11 Brilliant Best Practices at Startup Weekend Education NYC

04/02/2015 | By Lee Ngo

This post originally appeared on blog.up.co

As a first-time facilitator for the 4th installment of Startup Weekend Education New York City (@SWNYCEDU, #NYCEDU), I was both literally and figuratively taken to school.

Led by the incomparable Deborah Chang, the well-synced and ragtag organizational team of David Fu, Benjamin Newton, Laura Patterson, and Ingrid Spielman (with community leader Andrew Young as advisor) delivered a sold-out, knock-out event on May 27th.

[caption id="attachment_26978" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Let the games begin. (You can't read that without hearing the Bane voice.) Let the games begin. (You can't read that without hearing the Bane voice.)[/caption]

In between real-talk mentoring and the occasional selfie, I took many mental notes about some best practices I saw at SWNYCEDU that I think should be replicated across all SWEDU events, if not Startup Weekend itself.

For your consideration:

1. Hold the event at a school, but in an open area

It's a common understand that a SWEDU event (or Startup Weekend in general) should take place in a school - plenty of whiteboards, space, breakout rooms, and common areas. If teams are all in classrooms, however, they won't interact with each other as much, which inhibits the core purpose of building community.

[caption id="attachment_26979" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Wide open spaces. (Dixie Chicks serious.) Wide open spaces. (Dixie Chicks serious.)[/caption]

SWNYCEDU put most of the teams out in a common area, giving each station a huge whiteboards, sufficient tables, and open spaces to roam and float to other teams. The result: a willingness to share and collaborate that supersedes the spirit of competition.

2. Give out lanyards with ALL of the FAQ information you'll need

"What's the wifi password, again?"

"What's the Twitter hashtag for this event?"

"How do I know you're actually supposed to be here?"

[caption id="attachment_26980" align="aligncenter" width="550"]I'm so excited to be wearing a lanyard that I'm practically crooning. I'm so excited to be wearing a lanyard that I'm practically crooning.[/caption]

Not a problem when it's hanging around your neck at all times. Key information is great to have, and it's also a reusable, standardized way to maintain formality and security at the event.

3. Use a text-messaging app to send out alerts

More compelling than email or social media, texting gets people's attention faster and adds another method of outreach to a crowd of focused, stressed-out participants.

[caption id="attachment_26981" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Alternatively, we could have Ben do this to all 100+ participants. Fun to watch, but not efficient. Alternatively, we could have Ben do this to all 100+ participants. Fun to watch, but not efficient.[/caption]

4. Provide advance information and office hours signups for mentors

Figuring out how to coordinate members seemed like an impossible art to me, but this group worked it out well by creating a station for teams to review and request mentors.

[caption id="attachment_26982" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Mentors are perhaps the most valuable resource at any Startup Weekend event. Choose, but choose wisely. Mentors are perhaps the most valuable resource at any Startup Weekend event.[/caption]

Coaches were asked to come at specific times, and teams sign up to meet with them on a first-come, first-serve basis. This eased confusion greatly for everyone.

5. Provide 3 phases of mentoring: brainstorm, focus, and presentation

Traditionally in other Startup Weekends, mentors pop in an event at various, even unpredictable times, and sometimes their advice does not mesh well with the team's general progress. Some are already validated and advanced, and some are still searching for that "thing."

[caption id="attachment_26983" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Ben and I brainstorm with one of the participants. Ben and I brainstorm with one of the participants.[/caption]

SWNYCEDU takes these variations into account and brings in mentors during Saturday morning and afternoon strictly for brainstorm and validation.

[caption id="attachment_26984" align="aligncenter" width="550"]SWEDU_2015_20 Deborah and a volunteer listen and provide feedback.[/caption]

In the evening, they bring in mentors (usually Startup Weekend veterans) who aim to provide focus after a long day of retaining multiple opinions and ideas.

[caption id="attachment_26985" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Team Wizart practices their pitch. Team Wizart practices their pitch.[/caption]

By Sunday, SWNYCEDU brings in coaches who specialize specifically in pitch practice and communication, not business content or validation. This overall strategy gives teams a bit more structure and clarity as they evolve their ideas into bona fide companies.

6. Use Google Slides to present pitches seamlessly...

Simply put, there are far too many different ways to present at a Startup Weekend. Teams tend to present off their own laptops and switch back and forth between operating systems and format. In my opinion, this is a clunky and volatile process.

