What a weekend. 54 hours of “No Talk. All Action.”
Welcome to the Startup Weekend process that I witnessed at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The main reason for my visit was to soak in the experience and learn anything possible that would serve as insight to launching the first ever High School Startup Weekend. I also acted as a “mentor”, but to be brutally honest, I wasn’t quite sure what I would offer on that front. At the end of the day, I’m a teacher and coach…not really a businessman.
Registration started at 4 p.m. and you could feel the energy as students walked through the doors to pick up their Miami Entrepreneurship red packet, which had the schedule and valuable resources in the form of handouts that included Alex Osterwalder’s business model canvas. The man responsible for bringing Startup Weekend to Miami University is Mark Lacker, Professor of Entrepreneurship. The person in charge of implementation (which means EVERYTHING else) is Jessica Reading, Assistant Director, Page Center for Entrepreneurship…what a team!
If you’ve never been part or witnessed a Startup Weekend, it takes a tremendous amount of preparation and commitment to create a great experience. To say it was a great experience is an understatement. Miami University Startup Weekend was absolutely amazing. In other words, they CRUSHED IT!
Prior to listening to the keynote speaker, students gathered around to get the introduction from Mark Lacker…”Trust the process, just bring great energy and great attitude.”
The keynote was Dave Knox, co-founder of the Brandery in Cincinnati and he dropped quite a bit of knowledge, and the students were very engaged. I even saw many of them taking notes! Dave talked about having an idea for a startup, “Are you scratching an itch? Does it keep you up at night?” He continued and framed out a good Startup Weekend participant to be a “hacker, hustler, or designer” and then clarified that a designer is not just someone that creates a logo, “A designer is someone that thinks about the user and about the overall experience.”
He ended with, “Don’t have a business that’s inspired by something too small…you gotta swing…you gotta go for the fences!” That set the stage for Nick Seguin. As a Miami Alum and Up Global board member, Nick has been to hundreds of Startup Weekends and he explained ground rules for the weekend. He also provided his own insight and wisdom, “Entrepreneurship doesn’t start until you start. No one will ever put you on their back and carry you in entrepreneurship. Startup Weekend is an access point to entrepreneurship.”
Now they were ready. Over 40 students performed 60-second pitches to attract possible team members to join them in working on that idea for the entire weekend. After the pitches were complete, students voted on who they liked, which was dwindled down to 17 teams. They were set and off to the races.
Some teams stayed till 1 a.m. working on the initial phases of the lean canvas to nail down the problem statement to then tackle the next phase of customer development. This sounds easy, but every single team will tell you…it’s hard as hell, especially when you have professional mentors coming in to poke holes in assumptions and/or lack of focus on PROCESS.
At this point, you must understand that it was the entrepreneurship department at Miami University who first launched the college version of Startup Weekend and this was their third year. Therefore, students of the entrepreneurship track acted as peer-to-peer mentors in addition to acting as support staff. The really cool thing was to see alumni come back and act as professional mentors. These were proven businessmen and women with significant experience as entrepreneurs and had founded many different companies in many different sectors around the country.
Saturday continued the grind at 8 a.m., which started with a simple breakfast and a ton of coffee, much needed for all involved. There was also a guest speaker from Procter and Gamble, Joyce Ross. She was great and it was interesting because she set the stage for what the students should have done right after the presentation…customer validation through consumer interactions. Some teams did and many teams didn’t.
In regards to asking the right questions, Joyce stated, “It can allow you to quickly assess your idea, build it, and change direction if needed.” The line that stuck out to me was her insight about how people usually approach asking questions, “I’m gonna go talk to some possible consumers.” Joyce then reframed, “No…I’m gonna go listen to some possible consumers.” Brilliant. It also reminded me of Startup Weekend’s motto of No Talk. All Action. Maybe listening in the best action?
So back to work they went and internal stories were starting to emerge. Some of the students that worked together knew each other prior to the event but some did not. It was evident that teamwork was so critical to the process, which can be a difficult process, especially when you have more people than you need. Again, reminded me of going through Tuckman’s stages of group development…in 2 days no less. Not easy at all…and most times, impossible.
The word of the day on Saturday had to be “pivot” because many teams were still receiving customer validation that changed how they approached the problem. They also had mentors coming in throughout the day to question them about everything.
