28 Nov 2011

Startup Weekend Notes

I went to Startup Weekend Tokyo in November 2011. Below are my unrefined notes about this experience.

Day 1 - Pitches

Half Baked

Things started off with a game called “Half Baked”. There is a list of - usually weird - words from which each team choose two. Those two words will be the name of the teams’ imaginary companies for which each team must come up with a pitch. In five minutes (time pressure is a recurring theme at Startup Weekend - just like in real life).

This game is intended to represent Axiom #1:

It is not the Idea but the Team that makes a successful startup.

Now I’m of the opinion that that proponents of this axiom might have the causality relationship upside down: the most important part for any startup is the idea. However a good team is necessary to find that idea (unless you already have a bulletproof idea, which you probably don’t)

1 - The IDEA is the most important part of a startup. A great TEAM is the best way to it.

When I threw ideas out in a brainstorming fashion, those were taken as fully formed ideas and were not challenged. I can’t just write this off as a cultural curiosity. Japanese do tend to be conflict-averse to a pathological level, but these are surely the best and are pioneers. My… uhm… half-baked idea was selected almost unanimously in a team vote.

Five minutes preparation time went away pretty quickly and at the end we didn’t really have the pitch down, which put the guy who volunteered to pitch in an unenviable tough position. And to my utter surprise he built a case out of thin air - he pulled it off spectacularly.

The pitch

Sixty seconds is not a lot of time to introduce the problem and the proposed solution in a memorable way. This task is not helped by the fact that everyone pitches and sooner or later (and let me tell you that it’s sooner) pitch fatigue sets in. Out of the 60 or so pitches, after a week, I remember maybe 3 or 4 and one of them is the pitch of the above guy that I was specifically keeping an eye on and his cause is helped by the fact that he got selected and that he failed miserably at coming up with even a hint of project to do and the team dissolved on the first day (although later I understood that in fact he only wanted to practice the pitch and as such did a brilliant job).

2 - More than one pitch causes pitch fatigue. Make sure you have undivided attention.

There were two problems with my pitch. The first is a cosmetic issue, namely that I was literally shaking from anxiety. I suck at public speaking but wasn’t aware of just how much. And I wasn’t aware how much that is not a unique problem. On the one hand, probably no one else noticed and on the other, I was looking at others and most everyone was nervous on the stage. I am glad I pushed myself to do it.

3 - Everyone sweats it. You just have to push yourself.

The second issue is that I did not articulate the solution as well as I did for the problem. I had 13 seconds left after I introduced the solution and made the split-second decision to not risk botching it by making a clearer connection between problem and solution. Probably I should have practiced more beforehand, but the thing I noticed is that with all these problems, my pitch was pretty decent compared to the other 59. It didn’t make the cut, but came closer than I hoped - to the point where I was actually afraid it might get selected and I have to lead a team (got to third place in the online voting).

Looking back, I think I actually sounded confident and brought up a problem that everyone actually had. I had been mulling over this project for a very long time now (this is unfortunately my MO) and had a fairly good idea of what I am trying to achieve. From the people who got selected, sounding confident and telling a story that resonates with the audience are the most important parts of the pitch.

4 - Tell a story. Sound confident. Involve the audience.

As I mentioned, I had things thought through before. I thought about target segments, business models, revenue streams even pivot options if things go awry. Overkill? Definitely. People who got selected with a few exceptions had absolutely no idea what they are going to build and how they are going to succeed. As it turns out, two teams dissolved shortly after getting selected. Talk about high failure rate in startups :)

5 - A good pitch is a poor indicator of future success.

In fact, thinking about it, probably the most successful startups are the ones that don’t really pitch, because there is no way they could not not do what they are doing.

Day 1 - Team Building

Now, that the 12 teams have been selected, there was a little time to go around and decide on which team to join. At some point I got the feeling that none of the teams are actually very good. There were 3 or 4 I didn’t really consider from the start. Another 3-4 that didn’t really have the slightest clue of what they are going to do. In the end I decided to not worry too much about it and just have fun.

6 - Startup Weekend is NOT a realistic simulation of a startup. Just have fun.

While in the end I think I got to know great people, out of the 90 or so people in the room, I would not consider starting a company with maybe 85 (would still work with most, just didn’t feel a connection that’s strong enough for starting a company together). Startup Weekend foregoes something I regard one of the highest priorities in early startups: getting the best people. It’d be a good idea to tailor the pitch so that the best people get interested in your idea.

7 - Get the best people

Day 2 - Discussions

The first half of the second day is when the team really gets together for the first time and discusses what they are going to do. I was sort of lucky to join a team that mostly knew what to build. Even with that advantage, it takes a long time to get on the same page.

8 - Communicate early and often.

I said I was sort of lucky to join a team that mostly knew what to build. I lied. One of the most important ingredients was missing, which lead to a lot of rethinking later on: the business model. As a corollary, the target segment and the revenue model were also up in the air. Free from the constraints and pressures of Startup Weekend, this would be a great side project that might or might not become a full business, but that’s not what Startup Weekend is about.

