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Community Development, Startups

My suggestions to take Startup Weekend EDU to the next level

At the Startup Weekend SEA EDU I organized, we had the honor of having Mitch Kapor keynote our closing ceremony. One of the greatest things I took away from his keynote directly related to my experience being the lead organizer for Startup Weekend EDU and passionately wanting to make the most impact.

Mitch Kapor keynoting at Startup Weekend SEA EDU 10/2/11

Mr. Kapor talked about entrepreneurs in the ED-tech space and broke them down into 2 specific groups; “Social entrepreneurs” and “Tech entrepreneurs”. Social entrepreneurs (relating to the ed-tech space) are people he considered to be deep in the education space and see major problems they want to solve. Tech entrepreneurs in the EDU space are people who may see problems in education from an outsiders perspective and want to help to fix it, but since they aren’t fully engulfed with experience in the K-12 market they tend to build “cool products” that don’t truly solve the big problems in the education space. In the graph showed in the above picture, there is a big question he would ask to each type of ED-tech entrepreneur that caters to their weakness. Social Entrepreneurs would have little to no experience organizing and scaling a tech company. Tech Entrepreneurs usually don’t have the expertise of the education market to truly build disruptive startups that address the bigger problems in the EDU space.

This is exactly what happened at Startup Weekend Seattle EDU and is something future EDU events need to address. We had too many “Tech Entrepreneurs” and not enough collaboration with “Social Entrepreneurs”. There are a couple tough areas that need to be address for Startup Weekend EDU’s to really make an impact.

1. Startup Weekends have been branded for “Tech Entrepreneurs”

Everywhere around the world the tech startup communities see Startup Weekends as a fun way to spend a weekend to launch some cool products (The exact weakness that causes many ed-tech entrepreneurs to fail in the K-12 market). Since Startup Weekends are heavily focused on actual building, there is a high need for developers/designers who may not have any expertise in the K-12 market. The majority are “Tech Entrepreneurs” not educators.

2. Slow hunches build to great ideas (which the education system needs)

The typical format for a Startup Weekend is to come to the event with an idea. There is no cross-pollination of diverse mindsets to cultivate regular ideas into great ones. It’s just, you come on Friday, pitch what you think is a good idea and if it gets voted, then you build a team to crank out some details to make it into a better idea. This ultimately leads for about half of the day on Saturday to really dedicate time towards bouncing ideas off of each other and with mentors to build a great idea. Teams don’t have a lot of time to pivot because the developers have to build a product to be demoed on Sunday. This is more of a forced process to building mediocre ideas, not necessarily ones that really change communities. Great ideas need time to incubate and it’s hard to do that in the little amount of time people see each other at a typical Startup Weekend. (Here is a great RSA animate on Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”)

The reason why I address this part is because the success of the Startup Weekend EDU vertical is extremely dependent on the quality of ideas that come out of the weekend. If a lot of “cool products” come out of the weekend (which happened at mine), it’s really not disrupting the EDU space. Now reflecting and hearing some feedback from great people in the EDU space like Audrey Watters and Frank Catalano, if the Startup Weekend EDU mission is truly about attacking the K-12 market, cool products is not enough. We need great social ideas that are sustainable to truly achieve its mission.

3. The problem in education is vastly different from community to community

If you ask educators what they believe are some of the major problems in the K-12 market, their answers will drastically vary from community to community. I had a great discussion with Katherine Kleitsch, Teach for America teacher in New Orleans and now NW regional recruiter for Teach for America, and I asked her a very similar question. She had a very difficult time trying to come up with an answer because the problem in education in the New Orleans community she taught in (directly after Hurricane Katrina) has a far different perspective on education than someone addressing that question in, say a place like Laguna Beach. Even in Seattle, the community in South Seattle would have a very different perspective on education than the East side of Seattle. Having only a few educators from all different communities attend one event may be difficult to find synergy on what exactly are the biggest problems in education.

My Radical Idea for Startup Weekend EDU

Taken my experience with organizing a Startup Weekend EDU and building non-profit communities, here is a suggestion for Startup Weekend EDU that, though may be ambitious, I believe better addresses the true mission of revolutionizing the education and learning markets through citizen-driven EDU reform.

Part 1. Create smaller community driven weekend EDU events that aren’t focused on building, but about generating solutions for problems specific communities face.  

