This article was featured in The Next Women Business Magazine.
Marc Nager is the CEO of Startup Weekend, a non-profit which organizes 54-hour events where developers, designers, marketers, product managers and startup enthusiasts come together to share ideas, form teams, build products, and launch startups.
As of April 2013, 1068 events had been held, involving over 100,000 entrepreneurs across more than 400 cities in over 100 countries and over 8190 startups have been created. The Kauffman Foundation, Google and Microsoft are sponsors.
We spoke to Marc about how entrepreneurs can decide whether their idea is viable; his suggested step-by-step process for turning an idea into a business; and how to balance sensible caution vs leaping in!
TNW: How did you decide that Startup Weekend was the opportunity you wanted to pursue?
“I was at a point in life trying to get a different business off the ground and realized I had no idea how to actually take the first steps. I also realized that I was anything but alone with this lack of clarity.”
Startup Weekend really was an opportunity help start more startups. Working with entrepreneurs is one of the most infectious experiences you can imagine, so naturally, I quickly found myself addicted to the opportunity to help and work with other like-minded people. That said, it was very much a leap of blind faith. It took over a year and half before we paid ourselves anything, so as you can imagine, during that time there were extremely hard days that bred a lot of doubt and questions. In the end, it is the faith in yourself and the people around you more than it is the actual idea itself, because the reality is that no matter how you look at it, the initial stages of starting a company are pretty illogical.
TNW: How can a would-be entrepreneur find out whether their idea would make a viable business?
MN: There isn’t one answer to this, but I can tell you that you won’t find out if your idea would make a viable business by operating in a silo. You need people – and whether it’s your customer or your team members, you have to reach out of your comfort zone and stop solving problems that only you experience. Talk to as many people as possible when validating your concept and try to detach from the idea itself. Be careful about the questions you ask potential customers; they don’t always know what they need, even if they think they know what they want (yes, there’s a big difference!).
“This is why validating your idea requires detachment from the idea; you need to focus on listening rather than asking when talking to people.”
The same goes for co-founder dating. You probably won’t find the perfect co-founder in the first person you work with, so be open minded and make an effort to work – not just talk – with a number of people first.
TNW: Can you outline a suggested step by step process that entrepreneurs could follow when turning an idea into a business?
- Identify people that truly want to also start new businesses
- Within that group, find those people passionate about similar things as yourself
- Quit talking about your ideas with those people and challenge yourselves to start actually working on the ideas. Vote on the best ones, set deadlines (days or weeks) and then see what you can accomplish. Evaluate how you worked with those people even more than what you actually accomplished. If there is even a seed of doubt or frustration, start over with new people – like dating.
- Once you have a team of people you know you can work with, focus on potential problems you would like to solve (not solutions or ideas).
- Identify exactly who your customer would be if you created a solution to the problem. How large is this addressable market.
- Understand how big of a problem it really is. Is it a big enough problem people are willing to actually pay to have solved or is it just a “nice to have.”
- NOW, you might just be ready to think about turning this into a startup.
TNW: It’s so easy to say “just go for it”, but that’s not always sensible advice. How should entrepreneurs balance sensible caution with leaping in, when it comes to turning an idea into a reality?
MN: A huge part of being an entrepreneur is being open to risk, but a key part of our mission is to create more capable, supported entrepreneurs and mitigate risk. Our programs strive to find the balance between taking action – learning by doing – and also providing some educational materials to give aspiring entrepreneurs the best possible starting point. We know that tools and proven resources won’t prevent entrepreneurs from failing altogether, but these tools will certainly make failure less likely by giving them some foresight to be more aware of potential or looming failure.
“We hear a lot of failure stories in the startup world, but we hear less about those “near-death crises” – those situations where entrepreneurs nearly failed, but found a way out.”
If anything, we can create more of those stories and reduce the number of all-out failure stories by providing the materials entrepreneurs need to navigate some of the bigger challenges of starting a company. Remember, it’s not like a coin flip where your odds are always the same. Every failure should be viewed as an investment into that individual to be less likely to fail again.
TNW: At what stage should an entrepreneur look into protecting an idea and how should they go about this? How should they balance getting feedback with preventing other people from stealing their idea?
We’ve always tried to emphasize to early stage entrepreneurs that it’s really not about the idea.
“After seeing countless pitches at Startup Weekends, you realize just how many people have the same ideas, over and over.”
But what sets successful startups apart is their ability to function as a team and validate an idea. Part of being an entrepreneur is opening your idea to others. This can be tough for a lot of people, but they won’t realize the holes in the idea or the potential that they haven’t yet thought of until they allow other people to get involved. In short, you should protect your idea after you know that you have the right team and positive traction of some sort.
TNW: Can you give us three examples of successful startups which were conceived at Startup Weekend? Could you tell from the outset that these were ideas which would work?
There are so many nuances and small occurrences that can derail an entire startup in the early stages, so it’s nearly impossible to predict startup “success.” Generally, though, it’s the strong and cohesive teams that are fully committed and prepared to work harder than they ever have and able to utilize the people and resources around them most effectively that stand the best chance.
“A deep understanding of the people you are impacting, the problem you are solving, and a clear set of goals – both long-term and short-term – also doesn’t hurt.”
TNW: What are the major obstacles which participants encounter when “turning an idea into a company in 54 hours”?
MN: There’s always obstacles that people are aware of and obstacles that people aren’t aware of. Some of the more obvious challenges for participants are finding the right people for the nature of the project, whether it demands more design work or a ton of developer work. I’ve seen a number of teams actually share their talent with one another and team members float to other teams to support certain areas that might be lacking.
Less obvious challenges that teams should actually try to be more aware of are usually getting outside the building and talking to real people. It’s tempting to stay locked inside with your team, cranking on a project and trying to get a “Minimum Viable Product” underway, but teams should spend more time with their potential customers – finding out what their day to day is like, what would really make a difference in their life.
TNW: Can you give us three resources for entrepreneurs looking to turn an idea into a fledgling business?
“I can’t stress enough the value of finding people to work on an idea with you. It’s a great way to test drive something you might really believe in but haven’t validated yet.”
If you’ve done this already, I’d recommend finding a program in your local community that will help you make progress in your entrepreneurial journey. We’ve recently developed the NEXT curriculum to support entrepreneurs who are serious about turning their idea into a company – it’s a great way to prepare for an accelerator or incubator – but there are other ways to find support and resources as well. Find out who the community leaders are in your area and keep an open dialogue going with them. If you don’t tell others what you’re working on and what your challenges are, they won’t know how to help you.
The UP vision is about connecting existing resources and people within communities while also developing our own programs to offer to communities. In addition to Startup Weekend and NEXT, we also host brands like Startup America and Startup Digest – both of which are strong community tools.
TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?
“The hardest part about starting a business is to quit talking about it and actually start doing it.”