Just about every weekend someplace on the planet a peculiar series of meetups is happening called Startup Weekend. The idea is to bring together a group of people, many of whom have never set eyes on each other before, to form new ventures, many of which are tech-related. So far the model seems to be working: each weekend on average has produced two or three companies. According to the master website, more than 5,000 startups have been created since the process began, and some 2,000 just in the last year alone. We last wrote about the process last April and here is more information about the process and the role that the Kauffman Foundation has played.
The schedule is uniformly consistent from city to city. They start with open mic pitches on Friday evening where attendees bring their best ideas and try to inspire others to join their team. Over Saturday and Sunday teams focus on customer development, validating their ideas and building a minimal viable product. On Sunday evening teams demo their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts. Over the course of both Saturday and Sunday, volunteer mentors roam the halls and meet with the teams that want their advice. That is where I come in.
I signed up for this past weekend in St. Louis. I could have gone to Nice (France) or Minsk or Bergen (Norway), but the event in my hometown was a lot easier to get to. I met with several different teams who were struggling with their direction and implementations, and helped to refine their focus and mission, and suggest some ways that they could incorporate existing technologies into their process. By the time Sunday rolled around twelve teams were left to present what they had accomplished.
The weekends aren’t free: the cost is less than $100 but that covers all your meals and a chance to rub keyboards with other smart folks in your city who are interested in building something new and exciting. You also get a $50 credit for hosting and cloud computing services per each team, something that came in handy for those teams doing some Big Data implementations.
The groups met in the Railway Exchange building in downtown St. Louis, down the hall from the tech accelerator that Capital Innovators is running and which we wrote about here. It was a good choice, because you could see the fortunate companies that have been part of that process: several of their founders were working over the weekend, no surprise given the scrappy nature of these entrepreneurs.
What I found interesting was the mix of skills and people that came together for the weekend. I was expected a lot of multiple-pierced 20-somethings that were all sizzle and no steak; instead there were lots of minorities and women and people nearing my advanced age sitting around with the Gen Y’ers. That was amazing: everyone had something to contribute. It was a nice mix. Several of them came from other cities that don’t have their own weekend code-a-thons.
As the weekend progressed, I was drawn into other teams by just ambling around the building and stopping in to visit and watch them collaborate. Computers were everywhere, and several folks brought their own monitors to connect to their laptops. Several teams also sent around surveys to the group email list to start doing some basic market research.
The master of ceremonies for the weekend was Steve Chau, who hails from Kansas City (about four hours away by car) and who has run several weekends in other places for the past four years. He knew what he was doing, and clearly was having a lot of fun. “I am getting emails from the participants who have had ideas and gotten ignited,” he says. “Spending 54 hours with a complete stranger doesn’t happen anymore, and it is pretty cool.” Now is a full-time employee that works for the operation, but that was a relatively recent circumstance: before he was hired, he volunteered his time. There are more than 80 similar facilitators around the world. “I can’t think of any other event that has the diversity of the participants.” While there are numerous hackathons held by private software companies, the Startup Weekenders are trying to build new things that could become big successes. Zaarly.com is one of the success stories that started about a year ago, Foodspotting.com is another company that had its origins with one of the Startup Weekend.
I would tell you more specifics about the services and products of the teams that I mentored, but I can’t: not just because it wouldn’t be fair to them, but also because things are in a state of flux. Several teams even changed the name of their ventures before the weekend was over, and mission statements were flying fast and furious.