My personal experience, thoughts and review of my lone Startup Weekend

A team discussing their startup idea in a room.

I actually participated in this Startup Weekend event a very long time ago and did it in Auckland, New Zealand. It was something that I had wanted to do since I was really getting into business and entrepreneurship.

I had read the Lean Startup book (which many of the concepts influence this event) and Running Lean. I felt that I was ready for a challenge and that this was the next step for me.

So from what I remember about it, I will take you through what the event looked and feeled like for me!

The first day

You arrive Friday evening, check-in, get your badge and are meant to socialize until the Startup Weekend event officially kicks off.

Likely there will be drinks and food provided during the check-in period. If you happen to come towards the end of the check-in period, say if you are coming to the event right after work, you will probably miss out on getting something.

As the food usually doesn’t last very long!

After the check-in period, the official event will kick off with some speeches and a presentation. They explain what the schedule of events are for each day and give you some quick tips about presenting and general startup processes to help you throughout the weekend.

Immediately after, they ask all participants who want to pitch an idea to come down onto the stage. They do try to encourage everyone to do it.

These pitches happen one after the other and you’re given 60 seconds to pitch your startup idea.

Once all the pitches are finished, those who did pitch an idea are given a blank sheet of poster paper and 3-5 minutes to write/draw on it to try to “sell” their idea as best as they can on paper. The aim of the poster is to get other participants to want to join your team.

After this time limit, all the idea pitchers will go hang up their posters in the communal room.

In addition, every single event participant (including those who pitched ideas) gets 3 sticky dots. These sticky dots are the way you cast votes for ideas that you want to work on.

Finally, everyone who didn’t pitch an idea is let into the communal room to begin the team forming process.

Pitchers will yell out their idea to the crowd and try to get other participants to put one of their sticky dots on their poster.

Participants walk around and try to find an idea that interests them the most, and when they do, they add one of their sticky dots to the poster paper.

As time goes by, the posters that have no sticky dots on them slowly get taken down. Then those that only have 1, 2, 3, etc…, get pulled down.

Event organizers keep repeating that process (pulling posters down) until there are only enough ideas left to be able to split participants into groups of 5-8 people.

This whole team forming process goes by super fast and eventually everyone is on a team that (hopefully) they wanted to be part of.

Once all the teams are formed, everyone goes to a table to start chatting and working. Usually everyone introduces themselves and their backgrounds. Then the idea pitcher starts talking more about their idea and everyone starts discussing it.

Volunteers will walk around and from time to time stop by each table to see how each group is progressing. Sometimes they will even give some mentoring help if someone has questions or if they need help with something specific.

Each group starts breaking up to do tasks and what things everyone can work on. Some of these tasks are things like…

  • Do research about the idea online.
  • Identify the problem and solution that you are trying to solve in more detail
  • Think about possible issues/problems with the idea.
  • How can the idea be turned into a business that makes money?
  • Competitor research
  • Figuring out your unique value proposition
  • Figuring out who the target market or audience is.
  • Market research (talking to strangers/ your target audience)
  • Making/conducting surveys
  • Coding if necessary
  • Coming up with a name and logo

There are so many things that need to be done and you have to do them all in an efficient manner!

You are allowed to stay and work as late as you want, or until the building is closed. This could be around 1am and then you come back the next day as early as 7am for breakfast.

The good thing at this event is that they do want you to sleep and not work 24/7!

The second day

Saturday morning starts off early with everyone feeling a bit drained, tired and the excitement from the previous day having been worn off a bit.

It starts off with breakfast and everyone slowly starts arriving back to the building.

Some people though simply never come back to the event this day and certain teams may have to deal with a reduced team size of between 1-3 people.

This is an unfortunate part of the event, and really kills team morale when several people don’t show up ever again. Especially when they didn’t mention anything the previous evening.

Saturday is the day where the bulk of the work on the idea is done and it is a very looong one.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided. There are 3-4 mini presentations throughout the day, or as I would like to say “distractions”, that you have to attend to also.

Around this point in time is when teams usually go and collect some market feedback from potential customers. Where they try to get some sort of validation on their idea. Figure out whether or not people would actually use it, and whether or not they would pay for it.

Usually by around late afternoon is when you should have your idea well thought out with some sort of validation.

If things don’t go well during the market research, you still have time to pivot the idea or completely switch to a new one. However, if you do, you are playing catch up and have to redo a lot of work.

Usually in the evening is when the attention of what to work on switches to the presentation, and more visual things. Such as a landing page, coming up with a name, logo and doing some kind of prototyping to get an MVP. Also figuring out how exactly the prototype would work.

Many people and teams will again stay working late into the night, or until the building closes. Oftentimes the teams who stay the latest are the ones who are most behind or struggling. Teams who have progressed well and have things going on track will tend to go home “early”.

The entire Saturday is a grind and a long and draining day.

Usually by the end of the night teams are either quite happy when they go home with their overall progress, or feel defeated that their amazing startup idea isn’t actually so amazing after all.

The third and final day

It is Sunday and the final day of the event! Again, it starts off early in the morning with breakfast and people have even lower energy this day.

The grind of the event is starting to wear on everyone with fatigue, but they all keep pushing because it is a big day.

