Startup Weekends are Awesome, and You Should Attend One (whether your interested in starting your own business or not)
If you havent heard of Startup Weekend - its an event where developers, designers, markets, product managers, and startup enthusiasts come together to to design, develop and launch a product over the course of a 54 hour hackathon. The DC Startup Weekend that I attended had over 100 attendees from DC, Virginia, Maryland, and Baltimore. It included people who had extensive startup backgrounds (started a few, failed a few, sold a few), people who worked at established companies and dreamed of starting their own startup, people looking for talent for their newly funded startup, and people who were happy with their day jobs but were just there for the experience. Not only that, but there were over 15 "Mentors" - established personalities from within the DC Startup Community who had volunteered their time, effort, and most importantly their advice to the event and its participants.
If you have heard of Startup Weekend and havent attended one yet (which if you have gotten so far should include no one, since I just told you about it) - what on earth are you waiting for? Find the one happening nearest to you - and register to attend one immediately. Trust me, it will change your life.
Things I Learned at Startup Weekend
- Have faith in the idea that speaks to you the most, even if its not one of the ideas that gets voted for: The concept of Weekly Eats got 6 votes when it was pitched (5 of those six coming from the people who ended up working on the project) - but somehow our team managed to win First Place in Startup Weekend DC. Believe in yourself, and believe in your idea - even if people don't immediately understand its potential.
- Manage your time, and set milestones for yourself and your team: Whether your timeline to deliver your MVP is 54 hours, or several months - setting milestones for yourself is equally important. In fact, the shorter the timeframe you have to work, the more important those milestones become. We set milestones for ourselves at four hour intervals to check-in, discuss our progress, our plan for the next four hours, and any blockers that we had come across (think of it as the mini scrum). This allowed us to pace ourselves and make sure that we were on track and that we had the appropriate amount of time to cover all of our bases.
- Step back and view the big picture (of the product): This one is kind of obvious, but its also easy to forget. It's so easy to get stuck up in designing the database schema, the layout of the individual screens, or the user flow - and completely forget that you need to also present a defendable business model, a method of user acquisition, a method for the validation of your idea. Essentially, be prepared to have spent time thinking about every major block within the Business Model Canvas. Which brings me to my next point:
- Focus on your business model as much as you focus on your code: During the event that we attended, we saw a ton of teams that were purely technical, that wanted to ship something within the 52 hour period and didn't think at all about the rest of the story. While shipping something within the 52 hour period is super important (and fundamentally is a core part of the event) - make sure you spend time thinking through all the aspects of the business.
- (Startup Weekend Specific) Dedicate at least half a day to your presentation: If your in it to win it, remember that the judges are brought in only to hear your final 5 minute presentation. They don't get to see the various iterations that you went through over the 54 hour period, they don't get to see how well your team is gelling (or not) or how quickly your team managed to self organize. The presentation is everything - so spend several hours rehearing it, make sure that it is well scripted and well within the time allowance, and most importantly - make sure you get the chance to explain your value proposition, the problem you are solving, how you are solving it, ideally a quick product demo, and most importantly - how you plan on growing the business and how you plan on monetizing it.
- Your Idea is Irrelevant: Don't be afraid to pitch your idea at the weekend, don't be afraid to give the pitch to anyone and everyone who will listen to you and get as much genuine feedback as possible. Execution - and the power of your team to deliver - is everything. Startup Weekend really drives that home. I absolutely agree with John Casey when he says:
"The pros of the “open source mentality” @StartupWeekend far outweigh the small downside cons of losing all or partial control of an idea birthed at the event."
- Always be Shipping: The most important thing that Startup Weekend taught me is that good enough is good enough to ship. I personally am totally guilty of not announcing / releasing something to the public until I think its polished enough to put my name against it. Startup Weekend taught me that polish is bullshit, getting real market validation is first and foremost - and that means releasing early (even 54 hours early) and releasing often.
- Have a Raucously Good Time: Because you will remember these 54 hours for a long time to come.
Things I Wish that I had Done Differently
- Lift your head out of your Product, and go meet some people! This is something that many people told me and I wish I had listened to more - and I know that I'm gonna tell you, and your probably not going to listen either. One of the most amazing thing about Startup Weekend is the people who are at the event. Attendees, Mentors, Organizers - all of them are some of the coolest, fun loving, most motivated people you will ever meet. Get to know them over those 54 hours because you will make friends who will be by your side for years to come.
- Think Hard About your Team and About the Future: After the weekend, have a concrete sit down (individually and as a team) and figure out if this is something you wish to pursue beyond 54 hours and into the next 5 years. This involves taking your personal employment situation into account (are you allowed to work on side projects by your day job?), as well as your personal situation in general (will you be able to handle a full time job and a full time startup without destroying your personal relationships?). Think very closely about the makeup of your team - the documentary Ctrl+Alt+Compete says it best when they say that your founding team is like a marriage, expect to spend all of your time with one another for the years to come, and worse then a marriage - there is absolutely little acceptable legal recourse if you wish to go your separate ways.
- Incorporate, Immediately. I know from personal experience that bringing up the issue of incorporation can be a touchy one, and if your the one put in the position to bring it up repeatedly, you will often feel like you are simply being petty. If your cofounders shy away from incorporating, then thats probably a very good sign for your to respectfully bow out of from the team and protect yourself from further grief. You can discuss all you want - but more often then not the standard setup will work for you i.e. you should be incorporating as a C-Corp, with a four year vesting schedule and a one year cliff for all of the founders involved. If anyone is not willing to agree to the vest or the cliff - thats a good sign that they are most likely not interested in sticking around long.
In ConclusionStart something, anything, today.
(And register for the next Startup Weekend in your area!)