For example, what if there were events based around schools/school districts instead of the entire metropolitan city. The focus around these community events would be to bring educators, parents, students and community leaders together for an entire weekend and then discuss the major EDU problems they specifically see in their communities. The goal would be to develop 5-10 great solutions they hypothesize will make an impact from the problems they see in their community. This event shouldn’t be focused on the “tech-entrepreneur” and you may only want 5-10% of your attendees to be developers.

i.e. “Castle High School Weekend EDU”

example of weekend EDU event based around a local school in Hawaii

A possible format for these community events could be:

Friday:

  • Keynote speakers (The mayor, awarded local teacher, ed-reformer)
  • Community pitches major problem areas they see in their education community
  • Group narrows down to top few problems they would want to tackle for the weekend.
  • Teams form around problems

Saturday:

  • Teams focus on building idea
  • Mentors work with teams
  • Start building a presentation to pitch Sunday

Sunday:

  • Teams continue to flesh out idea
  • Community Speaker
  • Finalize idea pitch
  • Pitch to a panel of community judges
  • Select a top 5 ideas

The value for this event is that you gather experts in your community who know the EDU space, but even more specifically know the EDU space and how it affects them and their community directly. This type of event allows for a space where true experts can have ideas/hunches that collide with another. The goal for this community weekend event would be to give time to incubate fleshed out ideas, not to build them. Talk about validation, this community event lives it.

Pt. 2 Each Community Weekend EDU event leads to a big Startup Weekend EDU held in their major metropolitan city (i.e. Startup Weekend Honolulu EDU). The top ideas from each community event would be asked to pitch to the group at the large EDU event to actually be built. Now, all ideas pitched on the first night are the more fleshed out and thought through than just one person pitching an average idea.

Example of all local weekend EDU events coming together for one large Startup Weekend HNL EDU

This event is where developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and educators can come together to focus on the execution and business model of the ideas (typical Startup Weekend model). The main goal here is to collaborate the tech and education worlds to build a sustainable ed-tech startup. Can you imagine if all these communities came together for one weekend to build some truly community changing ideas? You could invite legislation reps, experienced entrepreneurs from out of town, education reformers and providing them with a list of what needs to be fixed in the entire metropolitan area from the communities who live within it could be a very powerful thing. Mitch Kapor referred to the importance of having “Collective Intelligence” in whatever market you enter, and this event would be it.

I believe the main things I faced when organizing my event was that time was not on our side to develop these slow hunch ideas and there wasn’t enough collaboration between, what Mitch Kapor would call, “Social Entrepreneurs” and “Tech Entrepreneurs”. I believe my suggested model truly attacks those pain points and could make for a world changing EDU initiative. Now this would take a while to scale but maybe start in one metropolitan area and then roll out events in different cities as the Startup Weekend EDU events really start to show the high quality ideas that the community comes up with. I know Honolulu would be a perfect location to test this model out on and know people who would love to be on board for this type of event 😉

Also, I think this type of model could build a great partnership with an organization like Code for America or Venture for America if they wanted to build an education arm. These organizations could help find talented grads from all over who want to help build thriving communities. Being able to connect them at a Startup Weekend EDU event where all communities come together and provide high quality ideas to directly improve their community could take this initiative to even a further level.

(Here is the Code for America video. I love the concept)

I think Startup Weekend has done an incredible job building thriving startup communities all around the world. The idea of combining the tech startup worlds and education has been something I have been truly passionate about for a while, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to organize the first one in Seattle. I truly believe that the Startup Weekend EDU vertical has the opportunity to disrupt the education space and this is just my feedback and suggestion help achieve the mission. What are your thoughts on how to truly change communities? Do you think this model could work?

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About Joey Aquino

@Joey_Aquino https://joeyaquino.wordpress.com/ http://www.linkedin.com/in/jdaquino

Discussion

9 thoughts on “My suggestions to take Startup Weekend EDU to the next level

  1. Great post, Joey. The tech entrepreneur / social entrepreneur dichotomy is an essential one to understand. We should chat re: your idea for a Startup Weekend – EDU local. Your idea fits in well with Alumn.us, the education startup I recently started that won SW – EDU in SF last weekend.

    Posted by Kevin F. Adler (@kfadler) | October 22, 2011, 8:30 am
  2. this is awesome. I want to do this in Delhi. I felt like the SW Edu SF was way too tech entrepreneurial and not social entrepreneurial at all as well! I’m talking to Khalid about it later this week, this post is really useful! Thanks Joey!

