One Person's Perspective
I attended my first-and-only Startup Weekend in June 2011. At that time, I had just graduated from a community college, and prior to school had a professional background in direct sales and customer service, as well as limited experience as both a freelance web designer and web developer. Academically and as an intern, I had additional experiences in application programming, small group communications, team leadership, public relations, member engagement, grass-roots-level non-profit development and in tutoring college-level writing.
Attendees: A Cast of Characters
Startup Weekend Bellingham was held in a large meeting room at Western Washington University (in Bellingham, Washington, USA). There were about 50 attendees per day, not including mentors, speakers or event staff (all of which contributed to conversations throughout the weekend). Here is how I might classify the different attendees I met during the event:
- Attendees who pitched specific ideas. These people showed up on the first day with an idea in mind and were primarily scouting for a team. Many intended to pursue that idea, regardless of whether or not their pitch succeeded in attracting a team during the actual Startup Weekend event -- they were looking for associates. A couple of them did get to develop their projects during the event, but others left with a hand full of business cards and were not seen again. The majority stuck around and were happy to join other teams. I, personally, would make it a point to not disregard anybody in the room, especially these types as they could be people with great ideas but just not enough time to stick around.
- Attendees who pitched, but were willing to work on others’ ideas, too. About a third of those who attended pitched an idea, and were made up of a mixture of both business and technical people. Of those, only a handful survived the voting round and succeeded in attracting a team. I wouldn't let this deter you though; pitching an idea to a room of enthusiastic people is a worthwhile experience!
- Attendees who did not pitch but did participate. The majority of attendees did not pitch, but did join a team and stuck around for the entire weekend. Public speaking can, I realize, be intimidating...but consider this a rare opportunity to go out on a limb in a room of like-minded and supportive peers.
- Attendees who showed up for the first day and disappeared. A couple people showed up for the first night and then never came back. Those who I met had attended a Startup Weekend before and, so, knew it was a goldmine of potential contacts. They walked in, chatted with as many people as possible, maybe stayed for the idea pitches and split once teams began to work. Something to keep in mind: a couple of these people returned Sunday night to see how the weekend went. They were experienced entrepreneurs and business-minded people who were scouting for talented people for their own projects...
A Grab Bag of Opportunities: Developing a Strategy
If there is anything I would suggest to those new to Startup Weekend, it’s develop a strategy for accomplishing specific goals during the event. Here is a quick list of various opportunities I noticed:
- Networking, networking, networking. The Startup Weekend methodology is shaped around the experience of developing an idea from concept to cash-in-hand -- and once you try it, you'll love it -- but the entire event only lasts a single weekend! So, to take full advantage of the human potential in this room, you need a plan. If you want to meet potential employers, mentors and/or partners to work with in the future, and you have a sense of what you're looking for ahead of time, there is a good chance you will succeed! Since my first-and-only Startup Weekend only 6 months ago, I have met with perhaps 15 people -- in person locally -- and exchanged e-mails with perhaps 10 more regarding startup ideas. I also participated in one startup actively for a time, continue to trade ideas today with a small group of people I met at the event and am currently employed by another very ambitious startup (it’s a secret for now; I’m sure I’ll get to share it soon :] ). In short: Startup Weekend is an awesome place to network! (More about how to prepare mentally later.)
- Developing a startup. Of course, Startup Weekend is about learning startup development -- duh. But it’s also an opportunity to take chances, be bold and gain some confidence about the process. Listen, but speak as well.
- Team development; collaboration; effective communication. Someone recently said that the top 5 most important elements for a successful startup are (1) people, (2) people, (3) people, (4) a market and (5) a product. At this point, I couldn’t agree more. If you’ve worked with a team of peers before, you know how challenging it can be to decide roles and create a work-style that fits all the personalities at the table; doing this by the end of Day 1 can be pure madness, depending on the skill level of your team leader[s]! Personally, I see every chance to work on a team as a living experiment in communications, and this is no exception. If you want a read a couple great anecdotes about overcoming challenging communication scenerios, check out Katie Kuksenok's post, Goldilocks Goes to Seattle Startup Weekend.
- Opportunities you don’t see at first! In a single room, with so many motivated and intelligent people, there is no way to explore all the human resources that are surely available. Also, different people have different communications styles. My advice would be to not discount anyone. Stay open to new possibilities.
Each of these opportunities are invaluable in their own right, but how to engage in each of these different opportunities will depend on what your goals are. Here are a couple questions you might ask yourself to begin developing your own "learning and networking strategy" for the event...
