Some Suggestions for Improving Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend Mantra

I went to Startup Weekend for the first time a couple of weekends ago and wanted to provide a few suggestions for improvements. While Startup Weekends are clearly very popular and have scaled massively I worry that they are not nearly as effective as they could be.

This post will cover what I liked about the weekend and provide a few suggestions for improving them going forward.

The Good

I particularly enjoyed:

Some Suggestions

Having said that, I am still uncertain about the purpose of startup weekend as it didn’t seem to do one thing particularly well. It wasn’t a great networking or education event, nor was it a great event to actually build something which solves a real problem. I would suggest the following improvements:

Prescribe a methodology for building startups and judge teams according to it:

While the jury is still out on whether there is a right way to build a startup or not, it seems odd to create an educational event, which does not have a philosophy on how to do it best. YCombinator certainly has a philosophy and Paul Graham will argue with you if you are doing it incorrectly. Shouldn’t there be some fundamentals in which all the mentors for the event would agree upon + the judges judge you on?

The FAQ of Startup Weekend states that you will be judged for the following: 1 - Business Model 2 - Customer Validation and 3 - Execution, but the team that won in the event was an app to broadcast people singing in the shower. It seems like if there really is a methodology, it isn’t being followed from city to city.

Work on ideas that have been vetted:

On my weekend, the ideas that people worked on were the ones with a consumer focus and thus were immediately understood by the whole audience. I believe this largely stemmed from the manner in which the pitches were given and the ideas were selected.  From the process, unfortunately few ideas, which had feasible actual business potential were chosen to be worked on. Further the ones that had business potential and were selected had many competitors which currently do the same thing.

The ideas that were most popular and ended up being worked on were an app to broadcast you singing in the shower and a dating website, which pairs up people based on their browsing history. While fun and funny, how many people would want to keep working on a joke app after the weekend? This was the list of all ideas pitched, this is these are that were selected.

While the weekend is focused entirely on execution, wouldn’t it make sense to work on the ideas that have a viable market rather than just any idea? Does it make sense to start writing a whole lot of code only to stop when you realize that nobody wants it after the weekend? The Lean Startup Machine weekend thinks that getting customer validation for ideas is so important that they dedicate the whole weekend to vetting ideas (and getting out of the building), it would be good for Startup Weekend to encourage validation as well.

I think this goes a little too far, so I would just suggest to the Startup Weekend guides attendees to pitch the business case and encourage the participants to vote for ideas based on the merits of the idea + the potential for business success. Further, most good ideas are hard to recognize without some context into the problem and normally these can’t be summed up in a minute pitch.

Facilitate the networking:

While there were 200 people in attendance on my weekend, I think I walked away just knowing 5 people on my team + 2-4 more who I spoke with in passing. Everyone is focused on knocking out their products for the whole weekend, with little time for active chatting. Out of the 54 hours spent together, it would be good to walk away from it with a connection you could really use rather than the people you just happen to be working with. Would a speed dating for entrepreneurs work better prior to picking teams?

My Conclusion

The judges awarded first prize for my Startup Weekend to team that built the app that allows people to listen in on you singing in the shower.  While I praise the team who were all super young and driven for their ability to execute, it left me confused about what message Startup Weekend is sending entrepreneurs for what they should be shooting for.

While I am pumped that Startup Weekend is succeeding in getting so many people excited about startups, I worry that they may subtly suggesting a path to failure and could improve their odds significantly by selecting better ideas that have a business case to them. Our chances for success at startups are already a little low and I think a little guidance and a bit of better organization would go a long way to improving the attendees’ odds of success after the weekend.