I’ve never been in town for a Columbus Startup Weekend and participating has been on my bucket-list since hearing of its inception. It’s a great program underwritten nationally by the Kaufmann Foundation and carried out locally by sponsors, individual organizers, and participants who care about developing a startup culture and eco-system. I finally got my chance last weekend February 17:19th hosted by TechColumbus.
Friday Night: 5pm to 11pm
Andy Sparks and Dan Rockwell kicked off the weekend and schooled everyone on the format. Lesson One: F-bombs are culturally acceptable at this event! Roughly half the audience were rookies like me but I was definitely the oldest of roughly 100 participants. Seventy startup business ideas were pitched in one minute speeches without slides. I didn’t attend to pitch an idea…rather, I wanted to contribute to the idea I was most intrigued by. Some pitches were very amusing – like SwearWordsWithFriends. Others wanted to advance healthcare using technology. After the seventy pitches, an extremely low tech but very effective voting process ensued and the top eighteen ideas were deemed to be the startup projects for the weekend, and each of those individuals that pitched were suddenly cast as the team lead for their idea. Lesson Two: Understand that if your idea is picked, you just became a Founder & CEO. The CEO’s first task was to figure out who they needed and wanted on their team. Instead of speed dating – its speed hiring. And just like real life, not everyone gets hired. I was most intrigued by “ShowShopper” and found the CEO, an Ohio State senior, who had pitched that idea. He asked about my skills. “Well, er ah, I’m sort of a technology guy and marketing guy”. Lesson Three: First impressions are imprinted in five seconds. With that stellar interview performance, I didn’t think I was going to be picked and was reminded of a life of being the shortest person on the court when fifteen people vie to be chosen for two five-person pickup basketball teams. Then suddenly, someone bailed for another team and I made the cut. Lesson Four: Its all about people – knowing the skills needed to build out your idea is more important than the idea itself. Our team of three Ohio State students and the “old guy” adjourned to our assigned conference room and we immediately started a spirited discussion on the feature set of our solution. Massive confusion ensued as everyone was using different terminology. Lesson Five: Never underestimate the power of naming to support higher bandwidth conversations.
Saturday: 9am – 11pm
We made progress defining the end user experience and hand sketching what that would look like. Our solution had some technical complexity but was fraught with commercial complexity as our solution required interfaces to three large and established stakeholder groups: product placement advertisers like Old Spice, television and movie producers like Modern Family, and streaming media delivery channels like Netflix.
We got a handle on the end user experience but we really didn’t yet understand who our (economic) customer was, how we would charge, how much to charge, and how a startup company could credibly get to market with such large and established companies. No one on our team had advertising experience and we struggled to understand if our solution was more about enabling product placement advertising or ad-serving technology. Lesson Six: The product is the business, not the product features.
We needed to quickly get smarter about the market so we gravitated to using Mindmeister to capture initial research nuggets. Mindmeister is an awesome browser-based mind map tool where multiple users author a common mind map. Lesson Seven: Use tools like Mindmeister that are super easy to consume – you don’t have time to learn a new tool and do the job.
Sunday: 10am – 9pm
We arrived to a revised schedule. Presentations by each of the eighteen teams would start at 6pm and each would last only five minutes (instead of seven) followed by two minutes of Q&A from a distinguished panel. Judging criteria was reiterated. Presentations were due at 4pm. At the start of the day, we had nothing in presentation format nor had we developed any positioning language that was crisp. Lesson Eight: As Mark Twain and other greats have said, if I had more time I would have written a shorter story.
One of the team members was a wiz in Adobe InDesign and mocked up very realistic visualizations of the end user experience. Another team mate was a wiz in Prezi, which is like PowerPoint with animation on steroids. The judging criteria aligned to Lean Canvass methodology so we used an lean canvass tool by Dan Khan to structure our current thinking, understand remaining unanswered questions, and develop experiments to test our assumptions. We dress rehearsed. We role played hard questions from panelists. Our presentation and business plan started to gel!
Just before the judging finale, we made that proverbial one last change and inadvertently dropped two slides from our presentation which wasn’t discovered until onstage presenting. My team mate recovered nicely. Lesson Nine: Dancing on your feet is a lifelong skill…get used to it.
We didn’t win but we were proud of our work product. During the finale, the energy level in the room was a mix of exhaustion, exhilaration, and accomplishment. Startup Weekend is an amazing vehicle to develop business skills and build relationships and was a great opportunity to be reminded of these important lessons. Lesson Ten: There is no substitute for experience.