I’m psyched about getting to take part in Richmond Startup Weekend this coming weekend, not only because of the great hackers I’ll get to meet there, but because I get to watch ideas take form. They go from a concept mulling in someone’s head on Friday night into business plans, prototypes, proofs of concept, communities, excitement, and viable next steps by Sunday evening.
With all of the fun of taking part in a startup crammed into a single weekend, there are quite a few different ways to approach this event, depending on what you want to get out of it. This is by no means a complete list, but here are some strategies that I believe are effective. I’d love to hear your strategies in the comments.
Successful Startup Weekend Strategies
View it as a workshop
By all means, that’s exactly what this is – a weekend business workshop where you’ll get out of it what you put in. So why not put in some more effort and take one of the other strategies here?
Focus on the Presentation
You’re going to be judged on your presentation, so if you want to win, it better deliver what the judges are looking for. Judges have their own tastes, of course, but the standard elements are the business plan, market, and execution. In the previous Charlottesville Startup Weekend, nearly every team used Prezi for their presentation. This is a great tool for collaboratively mindmapping ideas, so it’s tempting to use this as a whiteboard and then turn it into a presentation (that’s what my team did), but if you’re going to do this, please take care with your transitions to not nauseate everyone following along – they’re no longer cute (were they ever?) and they detract from the limited time you have on stage. In this strategy, start working on the presentation right away, and see each encounter with mentors as an opportunity to practice your presentation. If you’re taking a CEO-type role in the team, and are a strong presenter, then this is a good strategy to follow.
Focus on the Business Plan
In this strategy, you decide early on that you’re not going to be able to get a working prototype of the idea, so you instead focus on crafting a solid business plan. If you take this strategy, be ready to provide compelling quantitative arguments (what size is your market? what your operating costs? what’s your profit margin?), as well as qualitative arguments (does anyone want to use this? how do we know they’ll sign up?). Make sure you can update the presentation as the business plan takes form over the weekend, and get lots of feedback both from mentors as well as from your target market.
Focus on the Market
In this strategy, you focus on who will benefit from your idea. If you or someone else on your team is great at generating a buzz, then start building this. Being able to say you have any users signed up at the end of 48 hours is a pretty awesome thing to boast about. If you’re doing a web application, then this strategy might prioritize getting a landing page up where you can collect email addresses, and finding a way to generate interest (or exploiting your personal networks to generate interest if you really believe in the idea). While a solid business plan will include hypotheses about the market, you can also use the buzz you generate to start testing your hypotheses.
Focus on the Execution
If you’re like me and participate because you just want to hack, then this is the strategy for you. The huge caveat here is that you can’t execute the entire business model in one weekend. I’ll say that again, you’re not going to finish! Now, with that out of the way, what’s the very smallest chunk of the problem you can bite off and tackle? Remember that tiny victories keep up the momentum, which you’ll need late on Saturday night, so the smaller the idea the better. You can always increase the scope later. A good use of this strategy is to put out a teaser for your full plan. This is a great way to generate buzz if you’re focusing on the market. For example, while you might not be able to build your entire networked virtual aquarium over the weekend, you can get a cool looking fish swimming on your phone to show off, and then if you have time you can get it to swim from one phone to another. Live demos are badass, but they can come back to bite you if they fail, so when in doubt go with a screencast, screenshots, or even mock-ups (which are great if you’re focusing on the presentation).
Focus on the Team
While everyone’s talking about the ideas they like on Friday night, you can instead focus on the team that you think will be most successful. A good team can take a mediocre idea and turn it into a viable business model, especially if the strengths are well distributed across the team. If too many people flock to a team, it can be difficult to utilize everyone’s strengths the best without spending too much time with internal communication.
Unsuccessful Strategies for Startup Weekend
Focus on the Name
I fell into a trap where I wanted to get a domain name for our app, and of course wanted this to be the perfect branding that we could use throughout our site and presentation. Instead of just running with a name, we debated back and forth, wasting a couple hours that could have been spent building the site. It’s great if you can come up with a name, and it can be a good first exercise to do as a team, but spending more than 10-15 minutes picking out a name just isn’t worth it. And at this point, who cares if the domain is taken, just pick a product name and if you really need a domain name, just use an alternative. If your idea catches on, you’ll have plenty of time to rename or rebrand. This is also one of those cases where if you have an idea you’re thinking about pitching, spend time before the event so that you can present it with the name and brand you have in mind.
It’s easy to get caught up in some detail and lose sight of what you’re trying to do as a team. While it’s certainly fun to go rock climbing high up on some wall, this won’t help you succeed at event. Having a shared presentation that you’re working on, and running through the concepts from it with the mentors is a good way to get back on track.
Get Caught Up in Team Dynamics
This can be anything from spending time debating who will own what when you make your first million, to getting into lengthy disagreements over how many spaces you should use to indent your code (I won’t bother even mentioning those inferior tabs). While some level of disagreement is good for team building, I prefer following the do-ocracy model over having to ask for permission or acceptance before taking any action or making any decision. The weekend’s just too short for that.
Forget to Have Fun
While it’s rewarding to take the weekend seriously, remember that this is a weekend workshop, where you can take risks that you wouldn’t normally take if you were assigned to do this for a job. If that’s not fun in and of itself, then find some component of it that is fun and focus on that.