When I first started telling people I had decided to participate in Startup Weekend, I usually got one of two looks...
...Either a quizzical “huh?”, or a raised eyebrow that somehow managed to successfully convey both admiration and advance sympathy all in one. Several people warned me, “Don’t feel bad if you cry.” Apparently tears are not uncommon at Startup Weekend.
After all it's an intense and daunting proposition: Team up with a bunch of strangers to start a business over the course of a weekend. Friday night, you pitch ideas. Teams form, around the most popular ideas, you figure out a general concept and assign some roles. Then for the rest of the weekend, you go nuts trying to validate the need for your service or product with your customers and users, find funding partners, differentiate from competitors, forecast your financials and develop mockups, or better yet a working prototype. Sunday night, you have five minutes to pitch your idea to four judges in the hopes of winning some funding.
This particular Startup Weekend in Wellington, New Zealand, was education-themed with pitches focusing on ideas aimed at all ages from primary school to adult learning. Most were technology based solutions for problems addressing many different elements of education.
Novelty points go to Team Groov.r, who built a prototype of an app that teaches guys how to dance. They get points not just for their app, but also for the rousing demonstration that they lead the audience through, to get the blood flowing again halfway through Sunday pitch night.
The team I joined was Making Tracks - a website that visually plots the career progression of famous or inspiring New Zealanders. The idea was to highlight that careers are not always linear, particularly in knowledge-based economies; and to reassure young Kiwis that careers will deviate, plans will change, and it’s okay if you don’t have it all figured out by the time you leave school.
Friday night was challenging, as we started throwing ideas around and tried to envisage what the final product might look like. I learned quickly that people interpret ideas and concepts in many different ways. Personalities started to show, and while we gained some fantastic insights from each other, patience was certainly wearing thin by 1am.
But by Saturday morning, as we got stuck into the various tasks we had assigned ourselves, momentum started picking up pace. The design mockups started coming together, we had a draft narrative of the story we were trying to tell, and we had surveyed a number of people who had validated the need for our product.
I’ll admit the thought of contacting potential funding partners, customers and relevant experts at home on the weekend made me feel pretty anxious. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how many people were willing to take time out of their precious Saturdays and Sundays to speak to us. By 10am Saturday morning, I found myself on the phone to Dame Susan Devoy, four-time World Open squash champion, and New Zealand’s current Race Relations Commissioner. She was open and forthcoming about both the high and low points of her varied career, illustrating an anything but linear career path.
Others on our team hit the streets of Wellington speaking with young people, chatting with staff from the Open Polytech, various youth organisations and community organisations. We were throwing slides together up until the final minute before our first pitch practice, and gained some valuable feedback from the fantastic team of mentors.
The rest of the weekend flew by with two more pitch practices, design changes, rushed conversations and requests for favours (“Will you please be a supporter of our project, and can we put your logo in our presentation???”). Moods swung up and down, and there were certainly moments where I considered throwing in the towel. I had been sick with a persistent cold all of the previous week, so at several moments, I considered heading home to bed, it was a perfectly reasonable excuse after all... But the brilliant little moments of breakthrough provided me with the buoyancy I needed. The team was supportive, and we all shared the odd medicinal bout of laughter at the ridiculousness of it all. I reminded myself often of my personal life philosophy regarding the need for laughter:
Despite high levels of fatigue, the Sunday pitch night was an enthusiastic and inspiring affair. It was amazing to see how far teams had come from vague conceptual ideas on Friday night to functioning websites, and products that actually had the potential to be disruptive in the education sector.
The well-deserving winner of Startup Weekend Education Wellington was Team Banqer. Recognising a need for financial literacy to start at a young age, the idea was clear and well-defined from the get go: An web app that teachers can use to teach their 8 – 12 year old pupils how to manage money, earn rewards for hard work, and spend wisely on special classroom privileges. Each student gets a weekly virtual salary; Students who don’t touch their ‘bank accounts’ are rewarded with interest. Those who wish to get extra ‘iPad time’ can buy it. Those who stay after class to help the teacher tidy up can earn extra dollars.
Banqer struck me as a fantastic way to level the playing field for children who have come from a wide range of familial financial situations, to be able to work hard to achieve their goals, while teaching pupils about the consequences of financial decisions. An idea with serious educational value, I look forward to watching the progress of this team in the future.
For most people, Startup Weekend is not a realistic way to start a business. The idea of picking your co-founders on the basis of a five-minute conversation is ludicrous. Business validation during the weekend is tough at best, and impossible at worst. Successful startup ideas need many iterations and refinement, much more than what will ever be humanly possible over a single weekend.
What Startup Weekend does achieve successfully, is to teach you a lot about yourself. How you respond under pressure, how you improvise to solve problems within short time frames and how you get past personal differences to come to solutions. It also gives you a glimpse into the real world habits of successful entrepreneurs – 16 hour work days, taking yourself out on a limb, calling a lot of people, and a fair amount of talking it up.
No matter the measure of success, I think most teams came out of the event proud of what they had achieved over the weekend. It was an amazing learning experience that won't be quickly forgotten.
And whatever the future of the project I was involved with, I’m celebrating a particular personal achievement: I didn’t cry.