You know that moment when life is tracking along in fairly mundane comfort and you suddenly wake up one morning and think, hey – where have all the ideas gone? That was me two weeks ago.
I had heard about StartUp Weekend on and off for the last 18 months and had vaguely ‘favourited’ and stored the idea for future reference. But then it popped up on my Facebook timeline one night when I was feeling a bit bored and because 2013 is my YOLO year I decided to take the plunge and sign up two weeks out from the event and go ALONE.
I then sent a panicked email to a mate because I freaked out. What the hell was I doing? Would I be the odd one out because I’m not a techy and what value would I add? How the hell would I present an idea in 60 seconds to a room full of brilliant strangers?
So because I am sure I am not the only one who has felt this way I’ve penned this overview of what I did and how it was. If you’re contemplating doing it don’t let the fear stop you. This was my brilliant, crazy, adrenaline fuelled adventure.
1 week out – preparation
An idea! An Idea! I need an IDEA. Actually I had several that I had been mulling over for some time. Being a bit of a planner and trying to mitigate the risk of looking like a complete idiot, I mapped them on a spreadsheet under columns for:
- What the idea was
- Who the target consumers were
- What it needed to do
- Complexity rating (guesswork on my behalf as I am no developer)
- Monetization potential
I ended up with five I felt reasonably comfortable with and pitched them in 60 seconds to a couple of mates. They were:
- An idea for a professional tool to help jobseekers
- An (audacious) idea for a new social app to challenge the likes of Facebook
- A solution for an industry I used to work in that repackages information into a single source
- A complex idea to solve a problem for the utility industry and its customers
- A networking tool to support event attendees
The one that raised the least questions was the one I went with (#3). It was an idea I’ve always thought ‘why has no one done that?’ but not something I had ever thought I’d pursue. I wanted to offer something on the night to get the full experience and contribute but my main game was really just to be part of and learn about the process of validating an idea. Once the idea was picked I did some research to confirm it in my mind, make sure it was sound and nervously waited.
Friday – Pitch Night
Eeek. So I’m a pretty confident public speaker but there is nothing quite like barreling up to a room full of complete strangers and a) making small talk, b) standing up in front of them to pitch an idea. I nearly chickened out. But I forced myself to get up there. I lost it to nerves, fumbled my spiel and then had to stand nervously in front of my butcher paper idea to be judged by a sea of orange dots.
However, the StartUp crew are amazingly supportive. Everyone is nervous, most people were first timers. I was not alone. The pitches were hugely varied – from niche B2B solutions to game-changing social movements. They blew me away.
Somehow in the midst of this my idea did get up. I didn’t get the most votes – but enough. Next step was to hustle for a crew. I needed developers, designers – ANYONE. All of a sudden there we were – the five of us (Michael, John, Andrew, Roy and me), ready to create a vague idea. We did a photo jumping in their air, I giggled nervously and couldn’t articulate a name for the team. I felt a wave of panic because I had only wanted to be part of a team, not necessarily driving an idea – I had been caught totally by surprise. But at StartUp Weekend there is no time to ponder these things. I regrouped, we planned our next steps and left for the night.
Saturday 2 – The Agony and the Ecstasy
Note: I arrived on day two having hardly slept because as I was drifting off after pitch night another really cool idea struck and I spent the entire night fending off the urge to do it instead. Is this the curse of the entrepreneur? Too many ideas, not enough time?
So I was late but we kicked it off well. We were going somewhere. Roy left our team early for personal reasons and suddenly there were four of us but on we boldly went. Our mentors came in and seemed really on board with the idea. We did surveys, we used social media, we door-knocked businesses around Adelaide and we listened to what everyone told us. The idea seemed validated, we mapped it out, the team was excited and then it all started to unravel. Our basic premise seemed to have holes, other mentors began to ask tricky questions, the idea seems to be getting way too big and unwieldly. This was also when most of the team started to hit a major wall for the weekend in terms of fatigue so this part of Saturday became our ‘moment when things got a little bit shit’. For a good four hours we plunged into the murky waters of too many different options with very different value propositions, a groping search for our MVP and multiple attempts to draw boundaries around what we could achieve and what would be valuable.
This dark zone is necessary. Trust me – for out of it comes clarity.
The best thing about StartUp Weekend is that the mentors do challenge you. It’s uncomfortable but incredibly valuable, Go with it. Take it on board. Reassess. Whatever you do don’t get wedded to your idea or ignore other possibilities that come up. Having had an idea and then seen it expand, morph, dissolve and reemerge pretty similar but with a much clearer value proposition I am so glad we went through this. By the end of Day 2 (actually the early hours of Day 3) we had 3/4 of a business plan, most of a website, customer validation and personas, our MVP, our revenue model, logos and look and feel, multiple Red Bulls (drunk for the first time in my entire life), a curry dinner, and complete and utter exhaustion.
Sunday – Judgement Day
At 8 am on Sunday the reality began to dawn. This was it – our final day culminating in a final push to sell our idea. Sunday began better because we knew where we were heading. That said, don’t ever ever underestimate the time it takes to develop ten pitch deck slides.
On day two you have a practice pitch which we booked in for 2:45 pm, just 2 hours before dinner when the finals had to be in. By ‘practice’ I mean a reasonably formal pitch to a room of 20 or so entrepreneurial guns who ask really hard questions. We got our slides done just in time and went in with no rehearsal. I pitched. The mentors told me to stop saying ‘um’, find some passion and to tell a story. There were a few more challenges to the idea and we went back to the drawing board.
I left my team to work on a little story to introduce our pitch and decided to lead with why I came up in with the idea in the first place. We prettied up the pitch deck, lodged with a second to spare and then drank some cider to ease the nerves.
Pitch night is amazing. I was blown away by the professionalism and innovation shown by the other teams offering up real, creative, engaging solutions to problems big and small (you can read the wrap up here, or watch videos of the night here). The night got me fired up, rejuvenated and ready to do more.
We were the 7th of 11 groups to pitch. I was still more nervous than I usually am but we did it and I think it was ok.
My idea, AdRate, didn’t win the official prizes but we did snatch a scholarship to do the Venture Dorm Entrepreneur Program in 2014. We got great feedback, requests from people to let them know how we get on and validation from the room that the idea, at least, wasn’t completely awful. Our team of four who had supported each other, backed the idea unconditionally, worked until the small hours, bickered and argued about the best way forward and then had pulled together to do it in time were ecstatic. I am still in awe of what we achieved and for this reason I can unequivocally say StartUp Weekend is one of the best things I have ever done.
The wrap up
If you are thinking about doing it – please for the love of god do. But be prepared for it and don’t go in half-hearted. It is a huge commitment – I packed my dog off to my mum’s and told my friends I would be unavailable. You don’t really sleep, eat or stop for the 54 hours but the payoff is that I learnt more in those hours than I have in the last two years of my professional life. I met so many cool people, was mentored by amazing minds, got a chance to think unfettered (aside from time) and reconnect with the entrepreneurial spirit I’ve had from a young age. I also learnt so much about the practicalities of entrepreneurship, validating ideas and selling them, team work and collaboration and, most importantly, about myself and what drives me. I’ve dot pointed these too and you can read my top tips and takeoutsare included in Part 2 of my StartUp Weekend post.
Finally a big thank you to my team (Andrew, Michael and John), the wonderful mentors who gave their time and knowledge so willingly, the helpful volunteers who worked tirelessly all weekend and the other entrepreneurs who chased their brilliant dreams alongside us – all of you are amazing.