Like I mentioned in my first post, a week ago I attended the Startup Weekend event in Amsterdam. In brief, it is a 54 hour event where people pitch ideas for new startups on Friday evening, groups are formed around the most popular ideas and then it's (almost) non-stop work to have something to show for the final pitches on Sunday evening. Exactly like it says on the website: "no talk, all action." After participating and loving every moment of it, I'd like to share some thoughts and insights about that experience.
On 8th July, Startup Weekend Amsterdam set a record for the European series of events: 78 pitches on stage to get things started. Out of these, around 25 (!!) teams were formed and work began. The amount of creativity that was flowing around that Friday evening was incredible. It was awesome to see that no matter how crazy or simple the idea, people were prepared to get up there and try their luck at getting someone's attention. There were some similar pitches (and these typically joined forces) and at least one ridiculous pitch. I mean: "make the first object visible from space" will earn you some laughs but not serious consideration.
The 60 seconds that you are given to talk about your idea fly by quicker than you may think (ok, technically 61 thanks to James's generous 'Digby Second'). Although it may seem unfair to put such a restriction on what might actually be an incredible and highly innovative idea, consider what you're actually trying to do on stage. Get the idea across. If the idea itself - the very core of it - cannot be explained succinctly in less than 30 seconds, you probably don't know your own idea well enough. And this is why you don't actually need to practice the pitch. I saw (and heard) one guy repeat and tweak his pitch in the corner of the room for like 15 minutes straight. What did he do after that? He ran out of time on stage, didn't manage to form a group and ended up joining one instead. If you've got a great idea, figure out the core experience and what it's solving. The rest will come to you naturally. Unless you're horrible at presenting something to an audience...
When you only have about 10-15 minutes to form your team, it is of course hard to really analyse who will be a good fit and who won't. Whoever likes an idea will typically join the group. As was the case with several groups last week, this results in excess. Do you really need 8 or more people to get something done in a weekend? Highly unlikely. Ultimately, it is of course the responsibility of the group leader to decide who joins, but I think a group member limit (say no more than 6) set by the Startup Weekend crew might have helped to keep teams more efficient.
Teams were spread out across 3-4 rooms and from what I could tell: group cohesion was as varied as the initial pitch ideas. Fortunately, our group just gelled. Communicative, no arguments, shared concept vision, constant smiles and laughter. A team at a nearby table, on the other hand, was having trouble. It didn't look like they were actually getting something working and they seemed to change concept direction 3 times! Another nearby table just slaved away quietly the entire weekend. Obviously this depends greatly on the group members and their personalities and work tendencies. However, I think that a couple of things can definitely help to make the process smoother: assigning a set of very specific deliverables (not just tasks) to every single person on the team and making sure that there are no obvious discrepancies when the group is being formed.
Development or The Art of Blagging
Funnily enough for an event that consisted primarily of online and mobile startups, many of the final pitches were showing demos that were at least partially faked. Some were mostly faked. What I mean by faked is that although an apparent working interface was being demonstrated and used, behind the scenes it was either a well-executed Powerpoint/Keynote presentation or a pre-scripted set of interactions. And that's not a bad thing at all! Making a prototype doesn't have to mean a low quality front end with a working backend. We're very visual creatures and the more interesting something looks the more likely we are to stay interested in it. Shallow, but hey... So a low quality backend with a high quality front end will definitely make you stand out more. Lesson learned: I wasted at least half a day programming a backend that in the end wasn't even used...
That's not to say you shouldn't program something substantial during those 54 hours. Some projects demand an actual working prototype in the pitch. SNTMT - the Twitter sentiment analysis for stock market predictions - is a clear example. No point pitching something like that with just a pretty UI and no working algorithm (they do have a working algorithm, by the way).
The atmosphere at the event was amazing. There's something about being in a room with so many other creative, technical, marketing and business-minded startupers that gives me such a buzz. This new blog is partly due to that atmosphere - it inspires and motivates.
Another great aspect of an event like this is that you get to meet so many interesting and like-minded people. New business relationships and friendships can flourish after the event. New opportunities may come up due to the numerous introductions. Don't underestimate the networking factor in your attendance.
I'll end this post by saying that I highly recommend attending a Startup Weekend event if you get the chance. Yes, you'll spend a weekend "working." Yes, you'll probably not sleep very much. The potential benefits far outweigh these trivial downsides. Who knows - you might kickstart the next big thing; there have been plenty of success stories coming out of Startup Weekend. Go for it!