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After 9 Startup Weekends in three years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life (in fact, I’ve written previously that I might be addicted to it). However, for some that the journey could be really intense at times, and not everyone makes it to the finish line feeling the same way.

Recently, I facilitated Startup Weekend Miami: Diversity Edition, where I was taught the concept of “la pasión,” which is Spanish for “people in Miami are really, REALLY emotional.” I was tasked to harness la pasión in a community that had a plethora of it, in a way that would make everyone come away from Startup Weekend Miami feeling as wonderful as I had 8 times before.

Below is a list of lessons and tips for a facilitator, organizer, or volunteer to apply that would help maintain a sense of stability to an otherwise potentially chaotic event.

1. If you’re an organizer or volunteer, your mission is to execute the event as orderly as possible

In Startup Weekend, Murphy’s Law generally applies – anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It is vital that every organizer and volunteer is informed of the weekend’s tasks and can easily communicate with one another to correct any situation that arises.

Otherwise… this will happen…

Best practice: Print up a universal task list that specifies each delegation and giving a copy to all your volunteers. That way, even if they don’t have an assignment, they can look at the list to see if someone else needs help with something.

2. If you’re the facilitator, your first priority is to take care of the lead organizer

I got your back, Paula.

Generally, lead organizers shoulder the most burden, and the stress can be overwhelming. They should be acknowledged especially for their months of hard work leading up to the big show.

E Pluribus Unum, people.

Facilitators should check in with them hourly and make sure they’re fed, hydrated, and as relaxed as you can get them. If necessary, give them a hug (more on that later).

That'll do, senorita. That'll do.
That’ll do, senorita. That’ll do.

3. Communicate to people on their level – perhaps even in their language

Startup Weekend is an educational event at its core, and the most effective way to teach is to contextualize it with abstract reasoning that they understand. Learn more about them to understand their thinking processes.

Just being honest here.
Just being honest here.

An added challenge for me: most of the attendees of Startup Weekend Miami speak Spanish as their first language. I do not – except for what I’ve learned on TV –  so when people weren’t looking, I’d review my Dora The Explorer Lessons on YouTube and bust that out randomly. You’re welcome, mi amigo/as.

4. If teams are arguing without end, facilitate a scrum

Inevitably, disagreements occur in a competition, but they become difficult to resolve when people are not talking in a respectful, orderly fashion.

This was not that far off from the truth.
This almost happened at the event. More on that later.

To resolve this, get them to stand up and talk in a circle, one at a time. Here’s a quick video to teach you how to run a proper scrum – a very popular method of coordinating large, diverse teams.

(The key lesson starts at 6:32)

I did this with one team in particular. More on that later.

5. Have a quiet space – one for volunteers, one for participants

"Let me answer that question once I'm done with this Tweet."
“Let me answer that question once I’m done with this Tweet.”

We all need to decompress, so give your people a place to rest, nap, socialize, and blow off some steam. Don’t go so far as create a distracting place such as a game session – you still want people to focus on on the main goal.

6. Throw in a dance session or two (you’ll have to start it)

I'm going to regret this once people stop listening to "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars.
I’m going to regret this once people stop listening to “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars.

It was a foregone conclusion that I’d be dancing in Miami. It was just a matter of how often. I like to keep the music playing in a common area for attendees to come out, relax, and practice their salsa.

It is possible to have more rhythm than a native Argentinian, apparently.
It is possible to have more rhythm than a native Argentinian, apparently.

Dancing is a great way to stay loose and relaxed, and it’s probably less terrifying than, say, public speaking.

7. Prevent “hanger” by providing snacks and insist that everyone drink water frequently

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqbomTIWCZ8

Startup Weekend is a high-energy competition, and with brains working on overdrive, they’ll need to be replenished. I try to have a bottle of water and a protein-rich snack on my person at all times. Keep your people well-fed, and they’ll be well-tempered, too.

8. Give out hugs and high-fives whenever possible

Paula could not stop hugging me. I do not blame her.
Paula could not stop hugging me. I do not blame her.

I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek‘s recent work Leaders Eat Last, where he describes the importance of establishing physical contact to build relationships and trust among people.

At a hyper-networking event like Startup Weekend, these physical embraces lead to lasting connections that you’ll appreciate long after this experience.

9. Plan to finish your event as soon as possible…

This crowd will turn on you otherwise.
This crowd will turn on you otherwise.

