Friday, July 29, 2011

A better way to do startup weekends

The TechWeek conference that I wrote about earlier this week included a startup weekend event. At a startup weekend, a group of aspiring entrepreneurs propose ideas to turn into businesses over a weekend (typically, 50 hours). The first step is to whittle the list of ideas down to 10 or so, and then the participants whose ideas weren't chosen join the teams whose ideas will be pursued. For the remaining time, the teams flesh out the ideas, talk to customers and write code. At the end of the weekend, the teams present their startups to a group of judges (typically, angel investors, venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs).

Startup weekends have a lot of problems, but the biggest one is that they turn startup creation into a game played over two days that can be won. That's not how startups work, and startup weekends trivialize the process while focusing on things that the team members already know how to do.

I sat in on the presentations at TechWeek's startup weekend. The demonstrations of working code were very basic, when there was any working code at all, and by and large, the "customer interviews" turned out to be nothing more than a collection of market size statistics gathered through Google. Jason Cohen, in his "A Smart Bear" blog, wrote some advice for startup weekend participants, and he pointed out that the goal should be figuring out whether or not you've identified a viable business opportunity, not demonstrating your ability to code:
You and I know you can code an app and produce a simple clean home page. Everyone here can. So the quality or quantity of that creation will not be why your company succeeds.
Cohen makes some excellent suggestions about what startup weekend participants should try to accomplish, but his key recommendation is to get out of your comfort zone. Developers are excellent at writing code, but they tend not to be as comfortable with talking to customers or identifying business models.

With that in mind, here are two suggestions for alternate startup weekends that could be more valuable in the long run for their participants:
  • Customer Development Weekend: As with current startup weekends, participants propose product and service ideas and whittle them down to 10 or so. Each team then figures out how to present its concept, writes a questionnaire and starts interviewing potential customers. The team must interview at least five potential customers face-to-face. It then takes the customer feedback from the interviews and uses it to either modify the original concept, or discard it in favor of a new concept, which then has to be retested. Once the concept is solidified, the team considers and selects one or more business models, and develops arguments for why the model (or models) will work. Finally, the teams present their concepts, along with the interview research to substantiate them, and their business models.
  • Building Strengths Weekend: It starts with the same process of coming up with a list of 10 or so product and service ideas, but then the team members work on the areas where they need the most help. The developers are responsible for getting out and talking with customers. The businesspeople with no programming experience learn how to program enough to build a skeleton of the concept. Everyone learns by doing. The final presentations show what the teams accomplished, and what they need to work on in the future.
The goal of starup weekends should be to learn what you don't know, rather than do the same thing on the weekend that you do during the week. If the objective is learning rather than winning a prize, the competitive aspect does more harm than good.
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