met our first investor at Startup Weekend– in fact, I was offered $50,000 just two days after the weekend ended to pursue the project I had pitched. (Though I later chose not to take the money).
2) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
OK Eli, what count’s as “small stuff?!?”
If this is your first time putting together a startup budget, you’re first plan will without a doubt be full of shit. Don’t waste time on this– no one cares. If the question comes up, question the person asking it (they’re probably a Goober). If you feel like you need an answer just say that post funding you expect to be burning $12K per employee, per month, less founders (you won’t be paying yourself that much). (Our Interim CTO, Joe Stump wrote a great post here on the subject).
-Marketing plans that take more than 2 hours
Your market will dictate much of this plan, and frankly, you only have so much time to learn from your market over a 3 day weekend. Don’t over analyze.
-Social media BS.
Seriously, no one is impressed by your teams Facebook friends liking your ‘Companys’ Facebook page. Also, if you somehow land more than 1K followers, the vast majority of the audience will assume you bought them. THIS IS A WASTE OF TIME AND DOESN’T COUNT AS MARKET VALIDATION. Want to impress the crowd? Go land a real customer or two.
-Polls of other SW attendees
Again, this doesn’t count as market validation. In fact- none of your friends or family count as market validation. They’re all liars and will tell you what they need to to not feel like assholes. What’s that? Yea, I know– “But Eli, my friends and family ARE my target customers, they fit the customer profile perfectly!” Awesome! They still don’t count– BUT they likely can intro you to a less biased colleague / customer / or boss of theirs for some real feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- “Intellectual Property”
If you are concerned about IP and make a stink about it (someone always does) you’re going to look like a total ass-clown. Your great idea is NOTHING without execution. If someone hears about your “unique IP” and then goes off and does it without you and succeeds, THEY DESERVE IT. The hard part is in the execution, not the imagining of things. So speak freely, be generous, and remember that it’s the people that matter most, not the ideas.
3) Sleep less, focus more.
You’re only here for 3 days. Don’t think that 8 hour days are going to cut it. If you’re really into the idea of a startup, give yourself a taste of reality: 8a-2a should do the trick. Everyone else gets 3 days, you get 4…
4) What you SHOULD focus on? P.P.P.C.
-Problems, not solutions.
If you’ve created a cool solution to a nonexistent problem, you’re fucked. Call BS early, and move on to the next idea. There is no shame in being wrong, only in not course correcting once you know you’re wrong.
MAKE SOMETHING. However trivial, if you can make something move inside of a browser, do it. If you can build out a very stripped down MVP (minimal viable product), all the better! Also, MAKE IT PRETTY. Don’t underestimate the power of pretty. Whether it’s your landing page, or the beginnings of the app itself, make sure the part you show off looks good.
Whoever is pitching should spend at-least 8 hours practicing. Seriously. Also, don’t wait until the last day. Saturday night you should give it a go with your team. Even if you don’t have all of the pieces (you won’t), giving it an early go will help your team identify the missing pieces and will buy you with the time needed to fill them in. Another way to think about this– you have the opportunity to tell any story you’d like– make sure you are able to show off all of that hard work.
You have a network. Flex it. Go through your contact list and see where people are working. Call them. Rinse and repeat. If everyone on the team is tasked with finding ONE customer, you’ll likely have more customers than anyone else on stage.
5) Pitch/post-pitch expectations
Everyone is nervous, just rock it. If you scan the room with your eyes focused just slightly above the tops of everyone’s heads, you won’t have to worry about getting distracted by any one face, and you’ll appear to be engaging the audience.
You don’t have much time so practice, practice, practice. Practicing is more important than sleeping (for the most part). If you’re assigned to be the pitch-guy just know that the whole teams efforts rest on your shoulders in those final minutes. Don’t suck.
-Work the room
Once your pitch is over, don’t go sit with your team and talk amongst yourselves. Assuming you did a good-ish job, you should be working the room and meeting everyone who you didn’t get a chance to chat with while you we’re working. Also, don’t assume the only important people in the room are the judges– that would be making a huge assumption and I’m willing to bet money you’re wrong.
6) My thoughts on what (not) to pitch.
I’ve been to my fair share of Startup Weekends and have heard a ton of pitches. Here’s a newbs guide to what not to pitch. The reasoning? Anytime you have a “sexy consumer idea,” imagine there is a team of 5 Stanford/Harvard/YouNameItBigFuckingSchool graduates that are working on the same exact idea, but they have $5M in the bank and virtually unlimited resources at their disposal. This is likely the case for any of the ideas below.
Why? Because consumer is “sexy,” and because these are obvious at this point, and as such have been pitched and attempted over and over. Instead, I challenge you to think of something that pertains to your specific domain of expertise. You’re no more of a social expert than my 14 year old brother, whereas that one nagging thing that you wish you had at work may very well be worth $19/month by millions of other people in your shoes. Choose / avoid wisely.
The no-no list:
- An app that helps you navigate events
- An app that helps you find events relevant to you!
- An app that helps two people share contact info!
- A consumer app that has anything to do with piggybacking FB or Twitter for more than 50% of its value add.
- An app that aggregates photos
- An app that prints photos
- An app that has to do with beating craigslist.
- An app to meet people
- An app to source local food/meat
- An app for group chat
- An app for food discovery
- An app for skill-share or group volunteering
7) Expectations around raising money.
I wasn’t going to address this, but seeing as the question comes up almost every time I sit down with a team… Here are some ground rules to set for your imagination.
No sophisticated investor will:
- Invest in you before you’ve quit your job. Don’t waste your breath.
- Be excited enough to write a check for any of the aforementioned ideas straight out of a 3 day event.
- Believe that “everyone is going to quit their jobs to work on this thing” until they actually do.
So monday rolls around and you want to move forward with your concept. Here’s a quick checklist. (Assuming you want to turn it in to a venture backed company at some point).
- Talk to your team. You’re going to want no more than 4 co-founders to move forward, and people generally self select based on their current situations. See who is ready to commit and quit their jobs. The more technical/product oriented the team is, the better. There should always be more engineers than business people. (Investor optics). If your entire 10 person team is ready to quit their job and move forward with things, pick four and explain your rational to the rest. If they make some BS claims about IP– nothing is stopping them from trying to give it a go themselves… wish them luck.
- Lock down the team that wants to move forward. Get a firm commit date.
- Quit your job. You can’t really go for it if you’re multitasking.
- Find an attorney in town that will incorporate you for free (oh man, I’m going to catch some flack for this). There are tons of big firms that think of these kinds of opportunities as lead gen. DON’T PAY to incorporate. You should be able to get 2K in free services from a top notch firm without too much trouble. Pretend they are investors, sell them on your vision. Paint the picture of you becoming a big company. They will see the future $$$$$. Also, whatever you do, DON’T give them any equity.
- With said attorney, form a Delaware C-Corp. Look it up on Quora. If you’re going to take this puppy to venture scale, nothing else will suffice long term, and you’ll end up spending a ton of dough swapping from that LLC.
- Get to work. Ship a product. MOAAAAR CUSTOMERS. Rinse and repeat. And the rest as they say, is history.
7) Final thoughts.
Remember, you’re here to have fun and learn. Open your ears, speak up, and kick some ass.
Questions? Shoot me a message on my tweeter.