3 Practical Recommendations for Startup Weekend Participants


Guest Post By Michael Winter

Besides having co-founded a business in Ottawa a bit more than 2 years ago, I attended Startup Weekend Montreal last February. Both have been incredible experiences filled with heavy doses of excitement and challenges.

Startup Weekend moves fast and is unbelievably similar to real entrepreneurship. You have an idea. You build a team. You “validate” the idea with little information. You execute the idea. And, of course, you need to convince others to believe in you and your idea.

I’ve tried to summarize my Startup Weekend suggestions into 3 recommendations. I hope they’re helpful.

Build a Business, Not a Demo
Startup Weekend is not a Hackathon. The product is not a working demo but a business; that’s what the judges are interested in. I’d suggest setting the goals of your demo as:

  • Show that your team has the capability to build a product.
  • Aid your team, mentors, and others in visualizing the solution.

And, most importantly, the demo doesn’t have to work or be a release ready product.
Businesses often fake their products in early stages. This allows them to test the solution and find what the truly important features are. Really focus your team on the use cases of your product that demonstrate its value to the judges. If it really works under the hood, that’s gravy.

Test Your Idea with Real Customers
I’d also recommend that as soon as you know what your idea is and who the customers are, test it with the customers and ask them to pay. Do not wait for anything; including a demo or presentation. The judges really want to see that this idea has been validated with customers. I have found that getting the customer validation takes a lot of time.

You’ll need to be creative about talking to your customers. At Montreal Startup Weekend our project was aiming at solving issues the team leader (a Physics Grad Student) and his colleagues were experiencing themselves. In other words, finding customers was easy, we already had direct access to a network. Other options are to survey friends, run quick email campaigns, cold calls, smoke test pages + ad networks, etc. But again, I’d highly recommend considering how easy it will be to contact your customers before you begin executing an idea.

Once you are speaking with customers, the best way to validate an idea is asking someone to pay for it. So again, start that early too.

Arm Yourself
Successful businesses solve problems that many people have. Sounds simple but there are many challenges in delivering that statement. Luckily, there are plenty of tools to help
I’d suggest learning what a Business Model Canvas is before you attend the event. Better yet, read Running Lean and use the Lean Canvas as well. These are great tools for quickly decomposing ideas into businesses and iterating on those ideas. If you can, read the Lean Startup or a summary of it and check out this Dave McClure presentation
Also, there isn’t much time to learn new tools at the event, so it’s good to familiarize yourself with tools for quickly testing ideas:

  • HTML Templates: If you’re building a web app or site, buy a template or use Twitter Bootstrap. Do not start from scratch. Settle on something quickly. ThemeForest has great templates.
  • Ad Networks: Learn how to run a Google Adwords campaign and how to use keywords effectively.  You may choose to test your idea through these networks.
  • Git: Have a code repo setup on GitHub and your IDE of choice ready. Your devs and marketing will probably need to use the repo too so have plans to get them running quickly.
  • Rapid Development: Developers should probably learn Grails, Node.js, Ruby on Rails, or Django because you will need to build real fast.

Focus on the Pitch
I’ve found in business I am regularly overwhelmed by options for what I can work on. Startup Weekend was certainly no different. The trick to being successful is focusing on the important options.

I’d suggest setting your team’s primary objective of the weekend as making a kick ass pitch. This might seem short sighted, but here’s why:

The judges are VCs and they know what makes a successful business. If you can impress them, it probably means you have a business worth pursuing (which is probably your real objective for the weekend). So make a good pitch.

These were the top 3 things mentors and VCs asked of our team when pitching:

  • Market: Is this market really big and growing. Can your business become a huge success? Use a Top Down and Bottom Up approach (see Dave Mcclure)
  • Team:  Is the team well rounded (Marketing, Design, Tech, and Sales) and competent. Could they execute this idea?
  • Validated Problem: Is this a real problem that people want solved. Again, will they pay for it.

As soon as possible, start pitching your idea to mentors and VCs at the event. Let them beat you up early. Take that feedback and iterate on your idea…. then pitch again.

Have fun and learn as much as possible from the event. It’s always full of great people with excellent ideas and energy.

Best of luck!