What on earth is a Startup Weekend?

09/19/2015 | By David Clearwater

This post originally appeared on blog.up.co

2013_08_17 Esnspiral

Startup Weekend is a weekend in which you create a business from scratch. On Friday night a horde of people turn up to the venue ready for and all out weekend of fun and hard work. This horde is made up of developers, designers, and, the rather amorphous category, “non-technical” which includes people from a huge range of backgrounds. During themed events, there is a fourth category “insert theme here” specialist. So in last year’s education themed event, “Education” specialists, and in this year’s health themed event this will be “Health” specialists.

The energy in the room when everyone arrives is palatable. After some introductions and getting warmed up, people will be invited to join a queue if they want to pitch an idea. The format is simple. You have one minute to get across who you are, what your idea is and, who you need on your team. At the 60 second mark you will be subjected to the legendary Dave Moskovitz slow clap of death. Stop talking now.

After you’ve pitched you put the name of your idea on a poster and stick it onto the wall. When everyone is done, participants roam around the room putting stickers on their favourite ideas and scoping out the team that they want to join – and if you pitched an idea you are also trying to convince people to join your team. If you can’t convince people, see the writing on the wall (or the lack of stickers on the poster) and move on. Don’t be the person who sulks because their idea didn’t get picked.

Think about what you want from the weekend when choosing your team. For Paul Steven Conygham, who attended Startup Weekend Wellington April 2015, he wanted to learn about how to start a business, but having a business at the end of the weekend wasn’t a priority. He wanted a team with a fresh idea and the right vibe. He didn’t want a group that knew exactly what it was doing and had it too planned out.

So he joined a team called Neighbourhood Kai, whose original aim was to connect people in communities growing backyard produce. He liked the people and he liked that they were open to evolving the idea.

For others, having a business at the end is what they want. They want to meet co-founders and ideally choose an idea that has real potential to go on after the weekend.

Some people want order and discipline, others want a more laid back approach. Talk to the people in the teams, especially the person’s idea it is and see how they fit with what you want. You’ll be spending a lot of time with these people over the next 40 odd hours. Make sure you are compatible.

Amazingly the team forming process just works. Pretty quickly everyone finds a team and the ideas that have not been chosen are pulled off the wall. And then the race is on. Each team has to test their idea with potential customers, build a minimal viable product and develop a kick-ass 10 minute pitch that will wow the judges on Sunday night.

You’ll hear two words a lot over the weekend, validate and pivot. This is because Startup Weekends are based on Lean Startup principles, a methodology created by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries. Eric is hot on testing ideas (validation) and adapting as you learn (pivoting).

You should validate every aspect of your idea. Validate the problem, validate the solution, validate that people will pay, validate how much they will pay, validate how you’ll get your product to the buyers. Everything.

As Paul puts it, before you validate you “Think you’ve counted all the variables, but there’s other shit you haven’t even considered.” For him, one of his most valuable insights was from a slightly drunk girl on Courtenay Place at 10.30 on Saturday night – validation can happen anywhere and from anyone.

The point of validation is not to simply prove your idea is right. The point is that you learn from the information that you’re getting from your customers. Paul’s team had to pivot away from their original idea when they discovered people didn’t grow enough produce to be able to share with their neighbours. But people did want to connect better with their communities, so they had to find another model.

Neighbourhood Kai evolved into an entirely different concept. Instead of homegrown food, they made opportunities for people to meet and share skills over food. To test this idea they used another central principle of the Lean Startup methodology – the Minimal Viable Product (MVP). They held the first ever Neighbourhood Kai event at a nearby bar.

The people that attended this event were other Startup attendees, and they loved it. Paul describes it as another kind of speed dating where you get a badge on which you write your skills, which helps break the ice.

Over the weekend a band of roving mentors drop in on the teams and find out where they’re up to and provide advice on how to overcome difficulties. They also provide opportunities for teams to practice their pitches, which by Sunday is the major focus.

By early evening, the team’s pitchers are looking decidedly grey or full of nervous energy. Before you know it, it’s your team’s turn and you’re standing in front of a hundred odd people, including some really intimidating (no matter how nice they sound in the introductions) judges. You have 10 minutes to sell your idea, summing up all the work that you’ve done and all the potential you see for your idea.

The judges will then ask questions. Then it’s over. There’s no more you can do. You might then start paying attention to the other ideas that are being pitched and marvel at how much awesomeness has been created since Friday.

Then dinner and finally what everyone has been waiting for the results. What do you win, if you do win, glory. Seriously, there are some prizes, but that’s not the point. In fact winning is not really the point. The point of the whole thing is what a small group of suitably motivated people can do over the weekend.

Paul’s team did not win, but Paul felt like he got everything he wanted and more out of the weekend. He feels like he now knows how to approach an idea and what first steps he needs to take, and he’s started to make progress on some of his own ideas. One of the most important learnings for him was around the need to get your ideas out there.


Interested? The next Startup Weekend in Wellington is health-themed on 6-8 November.

More details and tickets here >>

Thanks to Hannah Sutton for writing this post.