A Startup Weekend is unique – there’s nothing else like it. It’s not a pitch contest, it’s not a hackathon and it’s not a business plan competition. It’s a weekend-long sprint to develop a new idea into a business model, validate it with potential customers, and even begin to implement the idea if you can.
Startup Weekend provides an uncommon opportunity for entrepreneurs, developers, designers, students, people still stuck in the corporate world, angel investors and others to all meet and work together in a fun, challenging environment.
Begun in Boulder, CO in 2007, over 1,000 Startup Weekends have been held in cities around the world. Louisville’s first Startup Weekend was in September, 2012, and we’ve held them twice-yearly since then. Every Startup Weekend follows a similar format that’s been refined by the non-profit managing organization, now based in Seattle.
All of the organizers, mentors and judges are volunteers, and no one makes a profit from Startup Weekend. Your ticket price includes all of your meals and snacks throughout the weekend, and that’s a significant cost. Without our local sponsors we wouldn’t be able to hold Startup Weekends – thank them or patronize their business if you have a chance.
Let’s look at what goes on during a Startup Weekend.
Everything kicks off around 6:30. We’ll have dinner and then meet the facilitator who will provide some guidance throughout the weekend. A keynote speaker will provide a few thoughts on entrepreneurship, and after that we’re off to the races.
Anyone with a new, undeveloped idea for a business can make a 60-second pitch to the audience. It has to be a new idea – you can’t pitch your existing business, or something you’ve been working on already. Usually around half of the audience has an idea to pitch – more ideas are always better, so don’t be shy.
After the idea pitches a quick round of voting happens – the best ideas survive, and then team building happens on the spot. The most successful teams often have a leader that can organize things, a polished presenter who’s not afraid to talk to customers, and designers and developers who can create new things rapidly. By the time we kick everyone out on Friday night, the creative juices are already flowing.
Pitching an Idea on Friday night
Saturday is a work day – everyone shows up with new suggestions, has some breakfast and thinks about what to do first. A few participants may move to a different team if it seems more promising. Most teams dive into a mix of brainstorming, competitive analysis and even early prototyping.
To succeed at Startup Weekend, you need more than just a good idea. Startup Weekend follows a Lean Startup approach – a good idea isn’t worth much unless it’s been validated by potential customers. And, developing a prototype, a demo or something beyond just an idea is part of the process. The most successful teams often seek out contacts for customer interviews, or head out into the community to interview people and gather feedback.
Later in the day, experienced mentors arrive to consult with the teams. They’ll ask probing questions and share their experience, but it’s up to each team to decide the best approach. Don’t be surprised if you hear conflicting advice from different mentors – just like a real startup.
A team hard at work on Saturday
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all provided on Saturday and Sunday – this simulates the experience of the non-stop lifestyle of a startup, but also gives everyone a chance to meet one another and take a break from their projects.
Meeting with a mentor
By Sunday morning it’s becoming clear just how short a single weekend is. Some teams will have already developed a product. In a few cases, teams may have generated a little revenue already. Occasionally teams disband or give up, just like in the real world. The organizers are there throughout the weekend to help, but we expect everyone to figure things out for themselves, solve their own problems and make sound decisions.
Mentors arrive again at mid-day to ask questions and offer suggestions. One of the past winners at Startup Weekend Louisville used a contact from a mentor to cold-call a local executive on a weekend and gather feedback on their idea. That sort of bold, direct customer validation was part of what helped them win.
By mid-afternoon the focus shifts to presenting to the judges later that evening. Each team has just five minutes to present their business model, demonstrate a product if they’ve built one, and explain how they’ve sought validation from customers.
Practicing the Sunday presentation
Everything comes down to Sunday night. The most promising teams have developed and refined an idea into a complete business model, have validated it with customers, have developed a demo or prototype, and have put together a compelling presentation that explains it all to judges who’ve never seen it before.
We recruit judges from the business community, and they’re not easy to fool. After each team presents, the judges have another five minutes for questions.
The judges are ready
All that’s left now is the team presentations. You’re on a strict time budget, and if you go longer than five minutes, we’ll “clap you off the stage.”
Making the final presentation to the judges
Once the judges have heard all of the presentations and posed all of their questions, it’s off to a private room to deliberate. The judges assess several criteria:
- Is this a viable business model?
- Did the team receive positive validation from customers?
- Did they develop and demonstrate an early version of the product?
Once the judges reach a consensus it’s time to announce the winners. The top teams receive a prize package, but mostly they get the bragging rights for having won Startup Weekend Louisville.
The winning team
It’s not uncommon for some of the teams to continue developing their idea and their product after Startup Weekend. A follow-on program, Startup Weekend NEXT is held a few weeks after Startup Weekend, to help anyone who wants to pursue and refine their idea.