Things might get delayed, so try to move as quickly. Here are a few tips I’ve learned while facilitating for NYC and Orlando:

  • Links only: Instead of letting people present and demo on their own laptops with varying file types, have them send cloud-based links to both and put them in a single document. This moves things along quickly in between Q&A sessions.
  • 4:3 presentation model: Limit presentations to 4 minutes with a loose 3 minutes for judges’ Q&A works well, too. Judges average about 45 seconds per question, so a group of 3-5 judges works well.

Why do we do this?

10. … so that everyone will go to the after-party

Yay! We did it! exha *0981231
Yay! We did it! (exhales…)

I love the idea of an after-party, but often Startup Weekends run too late, and who can really stick around to party on a Sunday night? However, if you aim to end your event around 8pm or earlier, and your event was a rousing success, you’ll have a great time.

Also, try to have ALL of your parties in Miami, regardless of your own location. Here’s why:

We got a pool!
We got a pool!
bouncy-castle
A bouncy castle for adults!
A photo booth!
A photo booth!

However, despite all of these tips, I should say that there needs to be some room for la pasión in a Startup Weekend. For example:

When a team that nearly imploded on Saturday night…

Team BreakinBread was a fun project for me. Constantly bickering in Spanish over every single detail, I was positive that they would implode and disband by Saturday night.

Serial entrepreneur and LiveAnswer CEO Adam Boalt guides a team of future entrepreneurs.
Serial entrepreneur and LiveAnswer CEO Adam Boalt guides a team of future entrepreneurs.

To fix this, I made them do a scrum. By getting them to talk in turn and truly listen to one another, they realized that they were actually a well-rounded team that agreed on one thing: they had communication problems.

What a difference a day makes!
What a difference a day makes!

Afterwards, they delivered a beautiful presentation that impressed the judges. The rest is Startup Weekend Miami history: they won first place.

Or when a team that won 2nd place got a standing ovation…

Team HandyCab
Team HandyCab

Meet Ernie.

Ernie struggles to get where he needs to be due to the lack of convenient transportation options for the disabled. His dedicated friend Juan pitched an idea:

Not too shabby! By Adam Leonard of Happy Fun Corp.
Not too shabby! Artwork by Adam Leonard of Happy Fun Corp.

An “Uber for the differently-abled,” Juan wanted Ernie to have access to the ride-sharing technologies that dominate the startup marketplace today (e.g. Uber and Lyft). They found great validation by tapping into people’s good nature – an uncommon approach for a Startup Weekend team.

Once I announced their second place win, Ernie stood up and made his way to the main stage. With every step, more and more people rose with him and applauded his victory with deafening cheers of support.

Diversity includes everyone. EVERYONE.
Diversity includes everyone. EVERYONE.

When Ernie took the microphone to say how happy he was to have made the difficult trip to attend Startup Weekend, I was indeed full of la pasión as well (i.e. TEARS OF JOY.)

Or when I could not stop smiling when I was presented with this amazing certificate

drama-certificate

The text reads:
“A special recognition for surviving your
MIAMI DRAMA INITIATION
Let all who view this document know you survived Miami. We are diverse, speak at the same time and have a rollercoaster of emotions, but at the end of the day, we’re all family and end the night laughing with J’s (JAJAJAJA). You rock!”

Perhaps I had been a bit of a curmudgeon the whole time…

Yeah, I can be a bit.... yeah.
Yeah, I can be a bit…. yeah.

I was deeply moved by the relentless love I received towards the organizers, who should be named (in no particular order): Paula Celestino, Pia Celestino, Ryan Amsel, Gaby Castelao, and Anas Benadel.

Hey, sponsors! We love you!
Hey, SW Miami sponsors! We love you!

In short, Startup Weekend is indeed a roller coaster (it’s designed that way), but for a small minority, that can be an unpleasant experience. Emotions are meant to run high, but there are ways to keep it balanced yet still exciting.

I hope these suggestions serve as a way to hold someone’s hand to make them feel safe right before they take the deep plunge into entrepreneurship.

Good luck, and thank you, Startup Weekend Miami: Diversity Edition!

Lee Ngo is a community leader based out of Pittsburgh, PA.


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Lee Ngo



  • Lola7

    beautiful article !!! thank youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu, sending you a passionate hug !

  • Anas Benadel

    What a awesome blogpost !!!