I’ve just finished my first Startup Weekend. And let me tell you, it was a wasteland. I’ll explain why in a second, but before that, here’s why I went.
As co-founders of Ejenio, Philippe and I often toss around ideas of other potential startup ideas as a game. We thought one of our ideas was worth considering, but since all our combined energy is focused on making Ejenio better and stronger, we decided to test it during Startup Weekend Montreal, which would be happening in a couple of weeks.
For those who don’t know much about these events, it’s a 54 hour race towards building a startup. The first evening, anyone who wants to has 60 seconds to pitch an idea. Then all participants judge and the most popular teams enter the competition. The race starts at this moment. Teams can recruit “free agent” developers, designers, marketing and business profiles and they have the rest of the weekend to prepare a 5 minute presentation of their business if front of the crowd and a panel of judges coming from the local startup and VC community.
I had a great time, and so did most of the other competitors, from what I saw and heard. Our team, CrowdMedia, was even rewarded with the first spot by the panel of judges. Nonetheless, my overall conclusion is that this kind of event is indeed a wasteland, but in a good way.
Startup weekends are wastelands for ideas.
Startup weekends are the places where ideas go to flourish, but instead are bashed, torn apart , burned alive and kicked in the gut by… well… reality.
We are raised to believe ideas are the most important thing in the world. Our parents, our teachers, our educators, and especially Hollywood constantly remind us that we are free to think and dream, and these dreams can become reality and change the world. I believe this is a good thing. We need to have children dreaming about making society a better place. But it wouldn’t be bad if somewhere in the process, we would have a mandatory course entitled “Dreams don’t BECOME reality”. This course would look a lot like a Startup Weekend.
Let’s do the math quickly. Around 50 ideas were pitched at the beginning of the weekend. Some were horrible, but most were really interesting. There were 13 Startup Weekends around the globe happening at the same time. Let’s assume Startup Weekends take some time off during summertime and holidays. That leaves 40 weekends. Which means 26 000 ideas will be pitched at the beginning of official Startup Weekends in 2013. That doesn’t even include all the other types of similar organisations or all the people trying to put their secret, supposedly amazing and unique idea, on the market.
That’s why Startup Weekends are so important. They show young adults that their idea is not a snowflake. It is not unique and poetic. It is, instead, a crude and pretty ugly rock which might or might not contain precious material. These 54 hours became a cemetary of ideas. Having to validate the market (would people really use it), build a working prototype, find meaningful numbers and putting in place a projection of sales based on our team’s capacity to talk to potential clients transformed our idea into a Phoenix. We made it fall from the sky, catch ablaze and had either the choice to go home and say it wasn’t good after all, or find ways it could work by digging deeper into it, around it, and sometimes in completely other places. If you accept the fact that your idea is worth nothing in itself, but is only as good as what your team can make of it in the real world, it becomes kind of fun to watch it explode and leave shrapnels all over the place.
Out of the 50 ideas pitched in Montreal, 19 were presented to the jury. The first team presented how their idea died the first morning, a couple of hours after they filled a patent request for it. It made a good story. But their weekend shouldn’t have stopped there. Since the principle of Startup Weekend is not to bring YOUR idea towards the finish line, but to take an idea, any idea for that matter, to hurl it against a brick wall, pick up the pieces, and repeat until you have a valid business model molded for exponential growth, having your idea vanish should never be the end of it. On the contrary, in should be exciting because you get to test a whole new concept, with new parameters, and you’ll get even more learning out of it.
After the organizers announced we got first place, a lot of people congratulated me for my idea. I think what they really meant is : congratulations to the whole team for taking this nothingness that is an idea and turning it into a working demo, a market validation, a sound projection of revenues based on our capacity to sign clients, a good understanding of the competition and the hurdles in front of us, and a solid 5 minute pitch that summarized it all.
CrowdMedia as an idea was brutally murdered this weekend. But I think we have shown that as a team, we can produce a meaningful product if we keep pushing in the right direction. And that’s why Startup Weekends and similar events should be mandatory for anyone who is mothering an idea. We don’t raise children just by dreaming they will become decent, educated and happy, and hiding them until they are ready for the real world. We work to raise the odds of all this happening by putting them in different types of situations. That’s what a Startup Weekend is about.