Written by Nick Arnold, Startup Weekend Education San Francisco Alumni
I’m a huge fan of Startup Weekend. It’s one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It also helps that each time I have participated, I was part of the first place team (TinkerED and Hired Education).
There is no magical formula or checklist to follow, but after my two (very different) experiences, I believe there are some general rules and guidelines to follow which will drastically increase your chances of having a successful weekend.
Hit the Ground Running
The biggest benefit to the weekend is networking with a group of like-minded, equally passionate creative and innovative minds. Arrive early, and make sure to mingle and meet as many people as possible. The first time out, I arrived late (granted, it was my 30th birthday) and lost out on this benefit. Not only could it help you assemble or round out your team later in the evening, but the connections you make will be far more useful after the competition than any individual success. Come with business cards and be willing to gab!
Gone in 60 Seconds
The first time I didn’t pitch, the second time I did—although I totally winged it. Doing the idea pitch is great for the experience, but don’t be afraid to participate in SW without pitching. If you do pitch, you should be really passionate about it; this comes across in the pitch and will help people rally behind your idea. Make sure you practice. Yes, we’re talking about practice! Sixty seconds is way less time than you think. Identify your problem, succinctly lay out your solution and how you will accomplish it, and leave time to request specifically what type of skills/people you need to help. That’s it. If you have a great story, save it for the real competition on Sunday.
Meanwhile, make sure to pay attention to all pitches and take notes, so that if your idea isn’t selected or you didn’t pitch, you can join a team that you’re passionate about. Be mindful of where you think you can provide help. It’s redundant to have a team of 4 business people, or a bunch of designers. And hey, if things don’t work out, don’t be afraid to switch teams! During my first experience, I switched on Saturday morning, going from a team with a pre-planned, fully developed idea and little for me to contribute, to a struggling team lacking direction, not to mention business and strategy expertise. By filling that vacuum, I was able to really get behind the idea and push the ball forward, all the way to 1st place.
Your key goal is to develop a value proposition and devise competitive advantages over competitors already in the marketplace or even similar teams at your event. Hit ‘em in the mouth with something short and memorable. As for your product, don’t waste too much time developing something great. You need time to validate, iterate, and refine. There’s a reason it’s called a “minimum viable product”—emphasis on the minimum. Also think in terms of your competition at the event. If you are similar to a bunch of other groups, how are you different/better? If you’re unique, are you actually solving a serious problem or fully addressing the theme of the weekend? Incorporate mentor and coach feedback, but time is money. Don’t be afraid to shoo away coaches to be productive!
Given the little amount of time to work (a couple hours on Friday, about 12-14 on Saturday, and 6 on Sunday), it is always important to stay on task. You must divvy up assignments and delegate. After individual work time, return and get feedback from the group to iterate. If you don’t form a diverse and complete team, this will fail—so you see why team forming is very crucial. Make sure to recognize your team’s strengths and weaknesses and attack those weaknesses as early as possible. Fill in the gaps through coach advice or other teams if you have to. Remember, Startup Weekend is collaborative! Some of my favorite moments aside from winning involved when I stepped away and had conversations with other teams and even contributed ideas to their pitch and ultimate success.
It’s the Pitch, Stupid
Never lose sight of the ultimate goal—the pitch competition. This is my main skill and how I most contributed to my teams. The best advice I can give is keep it simple. Limited number of slides, limited number of words. Anything really long and complex will fall flat. Awesome ideas with poor presentations fail. Don’t spend so much time fleshing out every scenario and feature that you have zero time left to craft your pitch. Conversely, awesome presentations with poor ideas fail. Don’t spend a lot of time on theatrics and gimmicky stunts; they won’t cover up idea and execution flaws. It helps to have a fun and engaging theme or anecdote to grab the audience and drive your value prop home, but you need a healthy balance of steak and sizzle. Like with the idea pitch above, practice, practice, practice—every word and phrase is crucial in the 4-5 minutes you have. Anticipate probable questions and pain points that the judges may ask about—and have quality answers, even if they’re only verbal through Q&A and not on your slides.
I can’t give away all my secrets, but hopefully these tips will help put you on the right path. If you don’t end up winning, that’s okay—the real value of the weekend is to educate yourself, meet people, and have a blast!
Nick looks forward to the next Startup Weekend EDU event in the Bay Area (9/12/14 in Oakland) where he hopes to meet more passionate educators and innovators. If you’re sitting on a great but undeveloped idea, go find him and perhaps he can be your good luck charm.