Jim Harrer


Why everyone should experience a startup weekend.

I had the opportunity to attend a startup weekend here in my hometown of Bend, Oregon. In 54 hours, I watched 30 ideas, turn into 7 concepts that developed 7 companies including 7 websites, facebook pages and twitter feeds.  Each team conducted interviews with potential customers and defined their first release backlog for their Minimal Viable Product (MVP), embracing the Lean Startup principles discussed by author Eric Ries. Each team also created business models to help them understand their potential revenue opportunities, cost of goods sold, SG&A and profit potentials.  On Sunday night at 6pm, just 48 hours later, these new companies presented their five minute pitch deck to a group of judges.  One company had secured it's first paying customer, and another company was invited into a local World Market to test their homemade Venezuelan chocolates in the store. These teams gained an amazing amount of traction over the weekend. In this blog post, I plan to share some of the lessons learned from the weekend and how they can be applied to your startup.

I had heard of Startup Weekends being held in other cities, but I didn't give it a lot of thought.  Honestly, the idea of spending my entire weekend coaching teams didn't sound like a lot of fun.  Boy was I wrong.  Not only was it a ton of fun, it was insightful, rewarding and energizing. Let me explain...

Startup Weekend Bend OregonWhat is Startup Weekend you ask?

Startup Weekend is a global network of passionate leaders and entrepreneurs on a mission to inspire, educate, and empower individuals, teams and communities to turn a pitch into a startup. These are 54-hour events where developers, designers, marketers, product managers, business strategist and past Founders (acting as coaches), come together to share ideas, form teams, build products and launch startups.

Some people assume Startup Weekend is a tech driven event solely for software programmers, like a hack-a-thon, they're not. Startup Weekend draws a wider audience with broader skills: sales, marketing, business development managers, finance, UX/UI, web, CSS, data architects, past founders and current CEOs, CFOs, VCs and a handful of experienced Angel investors.  Add these skills early on, when the MVP is being defined, changes the  typical focus on "product development" to "customer development", asking some tough questions, early. Like, "Who is our customer, what is their persona, and how much would they pay to have this product or service?"  Add in the 54 hour time box around the event, you also bake in a real sense of urgency to move quickly into customer discovery.

What happened at Startup Weekend – Bend, Oregon.

42 participants, 8 coaches and 1 facilitator out of Seattle arrived at 6pm, Friday night. After a couple of short presentations, the facilitator explained the process:

  • Anyone in the audience that has an idea can pitch their idea to the room using their “Pitchfire” process. This basically gives each participant 60 seconds, to explain the problem and solution. No PowerPoint or props, just a mic and a stopwatch.
  • The idea and key points are scribbled on a large 3M poster board and stuck around the room in preparation for the networking event that would follow the Pitchfire. This is when people would have the opportunity dive deeper into the idea and shake it out.
  • With our size of 42 participants, they estimated we could support up-to 7 or 8 teams. The ideal team size is between 5-8 people. Everyone would be given three dots they can use to vote for their favorite pitch.
  • Once the top 7-8 pitches are established, participants are given 6x3” post-its where they write their specific skill (coder, UX/UI, copy editor, marketing, sales). Everyone then decides which team to join, by placing their post-it, with their name and skill set, on the poster board of their favorite pitch.
  • With the teams formed, they’re given workspace area and get to work, focusing their first time box on customer development, and then defining their minimum viable product followed by a discussion on product market fit – all before they call it a night Friday night. Yes, it's intense.

Following the overview discussion, the facilitator asked the forty-two participants how many wanted to share their idea in the Pitchfire. More than thirty people raised their hands, and the pitches began, Startup Weekend was off and running.  

Who attended Startup Weekend - Bend, Oregon?

Of the 42 participants, we had a handful of Juniors and Seniors from our high schools, another handful from Oregon State University Cascades and Central Oregon Community College.  The rest of the participants included software developers from our local business, marketing execs, a couple financial advisers and a handful of retired business professionals.  The majority of the participants had full time jobs.  None had ever been to a Startup Weekend before and like me, had no idea what to expect.  I want to stress, it wasn't a room of unemployed people looking for a job.  Many of the attendees are employed and simply wanted to experience the rush of starting a business from scratch.  Sure, many continue to work on their new businesses in their spare time, but the goal for anyone should be to simply show-up, jump-in and enjoy the experience of going all-in on an idea for 54 hours.

Lessons learned from attending a Startup Weekend?

Obviously, everyone walked away with a sense of accomplishment from the weekend, and they should from what they accomplished in 54 hours. What wasn't obvious were some of the other lessons learned, watching these startups incubate in this accelerated time box. Here are a few of my observations:

  • Startup Teams consisting of 6-8 team members creates a great dynamic.  Usually, I'm working with 1-2 founders during this early phase, who are begging for help from friends, family and others in the community, it's hard to gain a lot of traction this way.  Startup Teams consisting of 6-8 members can bulldoze through obstacles and gain traction fast. I witnessed one team define their MVP, then immediately dispatch two team members to go to a local coffee shops and pubs to test the concept, then return an hour later with early customer feedback. 
  • Focus was on "real work with actionable tasks".  The best teams put all of their members to work, quickly.  The best teams collaborated, divided the workload into teams of two, set a time box to reconvene and went to work.  
  • The best teams created their Lean Business Canvas before calling it a night Friday night.  They tracked their iterations using a validation board methodology to manage pivots.  As coaches, we celebrated pivots and encouraged each team to create time boxes throughout the weekend to actually focus on pivot discussions.  This helped the teams with continuous innovation, focused on customer development.
  • Everyone can benefit from attending a Startup Weekend.  CEOs, Sales, Marketing, Finance, Business Development, Coders, UX/UI, IT and students.  I guarantee, you'll learn something and have a lot of fun. It will make you better in your day job, and it will re-energize you. I also wouldn't hesitate championing these events to my employees and encourage them to give it a try. The benefits out weigh any risk of losing your talent.

One of the companies created during our weekend was Perfect Menu for restaurant owners.  You can check them out at http://perfectmenu.com/

To see a list of upcoming Startup Weekends, click on this link and check out the Events Map. Startup Weekend is global, so regardless of where you live, you can experience yourself.  I encourage you to attend and then leave me a comment with your observations.


P.S. If you enjoyed this post, please post a comment below and consider sharing it on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Reddit.

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