What can you learn at a Startup Weekend?
This is a guest post from Phil Wolff @evanwolf, the original can be found on Quora. It’s amazing how many of the lessons learned from a weekend project can be applied to your MVP and lean startup.
Each time I’ve gone, and I’ve been to four, I learn something very different about the process and myself. In no particular order…
Decisiveness rules. You won’t have enough information, the right people, or enough time. Just choose. And choose. And choose. Few decisions are worth more than 30 seconds of conversation. Stop discussions and decide, then move. “Next!”
Read the competition instructions closely. Exactly what are you being judged on? What can disqualify you? Are there special benefits if you use a sponsor’s technology? Who owns your IP?
The pain of waiting too long to fire someone. On one project there was a person who dragged the rest of us down, slowing decisions, distracting us, not even attempting to deliver on promises. We knew this 16 hours into the 54 and could have saved ourselves some grief and bought focus by asking him to leave.
The necessity of speaking to an engineer in his/her terms, language. I don’t mean geek. I mean understanding how your engineer thinks about problems, work structure, requirements, etc.
The value of an experience designer. Had a great UX guy from Yahoo! on one project and it helped us hone in on a few key activity flows that delivered nearly all the product’s value.
Nobody votes for atoms. I’ve seen great products that involved things being sold (a learn-to-cook-kit for guys and a custom engraved greeting card via high power laser). VC culture is sour on things that are not infinitely scalable. Doesn’t mean you don’t have a great product, just don’t expect to win.
Beauty and a distinctive, fun appearance sells. Can your product have personality? Personality breaks ties in business models.
Checklists are powerful. They keep you from missing things. Make them as you go, download them if you don’t know what they should have. You are in crisis mode so you will miss important things. Miss fewer with checklists.
Pick team tools before you leave your first sit down meeting. Team listserv, google office/docs, code repository, to do lists, etc. Tool up.
It’s just for fun. Relax. The worst thing that can happen is you don’t win a prize and you wasted a weekend. So have fun, work hard, make friends, and learn something.
It’s not just for fun. Anyone you meet might wind up hiring, recommending, or investing in you. A surprising number of projects turn into real businesses that persist and grow long after the weekend.
Apply the “Law of Two Feet.” If you are not adding value, having fun, or learning, use your two feet and find a project where you can.
Facts. Proof someone will/won’t pay for your product can be found quickly if you start early.
Start quickly. Time is short.
Make a plan. Time is short. Set milestones you can hit, meet your team, pick roles and responsibilities.
Have The Equity Talk before lunch on Saturday. This avoids angry words if you win.
Pivot. It’s OK. If you’re doing the wrong thing, change if you can. Big pivot, small pivot. Sooner is better, since… Time is short.
Developers are scarce and powerful. Generally speaking there are fewer programmers than design, marketing, or management types. Also, generally, developers rarely express interest in those other roles. Cool when they do.
Manage scope. Minimum Viable Product, baby. Heck, shoot for minimum product that gives people a feel for what you’re service will do and feel like to customers. Less is more because… Time is short.
Judges apply formal models and criteria as pretexts for their gut feel. Tell the emotional story your customers will respond to. Puppies. Beer. Children. Lust. Greed. Fear. Your judges see thousands of decks and elevator pitches, as many as 20 on a busy Sunday camp night. Emotions and a narrative story help them remember you and your pitch.
Pitch yourself. When you get up for your 30 second elevator pitch on Friday night, pitching more than your idea as viable and investor-worthy (head, plausibility) but that we’ll have fun working together and you should be on my team (heart, belonging). I’ll like you!
Everyone fails, and that’s OK. This is a risk-friendly environment. So do you best and don’t stress. Like any beauty contest, everyone fails but one. So keep your head up and build.
Budget ten to fifteen percent of your working time to rehearsing the demo. Out of the 56-odd hours, you only have about 20 hours of actual work time (assuming sleep, eating, wasted time, commute). Plan at least two hours of standing up and repeating/revising your pitch, getting the words right, getting the order right, making it flow and feel natural so you speak with poise and confidence.
Demonstrations count. The demonstration shows you can execute, and builds trust in the team.
Presentations count more than the engineering. How you tell your story can overcome technical shortcomings. Many pitches even win with mockups or wireframes.
The right idea counts more than its presentation. Duh.
Make sure your team eats, sleeps. Fatigue makes bugs and bad decisions. If you’re going to pull an allnighter on one night, make it Saturday night. Be fresh and bouncing with energy for your pitch
Social skills make finishing possible. Turning strangers into a team, building consensus, resolving doubts and fear, keeping focus – all depend on soft skills. If you don’t have them, find someone who does.
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