Startup Weekend: How to approach the event and get maximum things out of the weekend


In November 2014, our team Ubrand won Startup Weekend Hyderabad. We were also fortunate to be selected in top 6 ideas in women’s track for Global Startup Battle, San Francisco. The team consisted of 6 members. I am Pawan, one of them. I had been to Startup Weekend Mumbai 2014 too, before this but did not win anything in my first attempt. This time I decided to approach Startup Weekend in a different way and I could see the effect in the result. Startup Weekend has given me so much in my life and hence wanted to return the favor and hence, I decided to write this article.

Generally this is what happens in Startup Weekend: (First day) Everyone pitches an idea, voting happens, teams are formed for the 8-9 top voted ideas; (Second day) Brainstorming, meeting with mentors, customer validation and making the product and (Third day) final presentations and Q&A session and declaration of winners.

The following are my main learnings from my Startup weekends: (Forgive me, the article is slightly extensive but it will give you a feel what it is all about)

Understand your strengths:

The very fundamental thing you need to be prepared with is an understanding of what skill sets you have. Are you a confident developer? Are you good with quick wire-framing? Are you good at presenting ideas? Are you good at planning tasks? Are you good at identifying skill sets among others? Are you good with selling stuff? Are you good at making presentations? Are you good with designing UI /graphics?

It is important to understand that when you are trying to work in a startup ecosystem, you need to bring in some skill sets on the table. For that, first step is to understand what those skill-sets are for yourself and this is where Startup Weekend comes into picture. It is like a microcosm of the startup ecosystem.

It is absolutely fine if you do not have expertise in any of the skill sets but the least you can do is to make them better by either preparing /practicing more on those skill sets or coming to Startup weekend to learn more and get a head start on learning them.

The Pitch

Personally, for both of my Startup weekends, I screwed up the pitch big time. I felt like Rahul Gandhi while pitching the idea. I had no idea of what I was speaking. However, as soon as I finished my pitches, I was mature enough to understand that this is just the beginning. I personally feel the more uncomfortable experiences you have in your life, the stronger you become, the more confident you become. I treated it as one more uncomfortable experience and moved on. And as a result, I was pretty confident in the final presentations and Q and A.

Go with idea which you feel needs you, not which is glamorous

People feel that the first-day pitch is the most important aspect of Startup weekend. I feel it’s about 20 percent important in general (unless your key strength is presenting ideas), the rest 80 percent is you selecting the right idea to work on. If you have been in startup circles for some time, you must already know that no idea is unique nor owned by anyone. Idea is just an energy which some people are able to detect and express it much better than others. It is the actual end product which matters. Hence, be very careful with ideas you choose to work upon. What I always do is make a list of interesting ideas from all the pitches and what I can contribute (from skills point of view) in that idea to turn it into a successful product.

Finally, I decide to select the idea which has

  1. a) Tremendous potential impact and business value (and not just social value or glamor created by the pitch itself)
  2. b) Which is almost new and not worked upon already by the pitch-maker. This will expose you with many new aspects of the product and also, will give you a sense of ownership.

In my first SW, I went for a not-for-profit social product which is still very close to my heart but it could not convince judges especially business aspect of it. It is kind of funny when our business model is the only aspect which gets scrutinized in the final presentation for a product which was not-for-profit. But the fact of the matter is, in order for anything to be successful, it should have a strong business proposition. However, this becomes extremely difficult job to come with one for social ventures. Hence, it’s ok to go for slightly conservative ideas where you can attach an already proved business model.

Honesty with mentors

Mentors are not there to validate your ideas. Stop selling your ideas to them. This is the most general tendency I have seen in other teams. The best way is to treat mentors as your team. Pitch them your idea, ask for their inputs on what is good and what could be improved. The best thing about SW is that the mentors are (at least, 90 percent of them) very experienced with products and so, they are exceptional in asking the right questions and sometimes, even in answering them. And have someone in your team to note all the points which you discuss so that you can prepare for final Q&A round from this set of questions.

 Keep up your enthusiasm

One more thing I have observed is teams lose out on initial excitement and enthusiasm after the first day. That affects the quality of work. It just becomes a competition, a competition of perception of the products and not the product itself. The reality becomes clear directly in the final presentations. (Well, that is also a perception but its perception based on actual work) So, don’t fall in that trap of competition because each team’s approach and stress on various aspects of the product will be different, it’s the end result that matters.

 Do something concrete, quick prototyping

I have seen so many great presentations, great individuals, great teams fail in SW because they didn’t have anything working. All they had is a plan. I also take this opportunity to say that if you don’t build a prototype, your probability of winning goes down by about at least 50 percent. I was fortunate that I had two very talented developers in my team who stayed up all night and finished the prototype in one night. That is the spirit of Startup Weekend. So, pick a developer or at least somebody with wire-framing skills in your team and an urge to do extra ordinary things in extremely less time. Otherwise, it’s going to be an uphill task to win this competition.

