By Sasha Pasulka
A couple weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of being the lead organizer of Seattle Startup Weekend. By that I mean that I got to fill my trunk with Diet Coke from Costco for three days straight, order emergency pizzas at 9pm, and foster relationships with Amazon building security that will result in at least some if not all of them appearing in my wedding party.
In the weeks leading up to the event, responding to daily emails and requests from participants, sponsors, and would-be participants became a full-time job (and I don’t think the gluten-free girl even ended up coming). It was stressful and exhausting and draining in every possible way. I did all it for free.
Because it fuses the community and it builds good entrepreneurs.
I get a lot of questions from would-be entrepreneurs about how to get started or how to take the next step. I’ll tell you now what I tell everyone else: Go to a Startup Weekend. No matter who you are or what you’re about to tell me about yourself, if you want to break into startups, just go to a Startup Weekend.
1. You Will Be Useful
I know, I know. You’re in marketing. You’re more a biz dev type. Your focus is social media. Computers are hard. Blah.
The truth is, the teams that win at Startup Weekend are the teams with good presentations – the teams that can most effectively communicate the market potential and how likely it is that they can capture that market. The judges are not there to do a code review. (It turns out real-life venture capitalists are similarly disinclined.) In fact, in the world of tech entrepreneurship, successful companies actually do value input and effort from marketing, business, design, legal, operations and a host of other arenas. As such, as long as you’re good at something and you make it a point to be useful somehow, you will be. The people who are not useful at Startup Weekend are the people who show up on Friday having firmly decided that they cannot be useful.
2. You Will Meet People Who Are Useful. You Will Also Meet People Who Are Not Useful.
The relationships you build at a Startup Weekend are more valuable than any code base, slide deck or caffeine tolerance. They’re stronger and more meaningful than anything that happens at a traditional networking event, or at 100 of them. If you’re smart and you work hard, your Startup Weekend teammates will have your back for a lifetime. They’ll recommend you to their own networks without hesitation. They’ll pass along opportunities. They’ll hire you or you’ll hire them or you’ll cofound something else together.
Alternately, you’ll know that you never want to work with them and/or anyone remotely like them ever again. You’ll note that you don’t respond well to their particular style of management or teamwork, no matter how smart or driven they are, and you’ll keep your eyes peeled for this as you create or join a team in startup world. Because you really hated that guy.
At my first Startup Weekend, my team won. It was an incredible high, and then the idea proved impossible to monetize, the large team was unwieldy and un-fundable, and ultimately we realized we oughtn’t move forward on the idea. (See the section titled “You Will Fail Fast.”) But a portion of that team went on to co-found Maptini (still profitable!) and both my current paying job and this delightful writing gig came from relationships I built that weekend. When I have questions about design, technology, PR, non-profits or just plain need life advice, I can call somebody from that team and get an answer I trust.
And then there are the more pedestrian relationship motives: At the Seattle event, one of our judges was the CEO of a prominent company. An attendee asked for an introduction. “I want to sell my company,” he said, “and I’ve been trying to get someone from their music division to return my calls for months.” I introduced them before the presentations started, and the CEO gave the attendee his card along with the email address of the music division’s president. “Email him directly and make sure to cc me,” he said.
3. You Will Learn Something Useful
No matter what your area of expertise is or what you want your area of expertise to become, you will learn something useful over the weekend. You will learn something entirely different from what you expected to learn and even more valuable.
You will hear about new tools and you will see how they work in practice. You will discover that the UX guy you were going to hire isn’t nearly as good as you thought he was. You will realize that you need more legal advice than you expected and from a different kind of lawyer. You will see the value of a great project manager and understand the cost of her mediocre counterpart. You will finally get what talented PR people do and why they can charge so much to do it. You will have lots of people tell you that “advertising” is not a “monetization strategy,” and if you’re lucky you’ll believe them. You will learn lots of words you didn’t know before and possibly even use them in a sentence. It will happen fast and its impact will be deep.
If you don’t feel like a total idiot at some point in a conversation with somebody at Startup Weekend, you’re doing it wrong.
4. You Will Fail Fast
If your company hasn’t failed by the time you finish with the judges’ Q&A on Sunday, don’t worry, it will almost certainly fail in the coming weeks or months. Because most startups do. And this is somuch betterthan spending six months raising money and six months developing and six months launching and then realizing that you were making critical misjudgments on something like a daily basis. Either way, you’re now painfully aware of your mistakes and you will not repeat them moving forward. The difference is measured in years.
Over the weekend, you will ignore a lot of what the mentors say and the issues the judges raise and even the advice your teammates give you, because you probably haven’t learned a lot of the lessons you learn the first time your beloved startup hits the ground in flames. Startup Weekend is the gentlest and fastest way to learn a lot of these lessons in a meaningful way.
5. Your Idea Will Not Be Stolen
Oh. Shut. Up. If you still think entrepreneurship is about the idea, you need this experience more than anyone. Please make an emergency appointment with your nearest Startup Weekend so that the rest of us can stop hearing about how we can’t hear the details of your idea. Seriously, email the organizer like “Help! I still think my startup idea has inherent value!” and someone will send an emergency team out to disabuse you of this notion. And then maybe you can tell the Startup Weekend Global team about your idea and they can give you a rough estimate of how many times it’s already been pitched at a Startup Weekend. You can all have a good laugh.
7. Startup Teams Value Designers and Artists
Visual designers and artists: Please come. We’ll pay you to come. And when you’re done with the weekend you will offer to pay us back and also buy us a drink.
Alternately, try to sell your work in a gallery.
8. You Don’t Have to Pitch
“I can’t go; I don’t know what I’d pitch.” Then don’t pitch. Or don’t plan to pitch and end up, halfway through pitches, thinking of an idea you want to pitch and then get up and pitch it. (This happens frequently.) Trust me, there will be plenty of other people pitching, and oftentimes you can learn more by working on someone else’s team.
If you’re worried your idea will be stolen, please read the section on “Your Idea Will Not Be Stolen,” and if you’re still going to be all cranky about it, remember that you don’t have to pitch. In fact, you can just move from team to team trying to nab yourself that technical co-founder. The qualified people will be heads-down in code. The rest will be happy to chat. (Pro-tip: They will want to know more about your idea.)
9. Winning Isn’t Everything and
10. Team Selection Is Not a Marriage Ceremony
There are countless stories of teams that were born at Startup Weekend, didn’t win, and went on to create fundable, successful companies from their ideas. There are stories of teams that did win, jettisoned half or more of their team, and still didn’t manage to build a viable company. There are stories of teams that won, sold their product, and split the profits equally among the team members. There are stories of teams that won and booted most of their members before taking funding from Ashton Kutcher.
The Giant Thinkwell team placed a close second to my team, Digri, at a 2010 Startup Weekend. Have you heard of Digri? Probably not; it doesn’t exist today. But if you were on that team, you may or may not have just been hired by Giant Thinkwell, which took on its first major round of funding this spring.
There are no ministers or notaries presiding over Friday evening team selections and, for better or for worse, teams form around bonds as heavy or weak as any individual chooses.
At the end of the day, the lesson is that entrepreneurship is a fluid game with endless overtimes. You show up every day and you play as well as you can, but don’t spend too much time worrying about making the final shot. There will only be another one.
Hey, you know a good way to internalize a lesson like that?
This article was first published on seattle20.com on June 23, 2011.