This past weekend I had the pleasure of participating in Pittsburgh’s second (hopefully bi-annual) Startup Weekend. Ideas were pitched, teams were formed, and judges bribed (with cookies). Our host called us crazy for choosing to spend our time away from school and our 9-5′s to pay for the privilege of working on our time off, but applauded our determination and spirit. By 10 PM Sunday night I had learned a considerable amount from this experience, but not the things I had initially anticipated. I ultimately picked up more on pitching and about what constitutes an MVP than I did about building a business, but that’s not a bad thing. Below I will share with you my experiences as well as some tips I will utilize next time to maximize my team’s efficiency. If you plan on attending a Startup Weekend event for the first time I’m confident I can save you some aggravation with the tips below.
For those unfamiliar with the event it unfolds like this:
Friday night you meet, socialize, listen to all the pitches (~30 this time), vote, learn who the finalists are (13 of them), decide what team you want to join, and do some initial assessments on your team’s capabilities.
Saturday you meet at 9 AM, make a game plan, work, break for lunch, work, listen to a talk, work, solicit advice from coaches, break for dinner, work some more and get kicked out at midnight.
Sunday you meet at 9 AM, work, talk to some different coaches, break for lunch, scramble to finish, submit your work around 4 PM, eat dinner, listen to all the presentations, congratulate the winner and go drink.
Below I’ll share what I learned during these 54 hours of madness as well as some valuable tips I picked up along the way.
Friday Night Pitch Fest
Of the roughly 30 ideas pitches all but two were based on software (app or website) with the two outliers being a hardware device and a pitch to grow food year round utilizing aquaponics. The hardware device was chosen as a finalist but the founder was only able to enlist the help of one other participant.
Tip: You have a better chance of being selected if you pitch a website or app.
After finalists were selected the participants were invited to choose the team they wanted to work with. During the pitch the presenters were able to make requests as to the skillsets they believe their team needed, but really the categories break down into developers, designers, and other. It should come as no surprise to anyone that developers and designers are in the highest demand.
The process by which participants choose their team seemed to be highly subjective based on my observations. You’re either so enamored with an idea that you absolutely must be on that team, or you pick your team based on the presenter. The people I gravitated to most either had a strong stage presence and exuded confidence, or demonstrated a strong mastery in their chosen field. It is very difficult for a pitcher to convey in the one minute allotted the merit of their idea, but the ones who were able to do so had the largest teams. Personally I had some trouble differentiating presenters and ideas after a half hour and 30 pitches. My advice at this stage would be to do something small but memorable to differentiate yourself from the competition so that if you’re chosen you can stand out during the team selection process. An example of this may be to bring a bright neon posterboard sign with you on stage with your team name written across it. This has the benefit of not only clearly articulating your team name, but holding the sign overhead during the team selection may help participants gravitate towards you instead of being captivated by some other whim that directs them to another team.
Tip: When pitching, have a strong stage presence and demonstrate your knowledge in your chosen field. Also, do something to be memorable.
My initial thought was also that developers would be the backbone of the team. I quickly changed my mind during the course of the weekend and ultimately decided that designers were most important, as I’ll talk about later. Concentrate on getting at least two designers if it’s within your power to do so.
Tip: Try and get at least one, but preferably as many designers as possible for your team.
Once the teams were selected the event was officially over for the evening. Some people went home, some people went to drink. I recommend you start working. There are some activities you can do this evening in relatively short time to give you a leg up on your competition.
During the course of the weekend you’ll have to share a lot of information with your team. Take the time now to collect everyone’s GMail address and setup a Google Docs share to collaborate on text, and create a Dropbox share for files. This will primarily allow your designer to share his designs with the rest of the team. Bring some USB sticks as backup.
Depending on what you plan to build there are also other steps you can take. You have a company name, do you own a domain name for it? If you plan on building out a website this weekend (not recommended) you should ensure that you have somewhere setup to host it, and that all your DNS is in place as this may need some time to propagate. Also consider registering your Twitter handle now if you feel that’s important, although I’d recommend against worrying about Twitter and Facebook for this competition. Speaking of DNS, the hosts will encourage you to setup a landing page for email address collection, which could be one metric you use to demonstrate public interest in your idea. We used LaunchRock as it was quick to setup, but if you want it available by the following morning you should now setup the necessary CNAME record so you can point your landing page to a subdomain of your site.
Tip: Before leaving Friday night you should have your collaboration tools in place, a landing page up and running, and have a good idea of your team’s strengths.
One additional note on setting up a landing page and other accounts. I recommend that all accounts be created under a single email address. A new GMail address could be created for this purpose for which all team members know the password. This will save the owner some headache following the competition.
Tip: Register all accounts under a single company email address.
A Plan for Saturday
As Saturday will be your main work day, it is important to face it with a plan in place to avoid spending many of your first hours on inefficient and unnecessary tasks. Do you really need to take up 2 hours of someone’s time setting up a Facebook account and Twitter page? What are you actually getting out of this? It’s unlikely you’re going to grow a large enough audience on either platform to sway a judge’s opinion from them.
