... step into my garden

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A cool Weekend

Last weekend I got to be excited about work again, which is great. How did this miracle happen? Well ... it's called a Startup Weekend. It was my second time doing this, and, as much as I wanted to, I missed writing my thoughts on it the first time around. So, without further pre-blabber, here is:

Scullder's guide to the Startup Weekend

Beware ... this blabber might take longer than usual.

Startup what?

In case you don't even know what it is, the Startup Weekend is an event organized all around the world where people who are enthusiastic about a hopefully innovative idea get to pitch their idea to a group of other people who are enthusiastic about a different hopefully innovative idea. A couple of the ideas are voted by the crowd (up to around 10 depending on the number of participants), teams are formed around the chosen ones, and people start hammering away at their projects for the big pitch in front of a real jury. The jury gets the pitches, votes for the best ones and some prizes are awarded. It starts on Friday, ends on Sunday, and it's an intense experience of sleepless nights, highly accelerated team dynamics, broken ideas and quick decisions.

Pitching my Idea

Not everyone joining the event goes for a pitch, and that's OK, as long as it's not because of stage fright. The Startup Weekend is always home to possibly the friendliest bunch of people you will find. Just this weekend, a guy lost his train of thoughts and decided to stop the pitch ... only to be brought back by an army of cheers from the public ... only to loose his train of thoughts and stop the pitch again ... only to be brought back again by even more cheers. He did finish his pitch and went on to get selected to form a team around his idea.

Yes, if you were wondering, I did pitch my idea. Nobody understood anything and I wasn't selected ... and that's OK.

Team, not Project

Smart people say that when you're joining a team in the Startup Weekend, it shouldn't be for the project... it should be for the team. I have followed this advice all the way to 2nd place victory the first time I was there, and decided to do nothing else this time. But to be honest, I started both times on the wrong foot. Found a project I liked, didn't love the team, found a team I really liked.

The first time around, I remember going into the room of the team I chose and feeling this instant chill, a low intensity tension covered by a general silence out of which one guy was trying to assign tasks to people. I thought about spending an entire weekend like that and said ... nope.

The second time around I spoke to a guy who I wanted to join, thought that he was OK. Then I saw a bunch of cool people wanting to join us and thought that this was it ... we're gonna have fun. However, the guy was not so happy about them joining the project as he was not very sure about what they would be doing. So they all basically left one by one to find another team and I decided to join the chase.

We all ended up together with a guy that I liked, but who's idea I found to be funny at best. We seemed to have a good team though, and we were ready to start.


It starts with an idea. And even though people listen to the pitches and vote for it, it's still possible that it's not a good one. C. , who had the idea, wanted to be able to sleep throughout his commute. The train conductor was always waking him up and he hated it. It was an idea driven by passion, but did it make sense to turn it into a business? We were about to find out pretty fast...

You win some, you lose some

I know by now it seems like our entire team was one small step away from singing Kumbaya while holding hands, but it wasn't really like that. One guy who joined our team, at some point decided he didn't really like the project and left home... and that's OK. You will win some and you will lose some. On another project, 2 guys left home on Saturday. The project ended up in the top 3. You will possibly lose people throughout the weekend, don't worry about it and press on. It will only make your team stronger.

Coaches and Pivots

During the weekend, you are sometimes expected to do what is called a 'Pivot'. This is when you realize that your idea has a shocking blocking issue and you need a major change. Giving a new direction to your project is the Pivot, and you can expect to sometimes have to do 1 or 2 during the weekend.

On Saturday, a couple of experienced people come and help you out. These are people that can see the problems your idea can face in the real world and can try help you find solutions. These people are called Coaches, and they are most often the reason why your project will pivot.

So, remember my friend C. who wanted to sleep on the train. We pushed this idea further and decided that he will be able to board the train, scan a barcode on the seat, and sleep like a baby. Our system would check the barcode, turn it into a seat reservation, and notify the conductor, leaving C. without a care in the world. We enhanced the idea by saying that he will be able to do this basically wherever he goes, in a train, in a parking, on a taxi. Access to any means of transport would be a touch of the smartphone away and we were pretty pumped about it. You would only have a zzzingle ticket... get it?