[caption id="attachment_26988" align="aligncenter" width="550"]I've got a fever, and the only prescription... is Google Slides. I've got a fever, and the only prescription... is Google Slides.[/caption]

SWNYCEDU had one computer for the entire presentation setup, so they used a single format (Google Slides) and uploaded everything into the cloud. A huge amount time was saved overall between transitions.

7. ... make teams do web demos (and tech check in advance)...

[caption id="attachment_26989" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Tech Check is a rough job, yet vital to the success of your event. Make sure you run it right. Tech Check is a rough job, yet vital to the success of your event. Make sure you run it right.[/caption]

Doing live demos are traditionally considered a big risk at Startup Weekend - technical failures are perhaps forgiven but not forgotten. With only one computer for all 13 presentations, all demos also had to be sent up to the cloud and tested by 3pm.

8. ... and put links to both decks and demos in a single Google Doc

A little embarrassing backstory: Startup Weekenders should always consider Murphy's Law - whatever can happen will happen. This happened to me when I foolishly opened up every single presentation and demo into a single web browser and, to no one with a basic understanding of IT, crashed the system.

[caption id="attachment_26990" align="aligncenter" width="500"]How I was feeling during that stressful 20-minute tech reboot. How I was feeling during that stressful 20-minute tech reboot.[/caption]

Organizer David Fu stepped up in a huge way to reboot the system and put all of the links to the slides, demos, and videos in a chronologically organized Google Doc. Once everything was back in order, the process went smoothly. Despite the 20-minute technical delay, we finished the event on time.

9. Serve dinner while the judges deliberate

As a past organizer and volunteer, I've never known what to do with the judges deliberation period. Dinner usually is served after presentations are submitted, and in the past I've seen ways to pass the time such as Community Asks or some light video or entertainment.

[caption id="attachment_26991" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Finally, a moment to relax in a 54-hour maelstrom. Finally, a moment to relax in a 54-hour maelstrom.[/caption]

Serving dinner gets people to talk across teams, offer congratulations, and take their minds off the anxious decision that awaits them. Good food placates all.

10. Make animated GIFs of yourselves whenever possible

Taking on a new initiative that gets communities also doing Startup Weekends simultaneously, we made some fun little animated images for our friends in D.C., who held a Maker-themed event of their own. I think this speaks for itself.

[caption id="attachment_26977" align="aligncenter" width="480"]nyclovesdc Nothing but love for #SWDCMaker. Photo generated by Laura Patterson with GIFMe![/caption]

If only we made more... Andrew Young, I'm looking right at you.

Finally, and most importantly of all:

11. Have a team that puts vision, guests, and team above ego

I can't say enough wonderful things about Team SWNYCEDU. There was not an iota of attitude among any of them. When things went right, they showered each other with support and praise. When things went wrong, they responded to the problems with solutions rather than stand around and point fingers.

[caption id="attachment_26993" align="aligncenter" width="550"]What a terrific team and Startup Weekend community! What a terrific team and Startup Weekend community![/caption]

On top of that, they were an absolute pleasure to work with. I laughed at Laura and Ingrid's wry jokes, felt secure by Ben and Deborah's unflinching professionalism, and may have found some long-lost cousins in Fu and Young. You couldn't buy a better team than this one - they'll do it all for free.

In short, I learned a lot at Startup Weekend Education New York City. I hope you've learned a lot by reading this, too. Can't wait to come back next year... perhaps as a participant? =)


Lee Ngo was the facilitator of Startup Weekend Education New York and is a Regional Manager at UP Global, the parent organization of Startup Weekend. To learn more about UP Global and its efforts to spread the spirit of entrepreneurship throughout the world, you can email him at lee@up.co.

To reach out or get involved with the Startup Weekend New York City community, reach out to nyc@startupweekend.org or nycedu@startupweekend.org specifically to contact the SWNYCEDU organizers.

Photos from this event courtesy of Frank Fukuchi and the organizers and volunteers of Startup Weekend New York City. All rights reserved. 

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Education Entrepreneurs is the largest initiative in the world focused on helping people use entrepreneurship to improve education. Its suite of offerings include Startup Weekend Education, Startup Digest Education, Workshops, online resources, and a global network of Community Leaders. Spanning six continents, Education Entrepreneurs has created an unprecedented opportunity for anyone, anywhere to shape the future of education.