Startup Weekend is about finding/founding the startup that will change the world. A side business or and interesting idea will not win regardless of how feasible it might be as a real business. After a lot of thinking, I believe that our team would have been able to build a real company on the idea. We executed pretty well on a small problem (being one of the really few teams that actually had some sort of product to show) and that could grow into a profitable venture. But it’s not something that would change the world.

9 - There is a fundamental difference between a project and a startup.

It was surprising to learn that no one in my team knew the Lean Canvas or personas or customer validation etc. I was sweating these things when preparing for my pitch so at least could bring up these tools. In the end though, probably we went into production mode too early, which bit us in the final presentation.

Day 2 - Development

We went into production mode. Or at least I did. That’s what I enjoy most. Building things, working out issues, coming up with solutions to problems, optimizing, tinkering, combining. This is what I’m best at. One of the side quests I had for Startup Weekend is to work with other brilliant developers (and as a side effect sort of validate my project). I could have worked with more people, but in the end, this side quest was pretty successful.

I had started working on my pitched project before, so in fact had a working application skeleton that I’d just import and customize for this project and we were up and running with complete facebook integration in under an hour.

The thing is, it didn’t matter. I am about halfway through Eric Ries’ Lean Startup and this is one of those classic cases where we wouldn’t have needed to actually create anything. I think that’s one of the failings of Startup Weekend Tokyo GEW specifically. I can’t blame the organizers though, because this being an international startup battle, it is a lot more important to have a solid idea that can be elaborated on and then presented in Singapore next year than to create a small startup. Hopefully the next one will have a different atmosphere where creating a real product has a higher value.

However, doing all that development gave me a lot of advantages that I wouldn’t have had had I not done it and just thrown together some sketch.

  • I had an insane amount of fun
    Did I mention, this is what I enjoy most?
  • I could work with other great developers
    Which in turn was also adding to the fun factor. That’s the sort of atmosphere you want to have in your startup.
  • I realized I’m a good developer
    From time to time impostor syndrome gets the better of me and it is great to be reminded that it’s not real.

As a side-effect, my teammates tried to nominate me as the person who worked the hardest in the team. If only they knew just how much fun I had in the meantime :)

10 - Having fun is really important. Developing is fun for developers.

#### 11 - When you are having fun, you can pull off impossible-looking feats.

Day 3 - Crunch

The first half of the third day is crunch time leading up to the final presentations. At this point people are groggy and the fun is starting to dissipate, so we just had to put our heads down and do what we had to do.

This is the time where we started having second thoughts about the fundamentals. I thought that that was not a very good position to be in, but it seems that other teams were also going through this phase.

12 - Everyone has doubts just before the end. Just push through.

Day 3 - Final Presentation

Final presentation is the most important part of Startup Weekend. The pitch is just a tool to get selected and the development is just a tool to put together something that will get the attention of the VCs. Everything rides on how the final presentation goes.

Most teams didn’t even start creating a product at all (they were busy arguing about the business). The audience-winning team and the final winner team did not start to create a product.

What they had though is a compelling story. The presentations before the winning team were all so-so but when the winner presented, they were something else altogether. It was probably not fair to the other teams (the winning team was basically the extension of an already existing and successful company). The presentation though… people suddenly started thinking “Steve Jobs keynote” and it wasn’t very far.

During their QA with the VCs, I had the most visceral validation of what I once read somewhere (paraphrased):

Tell your weaknesses up front. Tell your strengths at the end preferably when prodded for.

Things went down approximately like this:

VC: OK, but what will you do if <other, already successful company in the same field> does the same thing? XY: Oh, that company happens to be my company.

Boom. Won.

There was a long deliberation afterwards where I’m sure the other teams were considered in earnest, but the sheer force of this exchange is hard to ignore. It’s hard to understand from reading about it, but it was visceral; it was powerful. Note, that he wasn’t bragging about this, wasn’t even going to mention in his presentation, but when the VC asked about it, that one line had all the more power. Combine this with a very well executed presentation and at that point I literally forgot what the presentation is actually about… hand me the pen, where do I sign the check?

On the other hand, we had the start of a product, but lost because of two things.

  • The idea wasn’t big
  • The idea wasn’t solid

That the presentation wasn’t too good is just a result of these two.

13 - Make sure you have a compelling story. Product is secondary.

Day 3 - General

One thing I think I didn’t do enough of is talk to other teams. Part of it is because I had too much fun working on the product. Part of it is that I’m not that good at networking, but then again now I know that most people aren’t either and it’s just one of those things that you need to do against all fear.

14 - Talk to everyone.

Am I going to go to the next Startup Weekend? Almost certainly, there are a lot of things I still want to try in the pitch, maybe get selected and have different problems next time. Then again, maybe next time I’ll make it about connecting with others rather than concentrating on a project.

So do I recommend going to a Startup Weekend? Yes. Is it really like a startup? I don’t think so. Still, it’s one of those experiences that are worth trying out.

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