Pivot1 - dating?
Not going into too many details, the first 2 coaches we had basically pummeled our idea into nothingness. Not only is it very non-profitable to work with train companies, public transport companies are basically in a Monopoly situation and are completely unwilling to make any effort to accommodate anyone else's idea into their systems. When the 2nd coach told us he's been waiting 3 years for 2 cities to come to an agreement on a similar matter we realized we're basically busted. We started joking around about what we can do and someone said dating during the commute would be fun. It quickly became the best idea we had and we jumped on it. You would enter your commute route, and you could meet new people interested in dating for a somewhat speed-dating-like experience.

Great, we said, and onward we went towards our next pivot!

Pivot2 - interests
The 3rd coach got to face a team that was not very convinced about this dating idea, though it sounded pretty cool. He then went on to state that people who want to date are more likely to use an actual dating site, and that our market was not big enough. He suggested more intellectual discussions might work better, and though none of us was 100% convinced of this, the 80-90% did the trick. We jumped on it and worked for the rest of the day to put together a platform where people could meet other people during their commute and discuss different interesting issues. A young entrepreneur could get to meet an experienced one for some advice. Two students who just finished this amazing book could share their thoughts on just what the heck the author was trying to say. And so on ...

Great, we said, and onward we went towards our next pivot!

Pivot3 - back ... sort of
Sunday morning actually started on Saturday evening. When we left for home (quite early) I could tell that we all felt like we lost something, something important, called enthusiasm. We slept on it and we pretty much had the same idea when we met for a coffee&croissant next morning. Go big or go home. Yes, regulations are a pain, public administrations want nothing to do with you and technically this thing would be a monster, but we were still excited about our original idea and that felt like it was more important than anything else. It didn't take us too long to decide. The zzzingle ticket was back on, and this time we went all in. We readjusted our market to be more turistic than before, we dropped the railways from our revenue stream, we started crunching the presentation with numbers, planning, and cool screens. We went full speed ahead and it felt great. I am really proud of how we did it, how well we worked as a team, without silly conflicts, without slacking around, just helping each other as best as we could. The pitch came together from basically nothing in around 5 hours, we did a good number of rehearsals until it had a good rithm and 5 minutes before we were planned to go on, we were ready.

The Pitch

On Saturday, our third coach gave everyone a solid piece of advice just before leaving. Tomorrow, when you pitch, be passionate about it! Truth be told, if you are not 100% convinced and on board with your idea, nobody else will be either. And our pitch was just that. Fun, informative, passionate. We went in as the first pitch, which is always tough, but it went on without a hitch. Some advice ... Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Check your timing. Don't read the slides during the pitch, summarize or emphasize. Copy the structure of an existing good pitch. You should be able to do it faster than what time you have, something always comes up. The only pitches that went wrong, did so because of the timing, guys spending minutes on a single slide that wasn't really that important ... Otherwise, we had some very impressive competition, and very little hope of actually winning anything.

The Win

The Jury went and debated and debated, and came back with the top 3, a.k.a. the winners. And, we were not one of them ... But, wait, what? you will say ... you said The Win, you will say... Well, I did, because the real win is not to get a prize from the judges, though that also feels quite incredible. The real win is the pleasure you take in the weekend. I have spoken to some people from the winners, who were complaining about their teams, and didn't really seem like they had fun in the weekend. Even when not winning, we still felt great about ourselves as a team. We later found out we came in 4th, and we were quite happy about that as well. Apparently we went too touristic and not enough smart-city (which was the theme of the competition). Too late to argue that a smart city requires some kind of cooperation from the local authorities, and we were so happy that we were even actually considered for the top 3 that it just didn't matter any more.

And here we are ... celebrating our victory!

The End

So, time to wrap this blabber up ... I had a ton of fun both times I went to the Startup Weekend and it's an experience I really recommend to anyone. The key is to chose wisely the people you spend the time with, set realistic goals for yourself, avoid frustration, stay positive and most of all have fun!

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