My name is Joey Aquino and this is me hanging out with a real wild African cheetah.
I have been involved in tech for the last 5 years where I worked at a small startup that got acquired by Amazon.com and now I am a business development manager at Amazon.com focused on helping startups and app developers scale w/ the Amazon ecosystem. I was fortunate enough to get involved in Startup Weekend over 4 years ago by organizing the first Startup Weekend EDU event in Seattle. It definitely wasn’t the prettiest Startup Weekend ever but we were able to bring in some very high profile people including Vinod Khosla, Mitch Kapor, Michael Arrington and many more. This was the event that got me hooked and to date I have participated, facilitated, mentored at over 70 events. I even spent 6 months traveling every week to a different city around the world facilitating Startup Weekends anywhere from Norway to Saudi Arabia to Peru, I called it my Startup Weekend Mission Trip! I have seen these events done in almost every format you could think of and just thought I would write down a few tips as you enter your Startup Weekend.
1. Forget about the actual “launching a company” part of this.
Seems weird but even though we will all be launching projects, the main goal at Startup Weekend is actually about the experience. The experience of getting away from your day to day, the experience of learning the process of entrepreneurship, the experience of collaborating with amazing people within your community. I have seen so many people put so much pressure that this is the forum which will turn them into the next Mark Zuckerberg. Sorry to burst your bubble, it’s not 🙂 Whether you are working on your own idea or someone elses, use the Startup Weekend as a forum to experiment and learn new things. If your idea doesn’t get picked, it’s not the end of the world.
2. Put yourself out there.
Being in a room with a bunch of strangers is always awkward. The great thing about Startup Weekend’s is that everyone is here for the absolute same reasons: 1) To have fun 2) To meet other people in the community passionate about startups 3) To work on projects. Knowing this, don’t be hesitant to introduce yourself to anyone or everyone at the event. Another great value of a Startup Weekend is that it brings a density of like-minded people in one space. Most of the time people will not make the first effort so put yourself out there. I have never had my handshake turned down.
3. Create a 100 person customer contact list.
You can’t work on your idea before the weekend but you can definitely be prepared. Customer validation is absolutely KEY to this event so if you are pitching an idea generate a list of customers you can engage with over the weekend. If you have a consumer facing product, generating a list of over 100 contacts via all your social networks should be extremely easy. If you have a B2B/Enterprise concept, think specifically of where or how you may be able to get in contact with the right type of person for feedback. Also, look at who your mentors are for the event to see who may be the most beneficial in reaching potential customers to gain insights.
*If you are new to “Customer Validation”, make sure to watch these amazing videos by Steve Blank himself about how to apply customer validation to a Startup Weekend:
4. Sell! Sell! Sell!.
When starting a company, founders quickly realize the value “selling”. You have to “sell” your idea when you are trying to find co-founders, you have to “sell” your idea when trying to raise capital, you have to “sell” your idea when getting your first paying customer. You will immediately see this on Friday night at your Startup Weekend. The people who are passionate start networking and selling their ideas as soon as they enter the building. They do not wait until after the formal pitch fire process.
When the team voting happens, these are when the rockstars really stand out. I have seen anything from people standing on chairs with pizza boxes that have their team name on them to bribing others with cases of beer. Find ways to stand out from the crowd and attract people to you. People are drawn to passion.
4. Establish team goals
I have seen thousands of teams go through this event and definitely seen a fair share of team blowups, even an actual fight 🙂 I believe the root to these team blow ups are based around the difference in individual goals. There is only 54hrs and sometimes team rush into work mode before they are all on the same page of what they are trying to establish with the weekend. I highly recommend the very first thing a team does when they get together Friday night is clearly establish what the teams goals are for the weekend. Some people have the intention to launch a product, some people want to learn, some people unfortunately have the goal to get others to work on their business idea for free then run with it after the weekend. Establish your team leader and go around in a circle to see what everyone expects for the weekend.
5. My suggested workflow for the 54hrs
One thing to note here is that there is absolutely no correct way to be successful at a Startup Weekend. This is one formula I have used personally when I rally a team that really just wants to learn customer development over the weekend.
– Establish team goals
– 20-30min of a brain dump of what the idea is
– V1 of your Business Model Canvas
– Agree on what is a realistic MVP to deliver Sunday evening
– Assign team roles and delegate tasks
– 8:00am – 8:30am: Looking back at your V1 of the Business Model Canvas, write a list of the top 5 assumptions you want to test with a set of target customers. Everyone should be involved in this, not just the non-technical people
– 8:30am – 9:30am: Set a goal that by 9:30am every team member completes 10 customer interviews to validate your problem hypothesis. Engineers seem to be a bit hesitant when I ask this of them but its a great exercise.