I had the opportunity to pop in and out of all the different rooms, which the teams were working in and started to get to know the teams quite well…my favorite part. As a side note, these students were awesome and they had constant energy. It was very refreshing to witness them embracing the Startup Weekend process and even better, it was proving to be a great educational experience.
The day moved into night and teams were working hard to create apps, websites, marketing plans, business models, and possible prototypes. In addition, they continued to receive customer validation from the survey’s they sent out earlier in the day. Some teams even left the building (even though it was snowing) to question different business about product development. They were actually going through the IDEO Human Centered Design circles but didn’t know it, i.e. is our idea desirable, feasible, viable?
There were a couple “Gut Check” times where teams would check in with Nick and give an update where they were in the process. It was a very cool piece because you could sense the urgency to deliver but also the frustration in the process to solve a problem. This part had me reflecting on feedback I received from Bob More, Head of Venture Investing for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I asked Bob what he thought were the top three qualities and/or skills of an entrepreneur and this was his response:
- A thorough understanding of a problem (emphatically not a solution, but a problem)
- Intellectual honesty to themselves and others
- Ability to convey a dream through the telling of a story
I often refer to these three points in our curriculum at the high school level and it serves as a great “Gut Check” for the serving over steering mentality. In addition, I introduced a couple of the teams to my favorite storytelling video, which some students had already seen through classes at Miami University.
A big issue during the day was an impending snowstorm that was moving in and threatened travel plans for many of the mentors and judges that had come in from across the country. However, everyone decided to stay and I would have to chalk that up to how great the event was going. It really was seamless and so well planned, which provided the opportunity for everyone to focus on the students instead of possible poor planning glitches. Kudos to Jessica’s team for sure.
The second day came and went. Some teams actually worked until 3:30 Sunday morning and were getting into the planning stages of their final 4-minute pitch. These were people that didn’t know each other 48 hours prior but were committed to something bigger than themselves…it was a TEAM mentality that drove them.
Here it was…the final day and everyone had on their Sunday best, meaning that most shirts were tucked in. The level of exhaustion was evident but so was the level of urgency and engagement in the process. All the teams were making final adjustments on their presentations and were also “dogged” (Dave Knox language) in their practicing of the pitch. I witnessed many of the practice pitches and these students were ready.
Judges were in place and it was time. First group up! 17 teams later, the judges had very difficult decisions to make. The Startup Weekend judging criteria is based around three distinct measures:
- Business Model – customer identification, basic value proposition, revenue sources, main expenses, key partners and resources, distribution channels, sales and marketing strategy
- Customer Validation – evidence to back up business model, target market feedback (quantity and quality)
- Execution – minimally viable concept features, mockup or prototype
The judges deliberated for about 30 minutes and went back and forth on who should receive the top prize based on all the criteria. It was also difficult for them to decide who would be second and third.
As they deliberated, one of the judges summed up his view between this year’s Startup Weekend to last year’s, and said, “Last year, students pitched ideas. This year, students pitched businesses.”
That statement alone was the evidence needed to show that all the time and effort put forth resulted in a tremendous educational experience. I’ve heard people say that Startup Weekend is like getting your MBA in 54 hours. It was also cool that Miami University gave official college credit to all the participants that completed the weekend.
Votes were in and a winner was selected. All the participants, mentors, and alumni piled back into the auditorium to hear the results. Prior to announcing the winner, one of the judges and also an alum, Ravi Pandey wanted to express his thoughts about the weekend. “It’s something I wish existed when I was a student.”
Nick Seguin was then tasked with announcing the winner. And the winner was Recruit Her, which is an app to keep sororities organized and efficient through a paperless process. They not only had a great pitch, but they worked well as a team the entire weekend and also addressed all aspects of the judging criteria.
So there you have it. 40+ original pitches, 100+ students, 15+ peer-to-peer mentors, 15+ professional mentors, 17 teams, and one final picture.
Last, I must express my thanks to Mark, Jessica, Brett, and the Miami Entrepreneurship team. I learned more than I can remember, which translates into selfish motivation for this blog. I figured that if I can write it out, maybe it could serve as a constant reflection document to reference when thinking of Startup Weekend best practices.
However, we all know this blog doesn’t represent the half of it. Each team had their own amazing story. The bonds that were made have a great chance of turning into life long friendships and partnerships. We might even see some legitimate companies launched, and that would be icing on the cake.
The third Startup Weekend at Miami University didn’t just serve as an educational experience…it was an invaluable life experience. Thanks for all your work and dedication.
Until we meet again,