Last weekend (November 22 through 24) I attended the Portland Startup Weekend. It was pretty intense, and I learned a lot, although most of what I learned was not technical in any way, shape, or form.
This is not a hack-a-thon
Seriously, it’s not. I went in expecting that the focus would be technical, and that I would be dealing mostly with technical people. This was not the case. There is a serious focus on marketability, market research, market validation, and all kinds of business stuff that technical folks like me tend not to think about. Don’t be surprised when you spend the first night there with a big business plan canvas, and not hammering out code. Which makes sense, when you realize that this is a startup weekend geared towards forming a new, successful business, and not a hack-a-thon filled with people who are interested only in doing interesting technical things. Even though the startup itself may require lots of technical work, that work will be, at best, 50% of the focus of the weekend. Which isn’t to say that technical skills dont matter: they absolutely do. Just don’t expect to be the star of the show.
This isn’t to say that the hackers there won’t have serious technical chops: lots of them probably will. On the second team I worked for, we had some very, very skilled people on both the hardware and the software side of things, who accomplished an incredible amount of work in a very small amount of time. The winning team had a really impressive demo (although my knowledge of the frameworks they used did somewhat temper my wonder at what they accomplished). Having good hackers really matters. But you can’t get buy with only good hackers.
Hustlers, Hipsters, and You
Startup weekend groups people into 3 categories: Hackers (technical folks like me), Hipsters (designers and artistic types), and Hustlers (business people, lawyers, and others of their ilk). You will need at least one of each in order to do well. Try to recruit a diverse team, but don’t worry too much if you dont: at various points during the 3 days, you can put out feelers for the types you’re missing, and you will likely get some help, at least for a while. Also, don’t be surprised if your hustler turns out to actually be a hipster, or your hipster really is a hacker. Some of the people who come to startup weekend come specifically to work on things outside their comfort zone, or to hone skills they don’t already have. Embrace the people who do this, because they’ll bring a passion to the role that you may not otherwise find in someone who does their startup weekend role for a living.
After the standard meet and greet, pitches will begin. I don’t know if portland startup weekend is representative of all the start up weekends, but there will likely be a lot of pitches. I heard that there were something like 60 pitches out of 115 participants, so settle in. Each person gets 1 minute, and they may or may not be a) coherent or 2) able to articulate their idea. That said, it’s ends up being quite interesting hearing what each of the people want to say. While 1/3 (number chosen randomly) of the people will “totally have thought this up on the way here”, the rest of the participants will genuinely believe in and love the idea that they are pitching. I want to say you should try to focus on the “serious” pitchers, but some of the non serious ideas may actually be really great. Don’t be afraid to contribute to a spur of the moment idea. I took notes during the pitches, but nothing particularly in-depth: The name of the ideas that appealed to me, and a sentence about them, so I would remember what intrigued me about the idea when it came time to vote.
Voting and Team Formation
After about 10 or so minutes of organizing, the volunteers will put up sheets of paper with the company names, and then the voting begins. You get 3 votes, and can you can put them all towards what you think is the best idea, or spread them around. This is your chance to ask any questions, and get a feel for the person you might end up working with.
Depending on the number of participants and number of pitches, the volunteers will tell you how many teams can be formed. The ideas with the highest numbers of votes win, in my case that meant there were 16 teams. Some of the pitches may end up not being an official team, but if you really really believe in an idea, you can work on it anyway. I don’t know if the unofficial teams can get any of the prizes, though, but don’t let that dictate things. If you really think it’s an awesome idea, hack away!
Once the official teams are formed, you have 15 minutes to pick the teams you want to work with. Hopefully, one of the pitches you voted for was picked, but if not don’t fret. This is your chance to really get to know the person you’ll be working with over the next 54 hours, so ask any questions you might have, see what kind of skills they looking for, and what their target Minimum Viable Product is for the weekend. This might seem like a lot to ask of 3 or more people in only 15 minutes, and it is. It’s important that you time-box the pitcher. You only have 15 minutes, and the person who pitched their idea believes strongly in it, and will probably talk your ear off for the entire time to get you on their team. Don’t be afraid to just say hey, it’s a really cool idea, but it’s just not something I’m interested in working on, and then move on. No hard feelings.
Hopefully by now, you’ve found a team with an idea you like, and joined up. Everyone will sign in and the team leaders will report to the organizers. Now it’s time to make that startup.
Do a startup weekend, you won’t regret it. Take the monday off. Meet interesting people, do interesting work. Maybe even start a company with the people you meet.