By Cindy Spelt, Techstars Startup Weekend Facilitator
After years of involvement in setting up and growing businesses, I can tell you a lot about creative thinking, design sprints, customer journeys, business modelling, finance rounds, and so fort. The most magical moment of it all, is the formation of a successful team. In my eyes, the rest that comes to the table is purely ‘practical and mechanical’: writing a business plan is based on numbers (or positive hypotheses), a design sprint is a well defined path to walk – milestone to milestone, and business modelling is about filling in the gaps in a BMC framework. Not difficult, just do it! As soon as the human factor comes in, we move to a more complex level.
I was asked by the organising team of Startup Weekend Plymouth (UK) to write a small article about my experiences with startup weekends. I like to focus on ‘how to form a great team’. People attending startup weekends do not know each other (99% the case). They buy a ticket and hope to learn something new, become part of a great international community (like minded peeps) or meet their future co-founder. Partcipants are locked in a venue with strangers for 54 hours. How can this work, you might ask yourself?
Questions I often get are:
“Cindy, how do we get the most out of the participants?”
“Cindy, how do we make sure that we (= organising team) do not control the process too much?”
“Cindy, how can we make sure that people in the teams get along with each other?”
When I join the event in the role of facilitator one of my responsibilities is to guide the process of the formation of teams. I spend roughly 1.5 hours on this. This might sound too short to you, but I have some magical tricks. Let me share them with you:
(1) Be humble and real.
I open the event with a personal story about entrepreneurship focusing on my ups and downs. We all know that success doesn’t come quick and that we make mistakes along the way. I let people know that it is ok to be open and honest about the difficult challenges. By having this humble attitude, I set the scene for the weekend: ‘a real environment’ in which participants can learn and explore.
(2) Having fun by making fun of yourself.
Pitching is not difficult as it follows a very easy format: what is the problem? what is the solution? what do you need to make this happen? It can be that simple in this stage as the aim is to inspire people to join your team. You will work out the details later during the weekend.
But standing in front of strangers and pitching your new venture idea can be a big thing. To make this easier for the participants I like to engage them in a game called ‘half baked’. Participants join the game by not pitching their real ideas, but fake and funny ones. The more humor the better! As a result everyone is having fun and I get people on stage that have never pitched before. Who doesn’t want to have a bit of fun?!
(3) What is great in your eyes, might not be great in theirs.
I can be very impatient (for the people who know me, they will agree) and have clear ideas on the outcome of a process. I know exactly what I want. This dominant approach does not work under every circumstance. In some situations it is the only way as decisions need to be taken, and followed. Let me explain you why I do not use my dominant approach in the formation of teams.
Not that long ago, I was told, by my 10 year old ‘bonus’ son, that I do not have control over him. According to him I need the support of his father to make him listen to me. He was referring to a previous situation: I had seen that he was struggling with a certain topic and I put him around the table for a discussion. I had asked his father to join us too. In his eyes, I was not able to deal with him on an one-to-one basis. I needed his father to keep him under control.
I was slightly shocked by his approach and told him that it was not my interest to keep him under my control. As I had seen that he was struggling, I had put him around the table to open a dialogue between the three of us. I had asked him questions about how he felt, what his needs were to overcome the struggle and how we could support him. It had nothing to do with control, but with care and love instead. Inviting his father to join us enabled the family members to align with each other. I had explained him the difference between control and care. Keeping someone under your control means that you ask the person to deal with the situation on your terms. Opening a dialogue and asking how you can be of support to someone means that you allow the person to deal with the situation on his / her own terms. I told him that, we as parents, use both approaches – and that it is not always easy to know which one to use.
In the formation of teams I do the same. I ask questions of how I can be of support and I let everybody join the conversation, so I can align everyone’s needs, find a common ground and the best way to guide the team as a whole. By letting the team be in the lead of this process, I allow myself to take the role of advisor, guide or sparring partner. As soon as the team reaches a new stage of growth, I can be asked to be involved again. In this way, the team is in control of their own growth on their own terms. This doesn’t mean that you cannot inspire them by asking them ‘tough’ questions or giving them challenges to think about.
(4) Make people realise that they matter.
I studied people analytics (performance and collaboration analytics) at the Wharton Business School and learned more about the dynamics of high performing teams. What I retain as one of the most interesting lessons was that the best performing teams:
(a) listen to each other when someone else is talking
(2) know how to explore new ideas without losing the core of the project.
It is crucial to have an ‘inclusive’ approach – everyone matters. The best way to walk this talk is by paying undivided attention to each other when someone else is talking, to give everyone at the table an equal amount of time to join the discussion, and to ask questions to either understand better or to add more ‘richness’ to the point someone is making. We all like to be seen, heard and recognised.
Exploring new ideas – without losing the eye on the main elements of the projects – means excitement. With common sense you can, as a team, decide which new elements can be taken on and which ones should be put on the agenda for later. Exploring new possibilities is like being on an adventure together and can serve as a ‘bonding mechanism’.
In summary: show the behaviour that you like to see from others (‘be real’), create an environment in which learning is central (mistakes are ok), and know your place as a guide to be of true inspiration (trust over control).
On my timeline on LinkedIn I share my travel schedule – follow me if you like to meet me at one of the upcoming events!
By Cindy Spelt, Techstars Startup Weekend Facilitator
By Katie Stote, Techstars Startup Weekend Plymouth Attendee
Last April I was lucky enough to attend Plymouth’s first ever Techstars Startup Weekend – if you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about, check out my previous blog post Techstars Startup Weekend on my website. I have to admit, on the build-up to the weekend I was getting increasingly nervous, I had no clue what to expect! What if I couldn’t muster the courage to talk to anyone and ended up stood alone like a lemon? What if the other attendees are all experts in their fields? What if the mentors are really intimidating? What if I wear the wrong thing? What if when I am speaking to someone, I say the wrong thing and look like an idiot? (Ah, the joys of anxiety). The truth is, no one knew what to expect, everyone was just as nervous as me, so we were all in the same boat!