The day of the final presentations and seeing what every team has come up with.

There is definitely more urgency in the air because of the presentation deadline. Teams are scrambling to finish as much as they can.

Most of the focus today is on making/finishing off the presentation slides, and creating a script for the presentation. But it can also be working on the prototype, or trying to figure out the last bits of information.

Sunday also includes lunch, as well as a couple more informal mini-presentations and it’s a short day. As presentations start late in the afternoon.

Presentations are 5 minutes in length and there is a Q&A session at the end from the judges and participants.

After all the presentations, a winner is declared and the event officially ends.

By the time you get home, you are so exhausted from the weekend grind that you will probably hit the bed super early so you can catch up on your lack of sleep!

Does Startup Weekend actually work?

As in… can a viable startup be born from this event?

I would say mostly no, but rarely yes! Most of the time this is simply a fun, learning and socializing event, rather than somewhere that actual startups/businesses get created.

The reason why I say this is because there are just so many variables that need to be right. From having a good team vibe, overall team skills, having a good idea, problem and solution, being able to execute on the idea, and overall team interest level.

There are so many more other things that I could name, but I think you get the general idea.

The focus of Startup Weekend isn’t to create as many viable startups as possible from the event, but to change your mindset about what can be accomplished in a short period of time.

And they definitely achieve that outcome by the end of the event!

Is it worth going?

This really depends on the project idea you end up working on, how much you believe in that idea and what your team members are like.

I would say it is probably worth experiencing at least once.

My personal experience, thoughts and review of my lone Startup Weekend

Since I covered the details of the event quite well, I won’t go into the nitty gritty details again. I’ll just say what my overall thoughts were about the weekend and say what I liked and didn’t like.

Going to this event for the first time was a bit overwhelming for me and I definitely wasn’t as prepared as I could have been for it. If I knew more details about what happens at the event, it would have helped me be ready for certain aspects of it.

I also found that there was a large gap in knowledge between what participants knew in terms of building a startup. The guidance / education / structure was quite minimal, which does provide for a lot of freedom, but it also means that lots of people didn’t know what to do as well.

In terms of networking, I found it to be hard to build any meaningful connections from the event. Maybe this would have been different if I vibed better with my team members.

Things that I liked:

  • You are around other like-minded people who have some kind of interest in entrepreneurship or in building a startup.
  • There are some “experts” around to ask for help and guidance.
  • There are some learning tibits given throughout the event.
  • It made me realize what is important, and what isn’t, for an MVP.
  • A nice facility, workspaces, and food and drinks provided

Things that I didn’t like:

  • I didn’t like the team that I was on. There was a lot of conflict, arguing and pointless discussions that didn’t move the project idea forward. And unfortunately, how you experience the event depends a lot on how well you get along with your team members and this comes down to luck. If you have a sh*tty team, you are stuck with them for the rest of the weekend.
  • 52 hours over a weekend is pretty demanding and tiring. Especially if you are older and are working full-time.
  • I think the structure could have been changed to more classroom + workshops, with the Startup Weekend at the end to increase your chances of making friends.
  • If you find out that your idea sucks after doing market research on a late Saturday afternoon (which was the case for our group), you’re basically forced to continue working on a useless idea just to finish the event. I did not like this at all as it was a big waste. In the real world you wouldn’t do that, since you’re not restricted with such a limited amount of time.
  • This goes back to my classroom comment, but I felt that the guidance was a bit weak.
  • The entrance fee was fairly high for what was provided.
  • Unless your friends also sign up, you go to the event not knowing anyone there. So if you’re an introvert, or shy, it’s tough to mingle and get to know other participants. There weren’t any ice breaking games, or proper getting to know each other before the event officially started.

Final thoughts

I remember leaving my Startup Weekend with more negative than positive feelings. I believe this was predominantly due to the team that I was in, since we were very disconnected and didn’t get along so well. Plus our idea was not so good. After the event was over, I don’t think that any of us ever talked again.

However, some friends of mine who also participated at a Startup Weekend had a much nicer event experience. They actually became friends with the people on their team and they even went out for dinner (post event) a couple of times. This was because they all got along well and were happy working together as a team.

So what your experience is like really depends. It can either be a hit or a miss! Though if you are interested in going to a startup event like this… then you should definitely check out my post about the coolest startup and hackathon events in the world.

With my experience of this event in mind, I believe it is very important to know how to quickly assess whether an idea is good and how to pick a good team/idea. As this will be a massive advantage to you at the event and it will have a huge impact on your overall experience. If you can chat up as many people as possible, it will also help increase your odds of joining a team where you jive well with.

If after attending such an event and you happen to catch the entrepreneurial bug, or just have a desire to start your own business, then you could possibly continue down this path and join some of the best online business and entrepreneurship communities.

Other wise, if you just want to make the most of your Startup Weekend event, you need to keep the following in mind.

It really is all about the team and to a lesser amount the idea. As even if you have a sh*tty idea, but have a good and fun team to hang out with, at least you will have a great experience for the rest of the Startup Weekend event.

So pick (or chose) your team and idea wisely!

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David Nowak

David Nowak

If it is about business, investing, programming or travelling, you can bet he'll be interested. Known to be an easygoing guy with big ambitions and maaaybeee works too much.