 Close as many hypothesis-proof-conclusion cycles as possible

Building something is important, but in parallel, you need to ask all the fundamental questions about the product and its market. Those questions are brilliantly articulated by Startup Weekend team. Answer all of them using some facts or proofs. Those proofs could either be in form of customer validation (surveys or personal interviews) or actual data. Use reliable sources before quoting something. I also recommend taking a deep dive and going through 2-3 relevant research papers (We went through at least five of them). The main reason is you should be able to write what is our hypothesis about what should work, why it should work and then prove it. This kind of structured thinking will help you all your life if you decide to work on products professionally in future.

Customer validation: Half the battle won

What better than customers wanting to use your product before you even build it. We were lucky that we had two clients already ready to tie up with us when we were finished with the prototype. But its not that simple. We almost spent a day in finalizing the core and our market and direct customers. To be very honest, we finalized on the core of our product in late Saturday evening, when most of other teams had started preparing final presentations on Sunday evening. After that, overnight we developed a prototype and went to customers on Sunday morning and generally when they see actual working product, they can actually validate your product.

Take lead and identify traits of team members as fast as possible and distribute the work

As you must have realized by now, making a full android app, going through 5-6 research papers, meeting 50+ potential end users, meeting 10+ potential clients and collecting data and figures etc. is not a work of one extraordinary team member, it’s a team effort. Use team efficiently by division of work. Identify or ask team members what they are good at and which aspect would they like to work on and then clearly make division of work. Also, remember, a wise Guru once said “No one likes to be managed but every one longs to be involved.” Involve all, give them responsibilities and you will see at the end of 72 hours, you would do something magnificent.

 Network with people any way, genuinely

Yes, you are there for a competition. Yes, you have loads of work to complete. But networking and helping other participants is also very important. I remember sharing my past research paper on market analysis to a competing team since they were working on the similar product. We still are in contact because that action was bona-fide and I also remember helping couple of other teams with positioning and product. Also, I had good talks with people from different spheres of life in SW and that became very important part of my learning. And yes, at the beginning it’s very very awkward.

Do not under estimate final presentations – do something unique

Presentations are not everything but if you don’t present good, it will blur all your efforts. So, prepare hard for presentations from Sunday morning. And try to be different, unique. In our case, we were the least impressive speakers among all other teams. However, I did read somewhere that a good presentation is when you know when to modulate your pitch and not to be consistent. That will bore the hell out of audience and none of us very capable of changing pitches. However, we figured out that all three of us had different voice pitch. So, in the final presentations, all three of us presented in a round robin fashion and I think we did pretty good job. We also placed funny images and gifs in between to keep the audience attentive while not overdoing it too. You can do something more unique and get some cherry points for the presentation efforts.

Generally pre worked ideas do not work

I might be slightly inexperienced to make this conclusion but I have not seen pre worked ideas winning this competition. This may be because it generally becomes one man show or teams generally become too much aggressive to defend some aspects because they have worked a lot on them.

For my first SW event, I pitched something which I worked on for more than 3 months and I failed miserably because I could not complete what all things I needed to say in one minute. So, for the second time, I had an idea but I didn’t go very deep into it, just prepared for the pitch for half a day. Though while pitching it was rejected, I found a team with a similar idea, joined that team, and worked on an amalgamated version of our ideas.

 Don’t be selfish

Yes, you have come for a competition. Yes, you want to learn everything. But, you also need to understand that there are team members who might have just joined the team to learn few things. Help them, teach them, show them how it’s done, involve them and I am sure they will never forget you for rest of their lives.

So in conclusion, irrespective of who wins the competition, you get following things out of SW:

  • You learn life in less than 72 hours: The more problems you solve, the more things you will achieve
  • You get incredible opportunities: You may get startup offers or you may get opportunity to continue work on same idea with same team after the competition in the actual world. This can be your entry point to startup ecosystem.
  • Confidence and feel good factor: At the end of third day, you will feel that you are much confident after this experience and you will feel good about yourself and your decision to join the event.
  • You will have one more adventure for rest of your life to tell it to your grand kids

So, in conclusion, the point when you decide to come for Startup Weekend, you are giving yourself an opportunity to change your life forever.

Authored by

Pawan Sevak

Startup Weekend Hyderabad
November 20th, 2015

Sneak peek into Entrepreneurship – Sarvnaz Taherian

Sarvnaz Taherian is a doctoral candidate in Psychology at the University of Auckland. Her area of research is in systems training and usability, as well as conceptual modelling of assistive technology adoption and adherence. She is also the usability researcher at Thought-Wired – a company that is developing a tech-assistive solution for people with severe physical impairments that’s controlled by the electrical activity of the brain. 

I’m currently part of a social enterprise accelerator programme called “The Launchpad” by Akina Foundation, and our mentors highly recommended that we attend Start-up Weekend. I was hesitant but decided to sign up anyway. I spent the whole of last week complaining about how I was going to miss out on a weekend- but by golly, it was well worth it.

