54 hours inside Startup Weekend

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Events where a group of strangers build a start-up over a weekend are nothing new, tech specialists and geeks have been doing it for decades, but a new wave of high-profile brands are bringing this concept to the mainstream.

 

What has for years been the domain of coders and hackers, start-up building events such as Startup Weekend and Launch48 have grown into a mainstream proposition, targeting the general entrepreneurial populace.

 

Punters with a cool idea inspired by stories of developers making millions overnight from a simple app are being targeted by a series of new events cropping up across Australia, invariably conducted at breakneck speed.

 

Alongside Startup Weekend, an international concept that judges a business idea concocted over 54 hours in a five minute pitch, there’s ANZA’s new Pitch Slam events, the whirlwind StartupCamp gatherings and even an Amazing Race themed competition that requires entrepreneurial students to scurry across Sydney solving problems for businesses.

 

But what is the real value of these events? Can you produce the next Google or Facebook or will other people steal your dreams and ideas? Ultimately, are these start-up competitions nothing more than trumped-up networking exercises?

 

To answer these questions, StartupSmart writer Mahesh Sharma participated in the recent Startup Weekend event in Melbourne, where relative strangers assemble into teams to compete over a weekend and turn an idea into a working prototype with a viable business model.

 

Here’s how he went.

 

Friday


7.30pm Heading to Sensis’ Melbourne headquarters on Lonsdale Street. I’m a bit nervous considering this is my first time at one of these types of events, but it’s too late to turn back now. Do I have to pitch? What skills do I have to offer?

 

8.30pm Empty beer bottles and pizza boxes are littered around the office. Everyone is loosened up and having a go at pitching (no matter how bad the idea).

 

9.00pm We’re voting for the top 10 pitches. I really liked Matthew Ho’s pitch about that language game and David* had terrific energy even though his idea was average.

 

Saturday

 

9.00am David spends the morning actively rounding out the skills in seven-person teams. He is a magnet for the best and brightest at the weekend (including myself!) This should actually be fun.

 

10am David’s belief is inspiring. We’re buzzing from all the possibilities flying through the air. This could be massive, it could change the world. Green Amazon, Green Facebook… Us?

 

10.15am I speak up over others to make my comments heard. I’ve never been that assertive. People listen and take it on board. My confidence is building and the weekend is paying off already.

 

11.00am We’ve been gasbagging for about an hour about big picture but nothing tangible. David refuses to take control of the situation even though it’s his idea. I can’t speak up again, can I?

 

12.00pm Alright, back on track. A basic structure has focused our energy into a powerful laser. We’ve put aside big picture stuff to focus on achieving the goals of the weekend: develop a working prototype and a solid pitch to investors.

 

12.15pm The idea is refined and the tech developers scurry away to “the tunnel” to build a prototype. Us “business-types” can take care of the important stuff: markets and money.

 

12.30pm A mentor swings by, he’s from 99designs. Didn’t they just get millions of funding from an American VC? He must know his stuff.

 

The mentor asks how it’s going to make money and David stumbles. David explains the idea but it sounds completely different from what we agreed on. Just big-picture fluff.

 

1.00pm David leaves. No instructions.

 

3.15pm David still gone. Internet drops out, for the squillionth time. Our developers are hamstrung. The mood is tense, a revolution is brewing.

 

3.30pm Our fearless leader is back! Just in time. He finally delegates tasks but it’s nothing like we agreed earlier. Alarm bells ringing.

 

4.00pm Disengaged, I wander to the room of Matthew’s team. Heads down, keyboards rattling, only one voice at a time. Storyboards across the walls of the office.

 

There is an open-door policy, allowing anyone from the event to come in and contribute. He even asks for my ideas! I’ve never felt so loved.

 

5.00pm David gives us all homework. He asks us to write parts of an elaborate business plan that has no bearing on the weekend.

 

We just need a prototype and a pitch. I won’t freely surrender my intellectual property. I’m going home to watch the footy.

 

Sunday


10.00am I come in late and we’re one developer down. I wonder why he dropped out? The other developers built a really cool prototype.

 

Those guys are legends! Their ability to execute really demonstrates the value of shutting up and getting on with it. Gives me some ideas for my own business.

 

10.15am Matthew’s doing really well. The working prototype of their language game is great. Such a simple concept but it works so effectively.

 

I wonder how they did it? Matthew mentions they simplified the concept based on a mentor’s advice, which set a more achievable goal.

 

Also, they are primarily developers, with one or two business/marketing guys. More doing, less talking. It makes sense now.

 

11.00am David’s gone walkabout again. In his absence the team is getting restless. His incompetence and selfishness have driven us closer together. There is talk of mutiny.

 

12.00pm Five hours to the pitch. All other teams are harmoniously working together and on track to produce a strong pitch. Our leader has disappeared.

 

3.30pm The prodigal son returns! He has the pitch sorted. Any work we did was a waste.

 

7.00pm David gives a great pitch, also demos the prototype, which was awesome. This guy could sell milk to a cow.

 

Matthew and his crew had good content, including a live demo of the game, but the delivery wasn’t perfect and they took some hard questions from the judges. It’ll be close.

 

8.00pm Matthew wins! That’s one for the good guys. I think they were the crowd favourite as well.

 

8.30pm It’s over.

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Since 2010 StartupSmart has been Australia’s no.1 publication for the startup community and those interested in the startup movement globally. Publishing news, information and advice daily, and placing itself squarely at the centre of the government’s national innovation agenda, StartupSmart is a leading participant in the momentum that surrounds the world’s focus on technology, creativity and entrepreneurialism.
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