    Posted by Shabnam Aggarwal | October 31, 2011, 9:47 am
    • Thanks for reading! I actually just had someone also read this post and have reached out to me about designing a better SW experience in New Orleans. A group of ed-reformers and I have planned to further discussions next week and I will make sure to transfer knowledge your way. Feel free to hit me up if you have any questions. Joey at teachstreet dot com

      Posted by Joey Aquino (@Joey_Aquino) | November 1, 2011, 12:19 am
  3. Excellent post Joey. I recently attended presentations at the Startup Weekend in Boston and find your observations right on target. However given that the ability to roll out a product in a weekend and being involved from start to finish is what drives people to these 54 hour events it will be hard to implement in stages. If I focus on the EDU segment – an easier sell would be to get the teachers, students and the community come out with a kind of local level wish list at their pace. If you have a large enough district (Or through a collection of such lists) you can then have a Startup weekend that focuses on building products for that list. People who helped populate the lists should also be made part of the judging panel. The startup winner or winners would then offer a product that satisfies the need to that school/local community for free for a year that in turn have to act as Beta testers enabling the entrepreneur to have a built in feedback mechanism and a base in the market to expand from.

    Posted by Himadraya Ashar | November 1, 2011, 7:40 pm
    • Himadraya, thanks for reading and I really appreciate your comment. I guess my idea of having the smaller weekend event was to really generate that quality “wish list” you were speaking of. I believe there has to be a balance of letting a list of needs organically arise, but there needs to be strong community involvement for high quality solutions to really make a difference. My hypothesis is that the 54 hr event is a short enough time where strong community leaders would be willing to work together to really discuss what are the major problems going on in their communities (I mean this happens all the time). But the more important thing is the follow through and I believe if you can show people a pipeline of how their actual efforts will go forward towards products being built, they would be more willing to participate in stages. And again, these smaller events wouldn’t be on the same scale as normal Startup Weekend events where 100 participants come out, but only the community advocates who want to make a difference.

      May I ask your thoughts on that? I really like the idea of how you suggested that the people who helped populate the lists should also be on the judging panel. These products are made for their specific communities, thus having them on the judging panel is as good to customer validation as possible.

      Have you participated in other Startup Weekends?

      Posted by Joey Aquino | November 1, 2011, 7:57 pm
  4. I am still not sure if a 54 hr weekend event might be able to attract all the right participants like teachers and parents. Having said that though it is possible that the community leaders or opinion makers already have a good enough understanding of the kind of solutions their community needs and can represent it well.
    One way of getting the leaders more informed and other stakeholders feel part of the process would be to by setting up a generic survey (Available via the start-up weekend website). Questions would be set so they gather information on the goals the community wants to achieve via technology, and their experiences with technology etc. The community leaders can then use this to obtain feedback from teachers, students, parents etc. and bring that information to the first local event

    I have been following the start-up weekend tide for a while but the Boston event was my first in person. I sent a note to the Edusurge folks on the lines of my original post here and I mentioned to them that I would love to help get the buzz going for a start-up EDU event in my community!

    Posted by Himadraya Ashar | November 2, 2011, 2:55 pm
    • One thing we did do to help build up for our EDU event was we used UserVoice (which originally was used as a add on widget companies can put on their site for the community to suggest ideas for improvements) to get our community involved to submit problems they see in the EDU space and start discussions around potential solutions to be built. Here is the link: http://swseaedu.uservoice.com/forums/130525-edu-problems

      We actually had great engagement with this. 35 problems submitted, over 200 votes and a number of comments. I think the only problem with this was a lot of the problem (even from very intelligent community leaders) were so broad and big, that real solutions couldn’t come out of their suggestions. If there is a way to really help solicit high quality ideas, this would work. There needs to be a layer that makes the people who are submitting go further in depth about problems and solutions they submit. Thoughts?

      Posted by Joey Aquino | November 2, 2011, 4:39 pm
  5. My thinking was that if the questionnaire is set in a way that makes people taking it are made to think of actual problems they want to solve close to home then it will produce more actionable items . Given your experience with UserVoice and having been in the Agile/scrum development land for a while I also sense the need for a community product owner or owners. The community leader/product owner’s responsibility would then be to collate the community feedback into a prioritized backlog. The problems could be prioritized based on when the community would like them solved (Current term,, school year etc)
    The product owners will then bring these items to the community based 54 hour event so they are broken down into high quality ideas or if they feel confident they have ideas that calls for a startup they could bring it direct to the main event and pitch it there.
    This really stretches the model but we do need to experiment with a few diffrent options to solve this puzzle.

    Posted by Himadraya | November 3, 2011, 12:19 am

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