– 9:30am – 10:30am: Customer interview debrief. Unpack all the interviews to find common themes of what your potential customers said. Use this and revisit your Business Model Canvas to craft v2. Also, if you need tips on how to conduct customer interviews and unpack stories, I also worked with the Design Institute of Design at Stanford (aka D.School) on a couple projects. Here is a quick post on interviews: https://joeyaquino.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/want-a-crash-course-in-stanfords-design-thinking-here-it-is-for-free-pt-1-empathy/
I have had teams do 50-100 interviews before 10am on Saturday which helped drastically shape the correct product solution. The more iterations of this the better and feel free to go back to some of your original interviewees later Saturday/Sunday with your MVP. I won’t bother writing out timelines for the rest of the weekend because it will undoubtedly be sheer chaos but I would also suggest working on your pitch deck Saturday night. All of this comes down to a 4-5min pitch so make sure you dedicate time towards presenting your teams work properly.
6. GET PAYING CUSTOMERS!
“95% of the 30 people that filled out my Survey Monkey survey said they would use my product” IS NOT CUSTOMER VALIDATION. “I will give you $20 to build this solution right now” (and you taking their money) is. I have seen many teams actually have paying customers at the end of the weekend which is the epitome of customer validation. This can definitely happen even before you have something functional so get out of the building and find that solution customers are in such search of they are willing to pay you now for it. If you don’t believe me, look at all the projects that are getting funded on sites like KickStarter and Indiegogo. These are all projects that aspire to be adopted in a market that are asking for money before first customer ship. If you have a compelling enough idea that solves a big enough pain point, you can prove there is a market here by getting actual customers. Money talks and there is no better way to prove to investors that people want your product by saying in 54hrs we already have a paying customer. I have seen a team pitch Sunday evening that received a total of over $200 from customers… they ended up winning 🙂
7. You are the driver of your startup, not the mentors.
Just because someone has a “mentor” title doesn’t mean they are the startup gods that will make your startup exit for a billion dollars right out of a Startup Weekend. Even the most successful entrepreneurs are just people. Some may have more experience in specific areas but remember you are the one working on this idea. There is no mentor in the world that has every right answer to every single idea. A great mentor should never be prescriptive because most likely they have never done EXACTLY what you are trying to do. A great mentor should be asking the right probing questions so that you as a founder become the domain expert in the field. Seek out perspectives from mentors/coaches when you hit roadblocks but then go back with your team to look at all the information. You make the decision, not your mentor.
Also, don’t feel afraid to ask a mentor/coach to come back later. Sometimes a team can get derailed by too much “talking” and this becomes “All Talk. No Action” instead of the flip.
8. The first questions you NEED to be able to confidently answer:
Often times there is so much to be done at a Startup Weekend you forget some of the core questions you need to be answering to have a solid foundation. I have met with teams Sunday morning and they still have a hard time answering “What is the key problem you are solving?”. When I facilitate I constantly ask mentors/coaches to ask these key questions until every team member can confidently answer them.
-What is the problem you are solving?
– Who are your users?
– Who are your customers?
– What is your solution?
– How have you validated your solution?
– How big is your market?
9. Users are different than Customers.
Surprisingly teams seem to overlook this one quite a bit. There is a big difference between “Users” and “Customers”. Customers are the ones actually paying for your product or service while users may not. The example I use to clearly distinguish the two is Google search. Everyone is a “user” of Google search but we do not PAY for this service, advertisers do. Make sure when doing customer development you are interviewing both the users and especially customers of your product/service. In this example, users are critical in getting feedback on UI/UX and product features but validating with advertisers will give this startup an actual business model.
10. Help someone else.
I think a lot of times at these types of events we get into the mindset of “what can I get out of this?” The problem is that people who tend to have that narrow of a focus tend to lose out on most on the Startup Weekend magic. There is something that happens when you let go of all expectation and go in with the mentality that as much as I get from the weekend I should give back as well. Everyone has something they can teach, give or offer and you will be amazed in how much greater of value you will receive after the weekend if you decide to give a little as well. This isn’t just about a 54 hour event this is about building a remarkable community you live in. Give a little bit!
Good luck and let me know if I can help in any way! @joey_aquino or joey.aquino7(at)gmail