Takeaways from Startup Weekend

The week of the deadline, I signed up for Peoria’s Startup Weekend and it was on that very day that my idea popped into my head. Despite my excitement for the experience and relief that I had actually come up with a startup idea, there were reservations.

What if I was the only non-college competitor?

Is my idea even a “good” idea?

Can I be an asset to a team without a technical background?

Those questions aside, there was this fantastic bar I had set for myself riddled with expectations. The reality I found was that no matter how much time you spend with entrepreneurs and innovators and idea people, there is no way to understand the startup process until you actually go through it.

So, it’s kickoff night and we are all sitting around making small talk and measuring each other up. I knew some of the participants, but to my surprise, many of the others were not college students or technical gurus. Some hadn’t even come with an idea so I figured I was in good shape.

After introductions and a fire round exercise to get warmed up, we began pitching. I went second. Most ideas were app related, which was a little disappointing. Deep down I was hoping someone would pitch some kind of save-the-world product and I would ditch what I had to become an entrepreneur superhero.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, my idea failed to bring in enough votes to make it to the final round and I ended up on a team doing something in the industry I already work in. The weekend was long and stressful and tiresome but somehow it was also exciting and challenging.

At the end of the weekend, I felt totally wasted. I wondered how people did this every single day and I wondered if I could do too. We were told from the beginning that startup depression is real… and it was… and it is.

Fast forward to final pitches. We went last, we didn’t place, and looking back now, I am happy for that. I wasn’t happy immediately because I like to win and I like to surpass expectations. But after a few days of reflecting and analyzing the experience, I know what we did wrong.

Here are some things I learned from startup weekend:

  1. Pick your teammates wisely. Don’t just look at strengths and weaknesses, but really talk to individuals to make sure you mesh well. Vetting your team is the best thing you can do to prevent tension and startup demise.
  2. Believe in the startup you join. I was talking with a friend before selecting teams and looked at the team I would ultimately join and said “I can’t join that team — I just don’t believe in it.” But, after some thought and consideration for my skill set, I sold myself short and joined anyway. That was one of my greatest mistakes.
  3. Put the idea into numbers. We shot ourselves in the foot by not showing our numbers at the end. The service we had would generate a pretty hefty profit margin, but we didn’t show it. I don’t know why — I guess I thought our presentation should be short and sweet. And it was. And we lost. Moral of the story? Financials are your friend.
  4. Tell a story. Don’t just pitch a product or service at the end, but tell the story of the challenges you faced and how you overcame them. Explain why so much blood and sweat went into the final concept. If you can sell it to your peers who are competing with you, you can sell it anywhere.

Despite viewing startup weekend as a learning experience, the aftershock hit me like a truck. The 24 hour period immediately following the weekend I felt like a huge failure. I relived the steps we took and the final pitch over and over again in my head searching for the answers. I began to think that I wasn’t cut from entrepreneurial cloth and would have to shelf my ideas in exchange for a life of normalcy.

Then something happened.

I began to feel more alive than I ever had as my soul overflowed with passion and new ideas. Startup weekend hadn’t revealed that I was built to follow the crowd, but had stirred a driven spirit that won’t give up. I emerged in the following days with wider eyes and thicker skin. To me, the world had taken on a malleable form and exposed the places where I could execute change.

Startup weekend was a battle; a battle against myself and against the world, but losing and winning are not separate experiences, they are one in the same. The difference is that gamechangers have the ability to wield them both effectively to leverage ideas and disrupt the norm.

Onward to failure. Onward to victory. The road is the same. I’ll see you there.