- What are my current career goals?
- How can I participate fully in this event while also furthering those goals?
- Who should I be looking out for at the event?
- Are there any specific, official Startup Weekend mentors I would like to meet?
- What experience do I have with startup development or concept development?
- What would I like to learn more about regarding startup development?
- What size of team would I like to work with?
- Would I like to focus on specific skills, such as computer programming or marketing strategy, or prefer to gain more of a “big picture” view of startup development?
- What is my future availability for taking on new projects following the event?
Define Yourself Before Others Do It for You!
Additionally, I feel there is one other aspect of this event that you should pay special attention to if you are hoping to gain opportunities that extend beyond the event: personal branding. When I refer to “personal branding”, I mean anything that helps new contacts better understand who you are, what you do and what you want to do.
Here are a couple of elements you might consider preparing ahead of time to convey your "branding":
- A business card and/or a QR code sticker (for your name badge) that leads to contact information. I recommend creating something that is versatile and supports what your goals are for the event. Whatever is on this material is going to be how most people think of you after the event, regardless of what you told them in a conversation to the contrary. Words in print are powerful. Also, be sure to include the best way to reach you, and if you have a website, add the address. If you are interested in multiple types of roles (such as writing content and programming), and are creating a business card, consider keeping it simple so as not to get "pigeon-holed" in one role or the other by new contacts reviewing your card later.
- A well-managed web presence. Search for yourself online. As much as possible, whatever is on the web about you should support your goals. I’m not suggesting you should remove all personal items; most people don’t want to work with someone who is all business (at least I don’t) but, the way I see it, content about you either supports or detracts from the overall impression you make on people. Nothing is neutral.
- A landing page. This is the one place you want people to go first to learn more about you. Ideally, this should be a web page (I think), but it could alternatively be a profile page on a social network (such as LinkedIn) if that fits your communication style and goals. Just make sure it’s actually public -- it's accessible without being logged in to the website! Here’s mine: Infogardens.net.
- An elevator pitch. People will be meeting each other very quickly, especially during the first day. Having a way to introduce yourself and what you do is helpful for leaving people with the right impression. They will be trying to categorize you. Help them to categorize you how you want to be categorized!
At the Event: From Dream to Team
There is no way one article could get anywhere near preparing new Startup Weekenders for how to manage their entire process over the weekend. Below, I share a few insights about the first day of the event -- parts of the event that are somewhat unique to the Startup methodology. I hope you find them useful.
- Pre-kickoff. Get there as early as possible for networking. Many of the event mentors and organizers will already be there so it’s a great time to introduce yourself.
- Idea pitches. I didn’t actually pitch an idea myself (I should have!), but from out in the audience it was easy to see who practiced ahead of time and who didn’t. If you are there hoping to actually find investors, here’s your chance! If you are just hoping to break the ice and give it a try, you’ll never have a more supportive audience. As someone who will momentarily be looking for a team to join for the weekend, noting key words for each idea -- pitches are short and fast so hit the high points -- and marking your favorites as you go will help you move faster during the voting round.
- Voting on ideas. At Startup Weekend Bellingham, everyone was given 3 paper sticky-notes that they could stick onto poster-boards representing the different idea pitches; each sticky-note counted as a vote. Time was pretty short (30 minutes to explore 15 or so ideas). There are many ways to attack this process. I, personally, had decided it was in my best interest to vote for projects that (1) would ensure a decent learning experience for me and (2) would be fun to work on. I would recommend going to your favorites first, meeting the leaders and any committed team members, and ask any questions you have. Do this as quickly as possible so you’re sure to make it to every idea on your list! To really take advantage of your votes, investigate first (keeping your goals for the weekend in mind), watch which ideas are attracting votes to see which ideas will most likely survive, and then, if possible, cast your votes near the end to keep the idea you want to work on in the running. Be careful though: the end sneaks up fast!
You will discover once you attend a Startup Weekend that it really is a dynamic, multi-layered grab-bag of candy-coated opportunities. You will either run screaming into the night (doubtful), or absolutely love the thrill of it all. Personally, I can’t wait to attend another.
What’s included here are only one person’s reflections on the event, and only one set of strategies. I would enjoy hearing others’ own thoughts and approaches to making the most of a Startup Weekend. I invite you to share your own thoughts, links and strategies below. Thanks for reading. Have a great Weekend!
Last updated by at .