54 hours to market: Startup Weekend is a boot camp for founders

Startup Weekend is a weekend-long experience where developers, designers, and would-be entrepreneurs get together, pitch ideas, build teams, and try out the startup life.

Zack Pennington, CEO of US Chia, facilitates the fourth Startup Weekend in Louisville, KY.
Image: Kelby Price/Raghuvamsi Ayapilla

On Sunday, March 2, 2014 three companies won a startup business competition. The top two teams presented unique ideas in sustainable manufacturing and the third place team presented a social alarm clock app. The catch is, 54 hours prior none of these companies existed.

This particular " Startup Weekend" happened in Louisville, KY, but the same scene plays out virtually every weekend in cities across six continents. Startup Weekend is an organization based out of Seattle that partners with local sponsors and facilitators to host weekend-long events all over the globe that bring together wannabe and experienced entrepreneurs with the goal of capturing the chaotic energy that is found in a traditional startup.

"The Startup Weekend experience is like summer camp except everyone is an adult, it only lasts 3 days, and you end up creating something much cooler than a macaroni painting," said Zack Pennington, CEO at US Chia. Pennington was also a local facilitator of the most recent Startup Weekend in Louisville.

Entrepreneurship is not easy. What can be even harder is deciding if you want to leave your day job and strike out on your own as a founder. Marc Nager, CEO of UP Global, the nonprofit behind Startup Weekend, said that Startup Weekend gives people a chance to test the waters as an entrepreneur.

"There are no excuses to not pursue that "great idea" and figure out if it really is that great to begin with," Nager said.

The JustMoveIt team from Startup Weekend in Louisville, KY.
Image: Kelby Price/Raghuvamsi Ayapilla

The clock is ticking

The weekend starts on Friday with open mic pitches of prospective ideas. The ideas can be something you have thought about before, but it can't be something you have already been working on. Presenters will explain who they are, what problem they are solving, what their idea is, and who they need. For example, if you are a developer, you might need a designer or marketing person on your team. After each pitch, the presenter stands by a sign with their idea written on it.

Attendees are given three scratch-and-sniff stickers they place on the signs to vote for the three ideas they think are the best. Once the groups have been narrowed down, the remaining attendees throw themselves in with one of the final groups and they begin working on the idea. According to Greg Langdon, a former founder and now-startup advisor/investor who is an organizer at the Louisville Startup Weekend events, a good team is essential.

"They have to recruit an effective team if their idea is selected to proceed. They may have to deal with disagreements, or apathy, or other interpersonal issues among the team during the weekend," Langdon said. "They have to flesh out their startup idea and research competitors. But, more critically, they have to actively seek validation from customers, and develop a complete business model, not just an idea for a product."

Teams typically work late into the night Friday and continue working all day Saturday. Participants develop apps and websites, work through business plans, and do market research by talking to customers. Startup Weekend is sponsored by companies like Amazon Web Services that offers hosting, while .CO offers a free domain, and other sponsors provide materials and tools for the teams. Some teams will work on building a physical product or refining a service they plan to offer.

"Many teams also take initial steps in developing a product or a prototype. At least one or two teams typically generate revenue during the weekend," Langdon said.

On Sunday, after teams have put the final touches on their businesses, they present to a panel of startup and business experts, as well as the rest of the attendees and volunteers. The top three teams are offered prize packages that include prizes from local and national sponsors. Startup Weekend is supported by the Google for Entrepreneurs team, who Nager said are some of the biggest believers in Startup Weekend.

"Their team, culture, philosophy, and end goals align so strongly with our community that make it incredibly easy to connect our organizations and amplify the value that we are able to create for any given entrepreneur or entrepreneurial community," Nager said. "Almost no entrepreneur in the world can start a business without tools from Google. They have truly democratized the ability to get up and running fast as a small team."

Participants compete in a rock-paper-scissors war that includes all attendees.
Image: Kelby Price/Raghuvamsi Ayapilla

Going viral

The idea for Startup Weekend came about in Boulder, Colorado in 2007. It began as an experiment between friends to see if any ideas they shared could make it as a startup. Interest in tech startups in Boulder was being fueled by programs like Techstars, and Nager said Startup Weekend struck a nerve with the creative individuals and tapped into the entrepreneurial energy in the area.

"Startup Weekend reminded me of how much can get done with the time and focus to accomplish your goals. It's easy to get distracted by everything else that goes on during a typical work week. Startup Weekend allows you to focus," Pennington said.

Startup Weekend has since become somewhat of a viral sensation. Events take place in multiple countries around the world, and often take place simultaneously. When I was attending Startup Weekend Louisville from February 28 - March 2, events were also being held in San Salvador, El Salvador; Mexico City, Mexico; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and at Miami University of Ohio.

Although Startup Weekend is intended to be a fun event, it is also challenging. It is a deep dive into the heart of building a startup and it requires participants who are totally dedicated and ready to be immersed. Langdon said that it places five distinct demands on its participants.

1. It requires immediate validation (or repudiation) of an idea by potential customers.
2. It calls for rapidly developing a product or prototype to show customers.
3. It calls for the development and ratification of a complete business model, not just a product idea.
4. It avoids the lengthy (and invariably wrong) market analysis and financial projections found in traditional business plans.
5. It demands that all of this happen quickly, but that continuous iterations follow, refining aspects of the product and the business model with each pass.

If you can make it through the weekend, you have a real shot at life as a founder. According to the Startup Weekend website, more than 36% of Startup Weekend startups are still active after three months and about 80% of participants plan to keep working on their ideas after the event is over. Some impressive alumni have been forged in the fires of their respective Startup Weekends. Startup Weekend events have launched companies such as Easy Taxi, Rover.com, LaunchRock, and Zaarly.

According to Nager, the biggest indicator for the success of a startup is the community around it. These communities don't need to be formalized, but when they are it helps to facilitate the adoption of an entrepreneurial culture within the community and Nager said that this is a catalyst for innovation.

"Suddenly more people are testing their ideas, seeking innovative ways to improve every aspect of life, and finding a way to pursue the things they are the most passionate about. Our true mission with Startup Weekend is to help create and foster thriving startup communities around the world," Nager said.

You don't need a crystal ball to see what the future holds for Startup Weekend. Nager said they will continue to do what they have been doing -- building startups and the communities around them.

If you're interested in attending a Startup Weekend, you can find a calendar of upcoming events on their website.

Also see