Startup Weekend — Take the Entrepreneurial Plunge

Have you ever thought about co-founding or joining a startup? You should really consider attending a Startup Weekend before taking the plunge.

So what’s a Startup Weekend? Essentially you have 54 hours to pitch an idea, form a team, develop a business model canvas, validate customers, generate a minimum viable product (MVP), refine the idea, and pitch your business model to a panel of judges. Oh, and maybe sleep.

There have been more than 2,900 Startup Weekend events in 150 countries around the globe.

I recently attended a Startup Weekend and met like-minded people driven to build something new and change the world. Not only did I get the opportunity to experience the entrepreneurial journey, I also got to connect with mentors and other co-founders.

The Friday Night Pitch

My adventure began at the Friday night pitch session where I found the venue full of energy and enthusiasm. Attendees had 60 seconds to pitch an idea to the crowd and get people interested. 60 seconds went by quickly with each person trying to explain their background, the existing problem, how their idea solves the problem, and what they need to make the idea a reality.

After the rapid-fire pitch session the crowd voted on the best ideas to pursue over the weekend. There were a ton of great ideas, from a time-saving emergency room app to an online community for new immigrants. Voting for the best idea was difficult.

After some deliberation my vote went to Phoenix Club — a restricted debit card for the homeless.

After voting it was time to start recruiting. The atmosphere became hectic as people scrambled to form teams. The frantic pace made me realize the importance of clearly communicating applicable skills to a startup team. A convincing pitch highlighting my past business experience and management skills soon secured me a spot with Phoenix Club.

Energetic recruitment expanded the team and we soon found ourselves with a diverse group of individuals driven by a passion to create positive social change. Phoenix Club was born.

The next 50 hours would prove to be an incredible learning experience.

Customer Discovery

Startup Weekend is a rewarding, albeit demanding, experience. The hectic atmosphere of the Friday night pitching session had subsided and Saturday morning greeted our startup team with a long laundry list of tasks over the next 24 hours:

  • Generate a business model canvas
  • Create a customer survey
  • Gather insight from customer discovery
  • Develop a minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Iterate through the business model canvas
  • Compile a pitch presentation for the judges on Sunday

A late Friday night discussion saw the startup name transition from Phoenix Club (named after the mythological Greek creature of regeneration/rebirth) to StreetCred. The new name better communicated the idea of a restricted debit card for homeless people living on the street.

As the team started to fill in the business model canvas we realized that we had multiple customer segments (the charitable donors and the homeless) and we would require multiple value propositions. Things were beginning to get complicated.

After mapping out our hypothesis on the business model canvas it was time to start searching for a viable and scalable business model. The first step in the search was to validate the customers and ensure that we had identified the correct customer segment.

Given the limited time frame for customer discovery during a Startup Weekend the team decided to develop a seven question survey that targeted our first customer segment; charitable donors on the street. In addition, the team used Survey Monkey to generate an online survey that was sent out across social media.

A large number of open-ended questions would have provided a deeper customer understanding, but given that the team had less than 24 hours to perform customer discovery, we had to work with more direct questions.

The survey results provided insight into two key value propositions that could be offered to the charitable donor customer segment; transparency in donation spending and transaction security.

The customer discovery process left me with one key takeaway:

The most important skill in customer discovery is empathy — truly understanding the customer story and what is the real problem.

Canvasing the charitable donors revealed that the reluctance to donate on the street stemmed more from a lack of transparency and security rather than a lack of funds.

Despite the long stressful day the team had gained important insight into the customer segment. But we couldn’t stop and celebrate — the countdown continued towards the Sunday afternoon judging session.

It would prove to be a long night developing the minimum viable product.

The Minimum Viable Product

The Startup Weekend judging session was less than 12 hours away as the team sat around the table and brainstormed the best approach for a minimum viable product (MVP).

The purpose of any MVP is to:

  • Test your understanding of the problem
  • Investigate if you are solving the core problem
  • Gain insight into the minimum set of features required to solve the real problem

StreetCred had chosen to tackle a social issue with multiple customer segments. Given the limited time and limited customer discovery data we chose to focus on developing a mobile app for charitable donors.

A user experience roadmap was drafted to highlight the minimum feature set required for the mobile donation journey. The roadmap was then used to develop a series of low-fidelity wireframe mockups.

The biggest challenge during the MVP development was ensuring no feature creep.

It took a great deal of effort to restrain from adding extra features to the wireframe mockup. The team wanted the MVP to solve all the customer pains, however, every extra feature beyond the basic function of the product only took us further away from understanding the core problem.

After numerous design iterations the low-fidelity prototype was tested on another Startup Weekend team and numerous improvements were made to streamline the user experience while still capturing the minimum feature set.

Once the team was satisfied with the general framework we began developing the mobile app. The initial effort put into refining the wireframes ensured that the app development went smoothly and the resulting MVP was free of feature creep.

Any MVP should undergo extensive interaction with the end user to gain insight into the customer needs and better understand how to solve the core problem. However, given that our team only had a few hours before the judging session there was no opportunity to gather user feedback and iterate the MVP design.

The last hours of Startup Weekend would be dedicated to compiling a final presentation and refining our pitch for the judging panel.

Lessons Learned

Startup Weekend is akin to being thrown into the deep end of a proverbial startup swimming pool. Within 54 hours you are immersed in pitching, team forming, customer development, business model canvas generation, MVP creation, and plenty of stressful moments.

Startup Weekend lessons learned:

  • The importance of a motivated and skilled team with a passion to create change
  • The need to get out of the building and get to the real root of the customer problem
  • The importance of a tenacious leadership team, especially as you experience the ups and downs of testing your business model
  • The difficulty of pivoting away from an original idea
  • The importance of getting feedback and having people poke holes in your idea
  • Getting the right connections and introductions (it can be more valuable than money)
  • The pressure of being a co-founder and having the team look up to you for guidance
  • The huge time and energy commitment needed for a startup; you really need to do something that you care about

The final hours of Startup Weekend were filled with last minute slide changes and pitch rehearsals. Our team delivered a presentation that earned our social venture third place in the weekend competition. We were awarded mentorship from a local entrepreneurship incubator and legal services to help get StreetCred off the ground.

Not only did Startup Weekend provide the opportunity to experience entrepreneurship firsthand, it also gave me the chance to meet mentors, advisors, and future co-founders. Whether StreetCred becomes a successful social venture is anyone’s guess, but I do know that Startup Weekend has confirmed my belief that a team of people with a sense of mission can change the world.


Mike Swift is an information explorer, solutions finder, and curious entrepreneur. His mission is to inspire budding entrepreneurs to embed people and planet in the DNA of their startup, alongside profit. Follow Mike on Twitter or visit ValuePivot.com


Credits — Header photo: ‘Splashy Splash Splash’ by Renato Pequito. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Cropped from original.