This article was originally published by Brendan McCorkle on the Cloudmine blog.
The goal of any Startup Weekend (SW) is to launch a business in 52 hours; this leads to a beautiful microcosm of the startup experience. Everything is distilled to a single focus: build or die.
Staving off death isn’t hard, though. There are ways to think about the weekend and tools you can use to avoid an untimely demise. Some require you to think differently; some require you to work different.
1. Work Smarter, Not Harder
SW is definitely a place where you need to work smarter, rather than harder. Build a team that covers your actual needs; thankfully, they all end up pretty similar. Go for 1 Frontend Dev, 1 Backend Dev, a designer, and a business guy/gal. This team composition can intelligently split up work and crank out a functional prototype in two days – maybe even with some market sizing and an alpha customer! Now you have an idea and a team, great: it’s time to plan out your next two days.
2. Wo/Man With The Plan
Spend some time thinking about what form of this idea is your minimally viable product (MVP); that is, what is the easiest, smallest, fastest way to demonstrate the solution to the problem you have identified? You are showingfunctionality, not elegance. No one’s looking under the hood Sunday afternoon, and your early adopters will be more forgiving of ugly and half-baked results than you can imagine.
A special note to the engineers reading this – follow the old adage, “If you aren’t embarrassed of what you release, you waited too long.” If you need help pushing through this emotional wall, because it’s your code and you actually are embarrassed, reach out to someone in the room who has been there before. You aren’t alone.
There are some nice parts of agile methodology you can use to help focus your work for the weekend, which brings us to #3:
3. Break It Down
Break down tasks into small chunks (around 1-2 hours), assign them to people, then write them down on notecards or post-it notes and put them on the wall. Have a section for in-progress and finished. Have a section for ideal features – i.e. “would be nice” – if you have time. You will have a lot of “would be nice” on your initial list, so try and cut that down. Challenge each task. Ask yourself hard questions. Ask yourself “Is [task/feature X] necessary to show viability?”
4. Ask For Help
The irony of surrounding yourself with smart people for a whole weekend…is that you’re actually surrounded by smart people for a whole weekend. If you get stuck on something, reach out! It’s not worth spending an hour getting frustrated over a problem that someone else in the room has dealt with, and solved. Being lean is about not doing things that you don’t need to.
5. Get Sleep
Trust me on this one. It’s tempting to pull two all-nighters and aim for V1.0 Sunday afternoon. Very tempting. But this usually results in a bad demo, an illness-prone team, and missed work on Monday. You’ll work more efficiently if you sleep a little bit Friday and Saturday nights. In the same vein, get up and walk around semi-regularly. Take a break to help a peer with something they are stuck on. It gets your brain off of whatever YOU are stuck on, and sometimes, gives you fresh insight when you come back to a problem.
Special note to the business readers: Engineers with hoodies on and headphones in their ears DO NOT WANT TO BE INTERUPTED. Leave them alone. You will impress them greatly by respecting this unspoken rule.
6. Make Your Life Easier
Use tools to save time wherever possible. Engineers: use micro-frameworks like Sinatra. Throw up a LaunchRock splash-page. Host on Heroku for web apps, on CloudMine for mobile apps. Use UI libraries like jQuery, jQueryUI, PhoneGap, and SenchaTouch. Don’t reinvent the wheel – if you can find a library (for example, the QR scanner library for Android, or Aviary for photo editing on iOS) use it, instead of rebuilding it! Use API mashups – Venmo for payments, Foursquare for location, etc. Mashups can show a basic solution REALLY well.
7. Practice The Pitch
You’re being judged by your demo, so don’t try to wing it. Practice. Give a smart demo. Tell a story with your presentation: Explain the problem, show the solution. This is important enough to say twice: Show, don’t tell, during your demo. If you have more than one person, assign one person to run the tech, and have the other do the talking. And do a few run-throughs to practice the timing. When this is done properly, it looks really sharp.
8. Have a Plan B
Don’t tempt the Demo Gods – have a backup plan in your pocket! Run website demos locally, if you can, or if the wi-fi is misbehaving. I’ve seen some really sharp web app demos run locally, and almost no one notices that it isn’t really “live.” For mobile apps, make a screencast of the demo – just in case something happens with your reception (we used screenflow; we had to pay, but we love it). Load both your plan A and plan B demos if the organizers let you, so you can switch with as little pain as possible.
9. Have fun
You’ll be finding future co-founders, testing future markets, and building something awesome. Some of you will find out that the crazy entrepreneurship thing isn’t for you. That’s important too – if you’re going to fail, it’s best to fail fast and fail cheap.