A couple of weeks ago, I took the opportunity to partake in my first Startup Weekend event here in Kitchener-Waterloo. For those unfamiliar with what Startup Weekend is, check out their site. In this blog, I'm going to talk a bit about my experience, and why I recommend everyone give this event a shot.
How it Worked
Anyone could sign up for the event, specifying whether you are a developer, designer, or have a non-technical background (ie business). There were a limited number of spots for each, so the ratio was pretty even. Around 120 registered in total.
Once everyone had arrived, pitches began. Basically anyone who wanted to pitch formed a line, and you had 60 seconds to convey your idea to the audience. Around 40 out of the 120 decided to give it a go. It was pretty evident as to who prepared for their pitch or not, as a decent number of people fumbled to get their key points across in the 60 seconds.
Everyone who pitched stood around the room holding up a piece of paper with the name of their idea. Three sticky notes were given to everyone in the room, and they'd go stick them on the ideas that they liked, essentially serving as a vote. The top 14 ideas with the most votes moved on to become the companies for the weekend.
The 14 captains stood around the room, and everyone sort of just gravitated to the ideas and teams they liked/felt they'd be able to contribute to the most.
Teams had until 4pm on Sunday to work on their ideas and prepare for final pitches (less than 2 full days).
When time was up, each team had to present their company to a panel of judges. The judges were evaluating based on execution, idea validation, and the user experience & design of the prototype or demo.
Let's start from the beginning. I wouldn't consider public speaking to be one of my strong points, but it's something I've been actively trying to improve on. Therefore, I knew I was going to be pitching at this thing, whether I had a half-decent idea or not. I've realized you can't grow as a person unless you push yourself to do things out of your comfort zone.
I pitched an idea for an application that makes networking at events (such as conferences and trade-shows) easy. Half-surprisingly, it ended up getting picked.
When it came to forming teams, the room was full of chaos, it was almost impossible to piece together the perfect team. I kept one piece of advice in mind that I had received from a friend (Michael Gagliano) a few days earlier:
"You need to hustle."
As things started to settle, I realized that we only had one developer. It was time to hustle. I looked around the room, and saw a girl steps away from entering a meeting room with her team. I told her that she needed to join our team, and that we would make all her wildest dreams come true. She resisted, feeling bad that she'd abandon her team, but I stopped her for 15 seconds and said "look, they don't even notice that you're gone." She joined our team.
We ended up with a carefully-crafted team of 4. While it was one of the smaller teams, it was about the number I was looking for. Some of the teams had 10-15 people, which I knew was 'too many chefs in the kitchen.'
We then spent the majority of the weekend working away at the concept. We established a name, what our product would actually be, how it would function, how it would look, who we would be selling it to, how we would be selling it, and how much we would be selling it for. You can watch a demo of the CoCo app below. Please just don't mind my enthralling and stimulating attempt at the narration.
All of this went through an intense validation process, ensuring that we tested every assumption or hypothesis. We decided to target event organizers as our customer, and when 6 out of 6 of them gave us a number on the price they would pay if we could actually develop the app, we knew we were on the right track.
One of the awesome things about this event was the number of mentors that were available to us. These were people who are specialists in their field, and many of them advise start-ups like us for a living. We took full advantage of this, talking to maybe 20 of them throughout the two days. While they all offered great advice, they also posed a challenge. Nearly all of them were on-board with our original concept, but had their own personal vision on the direction we should take it. The challenge was then to filter and validate what we thought would be a good fit or not. Had we incorporated all of their advice, we'd have a feature-loaded product with no real focus.
As 4pm on Sunday neared, we were in scramble-mode to dab on the finishing touches, and somehow whip out a 5 minute presentation. We were able to run through it once before our final mentor meeting with our pitch coach Melissa Durrell. In an assertive but encouraging manner, she completely ripped through our presentation. While it was initially a little stifling, it was one of those eye-opening moments where everything she suggested was pure gold. She gave life to our pitch; it became a story. After surviving her bootcamp, we were feeling pretty confident about pitching to the judges.
Our turn came, and we knew everything we worked so hard for all weekend came down to that one moment.
While we did not end up finishing in the top 3 (some people actually came up to me expressed that they were a little surprised), I felt that the pitch went incredibly smoothly, and the entire weekend was one of the best learning experiences I've ever had.
It was one of those times where even though you went to bed at 3am every night, and woke up bright and early at 7am the next morning, you never got tired.
Or maybe it was the copious amounts of coffee.
Feel free to leave a comment below if you have your own experience to share, or have a question about mine, the event in general, our app, or anything else.