Attending a Startup Weekend is like riding a rollercoaster for the first time: after you’ve attended once, you decide whether you’re a rollercoaster-person or not. If you are, you want to take another ride. And maybe another after that! Startup Weekend is a weekend full of hands-on experience where experienced and aspiring entrepreneurs’ work together to determine the viability of a startup. It is also the perfect way to discover if you possess the entrepreneur gene – the same one that makes you a rollercoaster-person or not. 2014 was my rollercoaster gene discovery year; after Seattle startup bigwigs Greg Gottsman and Chris DeVore encouraged me to take the first step into finding out if I had this entrepreneur gene, I joined over 150 others who decided to participate in Startup Weekend Kirkland (Maker’s Edition) on Friday 14th November.
Startup Weekend was a 54-hour marathon that brought together active and empowered entrepreneurs to learn the basics of founding startups and launching successful ventures. You learn the basics over a weekend of focused effort. As the renowned Startup Weekend facilitator John Sechrest says “at every startup weekend we use the F-word generously over and over and over: Focus, Focus, and Focus!” With an evening kickoff at Google’s Kirkland Campus, we heard over 50 quick-fire pitches from participants, voted on the best, and formed 17 teams that night to tackle ideas ranging from drones and robots to gaming systems for dogs.
Just like a rollercoaster ride, everyone’s experience at Startup Weekend is different, ranging from exhilirating to panic-inducing, from feeling confident to feeling anxious and unprepared. I went from not knowing whether I had that entrepreneur gene to figuring out it’s actually quite innate in me, and I use that gene every day when I go about my practice as an attorney at Foundry. At every Startup Weekend I participated in, and every entrepreneur-focused event I go to, I always learn something new, and come out rejuvenated and excited about the endless possibilities nestled in that unique risk reward equation. Here are my top 7 takeaways from the Startup Weekend Kirkland.
- Find Your A-Team. Much like in the case of an actual startup, at Startup Weekend the team mattered the most. And the “right team” is not necessarily a group of highly experienced individuals who have worked with one another before; my team, were all total strangers who came together with a common bond to conceive the idea, build the product, obtain market validation, test, launch a website, and pitch to a packed audience, and took the first prize away! All in 54 hours, total strangers, a common goal and passion in team work – The A -Team: FENSENS
- Seek Complementary Skills. The team’s complementary skills have to cook together to achieve a successful startup dish. Our team filled the expertise needs in the core competencies of electronics, hardware, mobile technology, program management, and web design, to marketing – all complementary skills. The entire team moved to action with intuition and sound expertise, to do what needed to be done – from giving feedback on how many rainbows the FENSENS logo should feature to show output in a mobile phone to input on the slides of the pitch deck. There was no To-Do List or a process manual for success – simply the intuitive recognition of each team member’s complementary skills and use them for the common goal.
…But Don’t Be Afraid to Learn New Skills. This Maker’s Edition of Startup Weekend was packed with more engineering and design talent than usual. Kick off at Google Kirkland Campus and sponsorships from Intel and Nytec, I’m sure will tell you a lot about the engineering prowess of this event. Though I am a technology lawyer who regularly advise engineers on product development and release issues, Startup Weekend Kirkland allowed me to learn, by osmosis, how a basic Edison board turns into an electronic board that can interact with sensors and a cellphone, and how 3D printing can transform an idea into a tangible reality. The interplay between subject matter, electronics, design, user experience, marketing, program management, and legal and business development were cards we brought in and laid out on the table as a team, acting together to self-manage our winning project. We taught and learned from each other in a very natural way.
- Passionate Problems Get Solved. Obstacles, challenges, roadblocks, red tape, delays, miscalculations – every startup will run the gamut of these issues before a minimum viable product can be reached. But what keeps the team at it, I wondered, ready to take on the rollercoaster one more time? Passion behind the problem. Almost every team at Startup Weekend Kirkland picked a problem that they are passionate about solving; I joined the Fensens team because I have experienced low speed fender benders, and I was passionate and curious about an inexpensive solution to the problem – a proximity sensor connected to a cellphone. Passion allows you to put your values into practice while remaining committed to finding a solution. The democratization of access to technology is important to me as a core value; by pricing the sensor at low cost with an “even-Grandma-can-do-it” easy installation, I was able to translate my values into a workable product with the help of my team.
- Listen to Mentors. We wanted market validation for our fender bender sensor, and we wanted it quick. So, I interviewed about 15 people, and thought that was sufficient feedback on customer feedback. But, I soon realized, I was wrong. Our coaches Diane Najm and Maria Dykstra guided us towards the light – we needed to aim for over 100 interviews to have some semblance of a baseline for reliable customer feedback.
OK, agreed, then……
After a quick glance at one another, the team sped off to the Kirkland Costco (the manager kicked us out in 20 minutes but we got some good market data!), to supermarkets and shopping malls, conducted an online survey via SurveyMonkey, sent out emails, picked up the phone and even polled some busy moms at a late night baby shower (a target demographic!) all in search of detailed data to determine product market fit and the optimum price point. The data was crucial for the team to move forward in the right direction; we priced the sensor under $100, as 65% of our gracious participants were willing to pay under $100. We would hardly have had such reliable, realistic data from my 15 person interview pool of information. Thank goodness for our mentors!
- On-script = On-point. By nature, entrepreneurs are creative and think outside the box. But after nailing the problem and the solution, it is important to stick to the script. Startup Weekend is not the place to ignore the Startup Weekend method to the madness. Trust the process – it all helps avoid getting bogged down in details, getting side-tracked, or setting overly ambitious goals. Fensens focused heavily on making a product that works, that fulfilled a real need, and that customers would be ready to pay for. But as soon as engineering proved successful (thanks to our great engineers), we moved on to actual testing, installation and market validation. Sechrest’s encouragement, the importance of the F-word, and the team’s willingness to listen to mentors and trust the Startup Weekend proven process was I’m sure evident to the judges in our winning solution and the team.
- No Pain, No Gain. Startup Weekend also taught us that harsh criticism and unpleasant truths are part of the deal – after all, nothing goes 100% as planned. The pains teach you that passion overcomes all that pain – if a team is not passionate about the vision through the pain, the vision becomes blurry and the end product is not focused. From getting kicked out of Costco to being yelled at for being “Russian spies” at a local Safeway (the words “sensor” and “send data” spurred a completely unexpected fearful and aversive reaction by an older gentleman we approached for customer validation) we pushed through the pains to see the project through.
- Building Your Network? Startup Weekend is full of the community’s best makers, advisors, and doers. You’ll meet smart, self-motivated engineers, creative minds, coaches, industry leaders, corporate executives and a room full of excited fellow entrepreneurs who are inspired to solve real-world problems. It is the place to socialize, strategize, and synergize with all of them. See who you could be sitting next to when you decide to get on the next Startup Weekend rollercoaster.
If you are like me and you still wonder whether you have that rollercoaster gene, I invite you to sign up for the next Startup Weekend in your town. If you have well fine-tuned enterprise or corporate genes, and are looking to infuse or discover the creative genes in you for variety, diversity, and spice, riding this rollercoaster may be your first step to that next step that shows you the options you have in life. Either way, I can guarantee you that you will come out being a better-rounded person than you were before you took the ride!