I did it. I made it through Startup Weekend.
If you’re not familiar with Startup Weekend, well I wasn’t very familiar with it either. I had heard about it last year and kind of wanted to participate, but I could never figure out if you needed to show up as part of a team or just come as an individual. Last year was the first one in Fargo and I did know a few people who were participating so I went to the final presentations at the end. It really did look like something I’d like to do, so I stayed tuned in. There was a Women’s Startup Weekend that I considered participating in too, but it was the weekend right after WordCamp Phoenix for me and I’m really glad I didn’t do it then. Would have killed me most likely. But conversing with the folks about Women’s Startup Weekend convinced me that I could go as an individual, so I signed up for the event in March. The one thing that tipped my decision to participate was the location. It’s only a few blocks from where I live, so walking to it wasn’t going to be a problem. Buses are kind of impractical on the weekend, especially during the hours scheduled for the event, so it really made a difference for me.
I maybe, kind of, sort of, possibly had an idea to pitch and I wasn’t sure if that was going to be required of everyone or not. Somewhere along the way I heard of something similar to my idea, so I wasn’t dying to get it out there. As it turned out pitching wasn’t required, so I chose to leave that to other folks.
The Warm Up
Friday evening started with a quick introduction and welcome, but it didn’t take long to get into the nitty-gritty. The first exercise was to just shout out words. I think the goal was something like 50 words up on easel paper. So words like “love”, “beer”, “lefse” and other nonsense were written down. Some were nouns. Some were verbs. Some were adjectives. Then teams were randomly formed and given two words, ours were “rifle” and… gah! I forgotten the second one. So as a team we whipped out a logo and a fictional product with features in about 15 minutes that we then presented to the entire group. So now we were sufficiently warmed up.
Next up was the idea pitching. Folks formed a line to give a 60-second pitch of their idea and what type of skills would be needed to make it happen. Lots of great ideas and I think nearly half the folks got up to pitch. The ideas were written down and stuck to the walls. Then everyone got 3 sticky notes and essentially voted for their favorite ideas. It was then narrowed down to the top dozen or so. At that point you got to choose which project you were the most passionate about and that was the one you were going to spend the rest of the weekend working on. The project I chose was pitched as “Share a Meal” where you could eat with locals in their homes rather than in restaurants while traveling.
My team consisted of, I dunno, maybe ten people. Several were Microsoft engineers, one was an iOS developer, one was a web designer, one was actually one of the organizers, and there were a couple misc folks like myself. It was an interesting mix of cultures, ages, experience levels, stated purposes, ideas, backgrounds, and dietary restrictions. It actually turned out to be a very good team and one of the things I’m proudest of is how we worked through all of that with respect and tolerance and learning from each other.
Our team found an open classroom (the event was taking place in the Offutt School of Business at Concordia College) and we choose wisely because we had gobs of whiteboard space available which was used heavily all weekend. I won’t bore you with the details of the discussions we had throughout the weekend. Friday evening was spent getting more specific on exactly what the project was going to be and another team member drafted up a website. Saturday was doing market research, where we discovered that other folks were already doing something similar. So we spent a lot of time trying to differentiate ourselves. It went from simple meal sharing, to learning to cook with the host, to cooking / eating / staying with the host. Honestly, I’m not sure where we landed at the end. We had the help of a graphic designer that came up with our logo fairly early on Saturday, so regardless of how it changed with stayed with the Breaking Bread name. Sunday we spent a fair amount of time focusing on the business plan. Gotta give a shoutout to the coaches that were available all weekend. They were a great help and often came at just the right time to get us to push through a sticking point.
One of our team members was very passionate about the project, which by now was a website and an iOS app for the most part, and was obviously the one to give the final pitch. However, she had stayed up most of the night on Saturday (doing what, I really don’t know) and as the deadline approached it became more and more obvious that she was kind of unraveling and unable to meet the challenge of a 3-minute pitch. I had been working on the PowerPoint, so I quickly rattled off a sample pitch intending it to be an outline of how it should go. Next thing I know the team is asking me to do the presentation. Did I mention this was roughly 4:00 p.m. on Sunday with the pitches to start at 5:00 p.m.? Plus we had to get over to a different venue? No practice for me.
Sunday evening the venue moved to the Fargo Theater. If you’re not familiar with the Fargo Theater, it’s become the iconic landmark in town. Great art deco theater that needs, and gets, a lot of local love. It’s really a perfect place for the pitches. They started with the usual welcome, thanks, and a quick speech by Ben Milne, CEO of Dwolla, who had actually skipped SWSX to attend Startup Weekend Fargo (and he had really nice things to say about the event!). Then straight into the pitches. We were up 2nd. All I remember is that the lights on stage were bright and 3-minutes is really short to pitch an idea and its business plan. I was glad when it was over and enjoyed the rest of the pitches. It was only then that I learned that several of the teams had suffered meltdowns and the remnants were left to either carry on or start over with a much reduced time frame. Ouch.
One of the nicest things that happened all weekend it that while we were gathering for the group photo, one of the judges came up to me to let me know that our group was one of his top three choices. I had no expectation, or really interest in winning (just wanted to do our best), but it was nice to hear that we did well enough to get noticed.
Our Slide Presentation
The Take Away
I’m a bit ambivalent about my Startup Weekend experience. I am glad it did it, both for the experience and to satisfy my curiosity, but I doubt I will do it again. I had no intention of it being anything more than a weekend event. I was not really interested in actually taking a product and making it happen. (Of course, the right situation could have changed my mind.) But now that it’s over it seemed awfully pointless to pour that much energy into something that meant nothing and was going nowhere. For me, I could have told you on Friday evening who was going to win the Sunday night pitches. (Sorry to say, but the bro clique is a thing.) Plus it really felt like the event could have used a debriefing. The last time the team was together was on the stage and we for the most part, simply parted ways with no real “thanks for a great weekend” or “what should we do with the project” wrap up. Felt unfinished.
I’d encourage folks to participate, but the information I’ve shared here is more than I had going in so you’ll be in a better position to make that choice for yourself. If I were to do it again, I think I’d look to having an idea and team somewhat in place before getting there. It would have been a great way for a team to get a jumpstart on a new product/idea that would have had half a chance of surviving the weekend.