How to Survive a #Startup Weekend

A rite of passage for any startup founder or budding entrepreneur is a weekend hackathon, and a Startup Weekend is probably the best way to throw yourself in at the deep end. As part of Startup Week, the York Butter Factory hosted Melbourne’s first fintech event. Here’s how I managed to survive the ordeal….

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Your correspondent in full flow at the Final Pitch…

Rather than provide an hour-by-hour account of my experience (the schedule is on the website and you can read the Twitter feed), here’s my thoughts on what it takes to participate and get the most out of the experience:

Courage

Take a leap of faith, step up and pitch an idea at the open mike session on the first night. Not only does this force you to craft your message, it also helps overcome any nervousness or awkwardness in joining a room full of total strangers with whom you will be working for the next 54 hours. My idea didn’t get enough votes, but it did spark several interesting conversations with other participants, such that I will probably take it further.

Stamina

Pace yourself. Yes, you could spend every available hour on finishing that customer validation, or refining the pitch, or making sure your demo site is up and running – all of which are important – but you also need to make time for rest, sleep, eating (all catering is laid on) and exercise. Again, 54 hours is a long time to spend on a single activity.

Open Mindedness

I had some idea from the program notes what to expect, but I still didn’t really know what it would it be like. So it was great to just go with the flow, to see what would happen. The format, structure and schedule (as well as the rules and requirements for the Final Pitch competition), pretty much define what goes on. But your attitude and willingness to be open to new ideas determine how much you get out of the experience.

I should also mention the value in having direct access to so many experienced mentors throughout the weekend – although I know from the experience, it’s hard not to get too defensive when mentors find fault with your project, and difficult to remain true to the idea when some of the feedback is contradictory.

Teamwork

Building teams to collaborate on a startup idea forms the basis of the hackathon model. As my own idea did not get enough votes at the open pitch, I looked to join a team that was a good fit in terms of the idea, the mix of skills to complement my own, and the ability to execute. As a “non technical” participant, I was extremely fortunate to be part of team that had a great balance of back-end and front developers, design skills and mobile deployment. Plus, given the theme was fintech, it was fantastic working with people from a banking IT background. (It also helped that several team members were veterans of Startup Weekend.)

Defining Roles

Although we didn’t spend a great deal of time creating or defining roles within the team, each of us played to our strengths, by self-determining what we would work on, and what our contribution would be. The only tricky decision was choosing who would present the Final Pitch to the panel of judges – but a process of elimination, preference and negotiation resulted in yours truly taking on the role.

Tools

In addition to the various software, hosting and domain name resources provided to each team, I was impressed by how many other tools the team plugged into – such as Trello, GoogleForms, Hangouts, ThemeForest, CanvasModel Design and Launchrock – most of which were free. We also spent some time reviewing competing and complementary products as part our MVP validation.

Less Is More

We could have spent a lot of time on customer validation – but we chose instead to talk to 3 or 4 key target customers for the MVP (qualitative), and run an on-line survey (quantitative) which generated around 100 responses overnight (not bad considering it was a weekend…). We also had more content than we actually used: the lean canvas business model was used sparingly, as was a competitor heat map; but it also meant that when we came to developing our pitch presentation, we had the luxury of being able to take stuff out and only focus on the important and most relevant points. Thanks, also, to a presentation template that one of the team had just used at a recent management course!

Practise

Having been chosen to make the Final Pitch on behalf of the team, and despite quite a lot of experience in making business presentations and in public speaking, I was extremely grateful for the coaching, feedback and rehearsals the team put me through. Getting to know the material, understanding the anchor points and how to navigate from topic to topic, helped me to give a presentation that flowed logically and hopefully demonstrated that the team had met the competition brief.

The Result?

Unfortunately our team did not win, nor did it place in the top 3. The judges pinged our presentation for being “too confident”, and for not demoing our prototype (we did briefly put up our beta website) – but given the working prototype mostly comprised some backend coding, it wouldn’t have been that interesting from a visual perspective.

Notwithstanding our disappointment on the night, the team is planning to get together to see how far we can take the idea, and separately I’ve been asked to join a new team at an upcoming hackathon.

(If anyone is interested, we designed a P2P payments tool called PayMee)

Next week: 3 Ways to Fund Your #Startup

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