Startup Weekend: A View from the Judge’s Chair.

Being asked to judge a hack-a-thon is an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. You have to agree to the ground rules that teams have only a few days to conceive, define, and execute the creation of a product. Holes will abound. Assumptions will go unchallenged. You’ll see a lot of smoke and mirrors. But if you get over this and look at the core of the idea and the team that owns it, you can see how some of them could make it to the big show.

Such began my journey at a recent Startup Weekend event in Seattle. Billed as a hack-a-thon for “Mobile and Wearables” the format goes like this: participants arrive on Friday evening. If you have an idea for a product or company you pitch it to the group. The group votes and the top nine ideas become the teams in the competition. Groups ranging in size from three to twelve set about building the idea. On Sunday evening each team presents their ideas to a panel of judges who then award the top ideas with prizes and praise.

This was my first experience with Startup Weekend and it was great. That said, I walked away with a few thoughts about the team presentations, what worked and what didn’t.

  • The Pitch — The format for presenting and judging here means that your pitch deck is the only way we can tell what you’ve done. It’s got to be really tight so start crafting it from the moment you gather as a team.
  • Mind the details — Even though forty-eight hours isn’t a lot of time, don’t let the details fall through the cracks. It doesn’t take a lot of time to create a quick app icon and drop it into Xcode for your build. Launching your app in an emulator view using the default app icon container comes off as unfinished and rushed.
  • Product first, then pitch — Startup Weekend follows the standard startup methodology more than a traditional hack-a-thon, so the presentations were shaped accordingly. Most VC pitch decks follow a pretty formulaic model because that’s what VCs look for. That said, you’re not pitching VCs right now and I’m a lot more interested in seeing product than hearing statistics about your product hypothesis.
  • I’m not buying your customer validation — Folling up on the previous point, I don’t buy the customer validation done in a few hours over the weekend. If your business is dependent on proving a complex customer hypothesis then take the time to do proper research. Or, better yet, simplify the offering. If there’s existing research about your market use that. If not, don’t try and fake it.
  • The Point is to learn — While winning a first place prize is great, these types of events are really great for learning. You get first-hand exposure the process of building something and seeing some aspects of how a startup operates. Soak that up and experiment some. At the end of the day, if you’ve left the weekend having learned a thing or two, you’re ahead of the game.

In the end, I encourage anyone interested in trying their hand at designing a building product to give a hack-a-thon a try. If you’re focused and attentive a lot of really great things will come to you because of it.

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