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by Eric Koester

I’ve often heard the phrase “You get out of something what you put into it.”  And in most cases, that is true — if you put in some time, some energy and some effort you’ll get an equal amount back out of it.  With Startup Weekend, that phrase also applies — it’s just that you’ll get 5 times more out versus what you put into it.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a half dozen Startup Weekends.  Some weekends have been a fun chance to meet people; some weekends have been a chance to build something cool; some weekends have been the opportunity to challenge myself to learn something new; and some weekends have left me with more to think about than at the start of the weekend.  But in each case, I consistently got much more out of the weekend than I put into it.

I may have hit the jackpot on my second Startup Weekend to be honest.  That was a Startup Weekend held at Microsoft where my team was the only one that built something on the Apple iPhone… and then we had to rock the boat and win the whole darn thing.  Next thing I knew we’d created a firestorm and our story spread like wildfire through the tech ecosystem — from Engadget to Mashable and everywhere in between on the twittersphere.  It was great… and we hadn’t even launched our app on the AppStore yet.  Three weeks later, we finally launched Learn That Name and the press continued… Wall Street Journal, Xconomy, TechFlash, ABA Journal and more.  We had a hit on our hands and all of it started at Startup Weekend.  Fast forward a couple months later and a meeting over coffee (spurred by Startup Weekend again) turned into a demo of our app, a partnership discussion and ultimately an acquisition of Learn That Name by Gist.  And the rest was history.  We’d gone full circle, from an idea pitched and built at Startup Weekend to a real live cash acquisition.  And that’s how Startup Weekend sometimes happens — an opportunity that pays it back in social capital a hundred times over.

But the really great part of the story isn’t that Learn That Name was acquired or we got covered in TechCrunch or our team won at Startup Weekend.  In fact, all of those things were pure bonus points for us.  Nope, the best part was the fact that I got the chance to work with a dozen team members to build something… and build something that I still have on my iPhone.  That’s the best part.  You take an idea or a problem or something you think that would be fun and just build it.  There’s no judgement; no risk; no downside.  That’s Startup Weekend… the chance to be an entrepreneur, a developer, a project manager, and a startupper for a weekend or maybe more.

So how can you get the most out of Startup Weekend?  Well, first off, don’t expect to build a company in a weekend.  That’s not what the weekend is about.  Here’s a few things I’d encourage you to consider to make the most out of your weekend:

  • Be flexible. Startup Weekend attendees that come in with a set plan or goal for the weekend are often disappointed.  Not because you can’t meet those goals or build that product you wanted.  No, you are disappointed because you don’t build something as great as you could have.  My vision for the products or ideas I’ve had were blown out of the water by the collective thinking of the team.  So offer your idea and maybe it will be picked… but don’t forget to be flexible enough to listen to those around you and get the most out of the collective brainpower in the room.
  • Build a product; not a company. Teams that focus on what happens after the weekend lose track of what happens during the weekend.  If you spend all your time dividing the pie that hasn’t even baked yet, you’ll miss out on all the fun that is had in making the pie.  So think about how you can build something to show off on Sunday night.  If you’ve got something worth turning into a company, the post-weekend challenges will really help solve themselves.
  • What can you build in 54 hours? In each case, after the weekend it is hard to keep a team motivated.  If you’ve got a big idea, try and build a piece of that idea… or a feature… or a prototype.  Startup Weekend is about building something in the weekend so even if you don’t get your grand plan completed, get something completed.
  • Build or join a team of people you want to meet. The best parts of Startup Weekends for me have been the relationships post-weekend.  It’s funny, but after the weekend, you share a bond that others don’t have.  It’s like we have a secret handshake, know the inside rituals, and laugh at the jokes that only the SW alums know.  So get a team of people that you want to meet and don’t worry about building the perfect team or excluding an extra designer or marketer.  Big teams are fun and teams with people you don’t know expand your social circle.
  • Take risks. Are you a great back-end developer?  Try some UI or front end work.  Don’t know anything about coding?  Try to learn something or at least take a crack at some HTML work.  This is your chance to do something you don’t do at your job Monday through Friday.  It’s easy enough to take a risk at an open environment like this… so take it and you’ll be amazed at how much fun it can be.
  • Have fun. At the end of the weekend, you should look back and smile or better yet laugh at a few of the funny things that happened that weekend.  If you are coding until your fingers bleed, if you are using the dry erase board until your forearms are black, or if you are so worried about the demo that you keep your headphones on all weekend, you’ve missed out.  These weekends are about the people and the process — not about winning.  So remember that when you are deciding whether to get a beer that night or stay up all night and code that extra set of features… be with your team and work hard, but at the end of the day have fun.

I’ve been to multiple Startup Weekends. Most don’t end like Learn That Name, so don’t expect that yours will either.  But every weekend has been a series of memories, stories and new friends.  Hope your Startup Weekend is a big success — and it can be if you meet new people, take a few risks, and build something together.  That is Startup Weekend…

Now go make your Startup Weekend!

Eric Koester is on the Board of Directors for Startup Weekend and is also an enthusiastic Startup Weekend participant, mentor and speaker.