Remember to keep the endgame in sight. Your main task is to convince the judges of the merits of your idea through your presentation and a demonstrateable need for your service or product. I recommend working backwards from this goal.
I would subdivide tasks into two key categories, your presentation and your market.
This is how you will impress the judges visually and verbally. Have your designer start on a logo early on as this will set the visual tone for your pitch. The color scheme chosen for the logo will then be used throughout the mockups as well as the slide deck template. It could be beneficial to have a color scheme pre-selected although your designer may have their own opinion about this. Same with the slide deck, picking a powerpoint template is one of those tasks that can quickly turn into an hour of wasted time.
Of the 13 pitches, many different approaches were selected by the teams. My team as well as at least two others chose to build the skeleton of a working site. All but one of the pitches for a mobile app utilized mockups, and one team demoed a few screens of the beginning of an iOS app. I know that the two devs on my team easily spent over 30 hours coding the back-end of our site and we touched upon this for under 30 seconds of our demo. In my opinion nicely done mockups can convey the essence of your site or app just as well, if not better, than the rudimentary site you can put together in two days. I recommend spending more time on the design and user experience over actual functionality. It is for this reason that I previously recommend forsaking devs in favor of designers for this competition.
You’re going to have 5 minutes to pitch the judges. How are you going to divide that time? The 5 minutes are a hard deadline and the moderators will cut you off mid-sentence. I saw numerous teams not get through their entire deck, with one team cut off right as they switched to the slide showing their revenue model. How will your pitch unfold? A popular and effective tactic seemed to involve the telling of a story of a fictional user of the service. This is Ed, this is Ed’s dilemma, this is how Ed used our service to make his life easier.
One of the main goals of your presentation will be to convince the judges of the market’s need for your service. What are the pain points you’re addressing? Perhaps you came up with your idea at the last minute based on a personal need but have limited knowledge of the field involved. It’s important to overcome this hurdle early on. More than one team realized late Saturday that they had overlooked an important element of their market which invalidated their idea in its current form. Maybe there’s a competitor you found who is already executing on your idea? Having a competitor in the market doesn’t mean you should abandon your idea per se, but perhaps you discover that there’s no real market there based on their success or lack thereof. Do real business owners have an interest in your service? Better to discover this and pivot your approach early on.
A good article from FastCompany describing the importance of knowing your market in-depth instead of operating under false assumptions.
Some teams polled the other members of Startup Weekend regarding their ideas. Remember that these people will be there well into the night right alongside you whereas the business owners and passers-by on the street will not be. Start your public outreach outside in anticipation of these people being unavailable later in the evening. You can always poll your fellow conference attendees afterwards.
Nearly all teams created online questionnaires which they sent out to their social circles. This typically resulted in a bullet point on the presentations which read “Of the 70 respondents to our online survey 90% said they would benefit from our service”. Translation: We asked our friends and family to validate us and, not wanting to hurt our feelings, that’s exactly what they did. The judges you’re pitching won’t be impressed or fooled by this. It is much better to get valuable, actionable feedback from your real clients and influencers in the marketplace. Speaking to your core customer will give you valuable insight. Instead of 70 random, anonymous survey respondents try instead to craft a 3 question email, with an introduction stating the time sensitive nature of the requested response, and send it out to the leaders in your industry. Most probably won’t respond but better the chance of receiving the attention and opinion of one key player rather than 70 people who probably didn’t spend more than 5 seconds thinking about your idea. My team did not do this and although our online survey received over 100 responses, it didn’t validate our idea or return any beneficial or actionable information.
On Sunday our hosts informed us that we would have until 3:30 PM to complete our work and a frenzy of activity ensued, but none of it very different from the preceding day. Once the deadline expired all the teams met for dinner and proceeded over to Thinktiv for the presentations. The best advice I can give here is to list some of the judge’s follow-up questions for you to consider with regards to your service.
Specifically who is your customer?
Who will you partner with to give you some credibility and facilitate market penetration?
What did you learn from speaking with potential users and how did you pivot based on this information?
Is your product social? How can users leverage their current social groups rather than have to invest the time to recreate them in your application?
What is your revenue model?
Do you have an exit strategy? Who is likely going to try and acquire you?
How will you get people to use your service? You likely have one shot at getting a recurring customer. What’s that one thing you will do/give a customer on their very first try that will make them come back a second time?
How do you differentiate from your competition?
Other than considering the above points I would advise that your presenter be someone who can articulate your team’s vision clearly to the judges, even if such a person is not the original idea pitcher from Friday night. Your team will be allowed to bring one or two people up to the front to present, and the original pitcher should be on stage, but perhaps their role will be to answer judges questions and not present the entire pitch.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Startup Weekend and cherish the experience it brought me. I am confident that next time I will be better prepared by following the advice laid out in this post. I personally plan to further take advantage next time to pitch an idea of my own and hopefully find a team to execute my idea. Should it occur that close to the time of the next competition I do not yet have an idea of my own I plan to reach out to influential bloggers and entrepreneurs I follow online and solicit advice. Based on their observations and real world experience I imagine any one of them could rattle off a long list of ideas for which they lack the time to fully explore themselves.