Start-up weekend basically swallows you up whole and spits you out into a hyper-focussed, high intensity dimension of functioning and thinking. It enabled me to explore topics and mind frames that I can’t access in everyday life.  For others that I spoke to, it enabled them to reignite lost passions and to get a taste of what is involved in developing business ideas and the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.

The first night, and half of the second day, my team members and I were on an absolute high. We were heads down bottoms up into our business validation, feeling pretty good about ourselves. Little did we know that what we were experiencing was actually the “peak of inflated expectations”. There were massive holes in our business model. We couldn’t validate half of our model, and the business was going to leave us broke. We couldn’t figure out how to pivot and this sent us plummeting into the “trough of disillusion”. The mentors were incredibly helpful, and through Socratic questioning, they helped us come up with other ways of validating our business model and creative avenues to fund the business.

We didn’t quite make it over the trough of disillusion but it was still a really great experience. I learned a lot, made some new friends and ate lots of delicious food! I would recommend startup weekend to anyone who wants to step out of their comfort zone, people who are thinking about starting their own business, and those who would like to test alternative ways of thinking/working.

A Startup Weekend Journey – Peter Sellars

Before attending my first Startup Weekend Auckland last year I was excited, anxious and intrigued. Excited by the opportunity to pitch a startup idea that had been incubating in my mind for a number of months, anxious about how to pitch my idea and intrigued by the whole concept of starting a venture over a single weekend with a group of complete strangers.

I visited the Startup Weekend site on a regular basis to get as many tips, tricks and insights into what lay ahead as the event approached. I listened astounded to a number of great concepts others planned to pitch at the pre-event – beginning to doubt my concepts value in comparison. This being my first event I decided whatever happened I would pitch an idea, if for no other reason than to feel the pressure and get a sense of what it was like.

At the event I pitched my idea – and it bombed! Lesson learnt – no slides make visuals really difficult in this short sharp pitch. Some truly inspiring and intriguing pitches meant finding a team to work with was no easy feat. The range of ideas was amazing. Personal disappointment was quickly laid to the side and I began to feel out an idea that connected with me and a team that felt right to work with.

I hit the jackpot when I came across two guys with previous Startup Weekend experience. They were not just here to learn, as I was, but they were in it to win it. Soon the team gained two more members and the real work commenced. The idea pitched involved a ‘pay as you use’ based insurance scheme. It soon dawned on me that the team was made up of some exceptional individuals who were able to work well as a team.

No Startup Weekend is without its drama I had been told so I expected some bumps along the way. Through the weekend the pitch morphed into a ‘Safer Driver’ leading to ‘reduced insurance costs’ gamified mobile application. We had our fair share of drama, self-doubt, deep-reflection – at one point we got right out of the building and threw around crazy alternatives before driving on with the idea.

It was a relief of sorts to complete our pitch to the judges and finally relax, enjoy seeing what others had done and getting really useful feedback on each of the team’s potential products. Even though we didn’t win – we all learnt a number of valuable lessons during the weekend. Lessons that continue to be useful and that will be added to by future Startup Weekend participation.

We had touched base with industry members during our feasibility investigations and it felt a little strange a few months later to see Tower release a similar concept (SmartDriver – In one sense it felt like the concept the team worked on had legs – aligned with a sense of regret that we had not pursued it further. As a team we had got together a few weeks after the weekend to make that decision.

The key things I took away from my first Startup Weekend were:

  • An extraordinary sense of achievement from being part of a team of strangers that came together and did something amazing in a couple of days

  • Amazement at the number of inspiring ideas I heard about and saw implemented in a single weekend

  • Disbelief in the sheer amount of stuff that I learnt during the event, from others, about myself, about starting up a new venture…and the list goes on!

The weekend really inspired me. I have a much better understanding of how to approach starting a new venture should the time come and continue to learn and prepare myself for the next Startup Weekend. The insights I gained from working with the other team members has provided me with confidence to try new things, many that were outside my comfort zone before the weekend. I have no fear of failure now, don’t hold my ideas so precious and value feedback on ideas early.

If you have never been to a Startup Weekend event before, want to understand what it is like to work in a driven, engaged team to produce something that you will be immensely proud of, then sign up for the next event. Developers gain enormous insight into what being closely connected to the product means. Business people get to work closer with the implementers than would usually be the case and Designers get to be truly inspired by working on something that they are passionate about and help to mould.

It is not just about being a techie either! You really don’t need to be technical to attend – one of the numerous amazing people I interacted with during the weekend was a tradie who had an idea and was looking to find people passionate enough to help him implement it. His idea ‘pivoted’ to a relief teacher assistant for head teachers and was one of several outstanding outcomes from the weekend.

I recently learnt that the key message for the upcoming Startup Weekend in Auckland is around ‘The application of design thinking to solve problems in our local communities’ so am looking forward to hearing about ideas in this space and many others next month. That reminds me, I best go sign up, I suggest you do the same too!