An Outline of the Weekend:
We had about an hour-or-so of chatting, getting to know the other attendees and mentors and having some (really delicious) food. The mentors, who are incredibly knowledgeable in business, technology, startups and life in general, couldn’t have been more approachable and friendly. They were floating around the room chatting to the attendees about who they are and the work they do, as well as hearing the attendee’s different plans and career/academic backgrounds. The great thing about an event such as this is, even if you’re a super awkward and socially-anxious person like me, you can easily make conversation with people because you have a common denominator: the event. I mainly spoke to people about if they had a pitch or idea, where they found out about the event, if they worked or were a student and the conversation flowed easily from there. It was such a great range of people, some were students like me, some had businesses of their own, some had PhD’s and were experts in their field; it really was an incredible opportunity to connect with people from so many diverse walks of life.
After the conversations and food, the Techstars Facilitator Cindy Spelt who is an author, has been a CEO and a managing director of multiple successful companies and has spoken at many of the Techstars Startup Weekends worldwide, gave an inspirational speech to all the attendees, outlined what would be happening over the course of the weekend and gave us lots of great tips for creating a startup. The attendees who had pitches then went up and presented them; although I didn’t do a pitch myself, everyone was rooting for each other to do well in their pitches, which created a supportive and encouraging environment for pitching.
A little bit of important info: the pitches on Friday night can only be a minute long and you can’t use PowerPoint although you can bring props!
All the attendees were then given three votes each, and the people who pitched were given the opportunity to talk more to their fellow attendees about their idea and business plan. All the pitches were such brilliant ideas based within the theme of ‘Health and Wellbeing’, it was evident that everyone had worked really hard on outlining their idea and how they would present it! Once the winning pitches were announced the attendees got together into five groups with diverse ranges of skill sets and once the groups had registered with Cindy, the night was brought to a close.
The second day the teams began planning their startups, there were multiple talks from experts and the mentors walked around the room and spoke to the teams at their tables, discussing strategies and offering lots of great advice and guidance. Once they had a clear and simple idea for a product, the attendees were encouraged by Cindy to get out and speak to the public; if they would use their product, how much they would pay for their product (so that they have a realistic idea about whether their product would sell), and if their feedback was negative they would be able to adapt their idea to better suit their target market. Although the attendees were nervous about approaching the public with their short surveys, a number of them said that the people they spoke to were in fact very friendly and they were happy they had pushed themselves out of their comfort zone.
Although I was not there to experience it first hand, the last day of the weekend was for the final piecing together of the business models and to begin building the final pitch which the attendees presented at the end of the day to the judges. HUGE congratulations to the winning startup MemoryPad and runners up One Link One; they are both incredible ideas which are really going to help so many people, I can’t wait to see both of your company names on my App Store! Also, I want to say well done to every one who participated in the weekend, although you may not have won this weekend, all your ideas were fantastic and I really hope you decide to keep going with your startups!
A key part of the weekend is that you will really push yourself out of your comfort zone, which can feel incredibly daunting. However, when it then comes to the end of each day, you will be surprised by how much you really can achieve in a single day, once you push yourself past your worries and fear.
I was also lucky enough to be asked to go on BBC Radio Devon to talk about the weekend and why I think this is such a great opportunity for anyone who wants to be involved. When I received the email asking if I wanted to do the interview, I was sat on my sofa in my PJs and instinctively typed out an email saying, ‘thank you for the opportunity but I don’t feel confident enough to do that’. Just before I hit ‘Send’ I rang my mum, you know just for a second opinion, I knew I was holding myself back from an incredible opportunity and I needed my mum to tell me to sort it out and say YES. Of course, she told me I should go for it and that I would regret it if I said no, so, before I had the chance to change my mind, I deleted the first email and with sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat, agreed to do the interview. It was at 7:30 on Saturday morning (I drank A LOT of coffee that morning) and although I felt a lump in my throat and could barely talk beforehand, I got through it! I did the interview, managed to not completely mess it up (I pictured accidental swearing, constant stuttering or just becoming completely mute) and it was one of the proudest moments I have ever experienced.
Only a little over a year ago I was suffering from daily panic attacks and would avoid seeing friends or family because social situations made me too anxious… At this weekend, I have spoken on the radio, held conversations with CEOs, professionals and academics and approached people who were strangers and learned that I actually have a lot in common with many of them. I feel incredibly proud of myself and also so thankful to the Plymouth Startup Weekend organisers for asking me to be involved in the event; I have met so many incredibly inspiring people with amazing stories, challenged myself and gained so much experience which I will be able to use in every part of my life.
So, what could you gain from taking part in a Techstars Startup Weekend? Confidence through challenging yourself and learning what you’re really capable of; Public Speaking experience which is an invaluable skill to have in both an academic and professional environment; Knowledge and advice from a whole range of mentors who have created their own successful startups, ran their own companies and have a wealth of experience to share; Networking with similar, like-minded people which is a prime part of both building your career as well as any business ideas you may have. It’s so exciting that this is only the beginning for Plymouth; more of these affordable and innovative events will be coming to Plymouth in the future, which means more opportunities for students, creatives and those with entrepreneurial minds! You don’t have to be in the ‘big cities’ to have access to big opportunities anymore, they are coming to us! Make sure you don’t miss out!
By Katie Stote, Techstars Startup Weekend Plymouth Attendee
You can read more written by Katie on her blog here!