I often catch up with other Startup Weekend organizers to see how their event went. What they tell me usually starts like this:
“It went great! We had 60 attendees, there were 35 ideas pitched on Friday and 10 teams presented on Sunday.”
Those numbers matter, and they’re an easy answer to give when someone asks how the event went. I still catch myself doing it when people ask how my event went.
But that’s not how I measure success.
The first Startup Weekend I organized was in Des Moines, Iowa. All I cared about was getting 50 attendees.
We had less than 20.
The second event I organized was in NYC. All I cared about was getting everyone to pitch.
Of the 100+ attendees, only 20 pitched.
At the time, I told myself that both events were a failure.
Looking back now, I know that both events were great, but because I had already decided that success was a specific number of attendees or a certain attendee:pitch ratio, I wasn’t happy with the outcome.
Then Carmen happened.
Before my third Startup Weekend, a woman named Carmen emailed me. She wasn’t sure if she she should come to Startup Weekend. She said she doubted that anyone would value her skills. She was a writer for a children’s television show and she didn’t know if or how her background would translate to the startup world. I told her to come by on Friday and I’d let her eat pizza and watch the pitches for free, and if she wanted to stay, she could buy a ticket then.
A couple of weeks went by and I forgot about Carmen’s email.
Then on Friday night when I was welcoming attendees, Carmen introduced herself. She looked uncomfortable. She shrugged a lot. I told her to get some pizza and start meeting other attendees. She said she just wanted to watch the pitches and then she’d probably leave. I smiled.
Something must have inspired Carmen because halfway through the pitches, there she was, pitching, her face this time wearing a little less frown than before.
Then Carmen’s pitch got votes. Her expression changed again. She was rubbing her hands together high in front of her as if she was waiting to hear some good news. Soon she was forming a team. Her chin lifted a little higher. Excitement was pouring out of her and others noticed. People started forming a circle around her.
Carmen ended up leading her team to a victory that weekend and giving the final presentation on Sunday herself. The Carmen that presented on Sunday was not the same Carmen that e-mailed me two weeks earlier. The old Carmen was shy, scared, unsure. The new Carmen was confident, energetic, curious. Everything about Carmen had changed in less than 48 hours.
After the presentations were done Carmen came up to me, tears in her eyes, to tell me the event had changed her life. The hair on my arms stood up.
It was in that moment that I realized I had it all wrong. It wasn’t about the number of participants or how many teams formed. It’s about the effect the event had on people. Did it change the course of someone’s life? Did it change the way someone looked at the world, or at themselves? Did it turn a timid girl into a confident woman?
Now, when I facilitate or organize Startup Weekends, I look for a change in just one person. If I see someone light-up the way I’ve seen so many others light-up at Startup Weekends all over the world, I declare the event a success.
That should be our #1 goal as event facilitators – to “light-up” as many people as we can. Facilitators aren’t just there to herd cats through the schedule. I think of facilitators as “activators,” looking for those beautiful souls just waiting to be awoken to new possibilities. Waiting for someone to tell them that yes, they too can be an entrepreneur. They too can have control over their lives.
For me, it takes just one of those to make the event a success.
And that moment when I see a change in someone – that’s the addicting part of being a Startup Weekend facilitator.