5 Ways to Make the Most of Denver Startup Week 2018

The final countdown has begun — we’re just a month and a half away from the best week of the entire year!

Erik Mitisek, Organizing Chair of Denver Startup Week, getting the crowd pumped during last year’s event. (Source: Confluence Denver)

The seventh annual Denver Startup Week 2018 is happening on September 24–28, and trust me, you definitely won’t want to miss it.

For entrepreneurs and startup enthusiasts, Denver Startup Week is truly a dream come true: there are unlimited learning opportunities, all-star mentors available all week, networking sessions galore, tons of free swag, job fairs and invaluable career possibilities, happy hours on the daily, and plenty more.

(And if you’re lucky enough to live close to the city, you have all of this at your disposal for free!)

With so much going on, it’s no wonder that DSW is the largest free entrepreneurial event of its kind. Last year, a record-shattering 19,000 people attended Denver Startup Week, which means that this year’s event is sure to bring in even larger crowds as has been true for every year of DSW’s existence.

While that’s great news for the organizers, it means that attendees should be more prepared than ever before to get the most of this week.

Last year’s DSW was also my first, and while I didn’t have any regrets when the festivities finally came to a close, I knew that I wanted to be a smarter attendee this time around. To get a sense of what it’s really like to attend the event, check out my recap from DSW 2017.

So, without further ado, here are the top 5 lessons I learned that’ll help you ensure that you check all the things off of your DSW ’18 bucket list to make it the best week ever.

1. Come for the free learning

If Denver Startup Week charged for the sessions that go on all week, not only would they be rollin’ in it, but it would likely be enough learning material to officially start a school.

But, luckily for all of us, the whole week is free — from the sessions to the expert panels, keynote speakers, and even the hands-on workshops.

The way that DSW is organized makes it easy to find the right topics for you and your interests, with six tracks that are as follows:

  • Designer
  • Developer
  • Founder
  • Growth
  • Maker
  • Product

That way, if you know you’re looking for ways to learn about how to become a better coder, you need not parse through all of the oodles of sessions going on and can instead narrow your search by browsing the Developer track sessions.

While it would make sense to stay in your “appropriate” track based on skill and industry, it’s important to note that, due to the shorter nature of sessions, you won’t get too high-level in your learning, so don’t expect to fluently learn a new coding language or accomplish something too comprehensive at DSW.

That being said, here’s a tip:

Consider DSW to be a free opportunity to expand your skills and knowledge into adjacent fields, allowing you to grow out as a professional and become more well-rounded. Take the leap and attend sessions outside of your professional comfort zone.

Are you a founder who struggles to grasp anything design-related? Show up to some design sessions and you’ll surely walk away with a good foundation.

Are you a coding genius that can’t get your head around the importance of company growth? Focus on the growth track sessions for the week and learn how to complement your skills with your newfound knowledge.

It’ll make you a better businessperson to have the basics of all of the tracks under your belt, I promise.

If you’re a hands-on learner and want to get even more value from all this awesome, free education, definitely pay attention to the many workshops happening all week.

Not only will you learn something new, but you will also have the start of something that you can actually apply in the real world.

For instance, if you’re clueless about how to build a business model but are itching to start your own endeavor, there’s totally a workshop for that this year — and you’ll be able to leave with confidence and the first workings of a real business model!

Or, if you are a step behind that and wondering whether your startup idea is even feasible, there’s a workshop in which real people’s ideas will be worked through in the session to help them get started with their business.

The possibilities are endless, so if you only have time for attending a few sessions this year, keep these tips in mind to get the most bang for your, well, lack of buck. (Hooray for free learning!)

2. Stay for the happy hours

Typically, happy hours make me think of discounted drinks and loud venues, but DSW is a whole different beast. The happy hours that rage on all week after-hours are perhaps the best networking opportunities that you can get.

Think about it: after a long day of running from one session to the next, everyone relaxes when they can finally pause and simply enjoy the moment — and some free booze. The conversations you’ll have over a casual drink are bound to be the best, especially since you’ll have ample time to really get to know each other and feel less formal all the while.

If your first mental image that comes to mind when you hear “networking” is stiff handshakes and suits galore, you’ll be pleased with the change of pace at DSW’s lively — yet still professional — happy hours.

I’ve made perhaps more great, genuine connections at DSW happy hours than at the actual sessions because of all of the reasons above.

In fact, one colleague and I will regularly run into each other around Denver and fondly reminisce about how we met that one fateful time when she tripped on a lamp at the final DSW happy hour of 2017. What started as an awkward witnessing of her clumsiness resulted in over an hour of fantastic conversation — basically, it’s like we instantly became summer camp besties.

That’s the spirit you’re bound to encounter at DSW in general, but it’s especially prevalent at the many happy hours throughout the week.

3. Schedule your week wisely

Denver Startup Week’s website does a great job of offering a customizable schedule on their site (no third party apps needed) — you can register, save events, and more all in one place.

To put it bluntly, here’s tip #3: ABSOLUTELY use the schedule to plan out your week.

It may seem tedious to do ahead of time, and you may be thinking, “there are tons of events to choose from; why commit to a few up front?” but the reality is that the best events fill up faster than you can imagine.

And while it’s not always true that the most popular events also happen to be the best, you’re better off registering for your favorites ahead of time so that you don’t have to feel the FOMO when you hear a ton of buzz about an event that’s already full.

Depending on how much time you can spend at DSW this year, I recommend registering for one session or event a day that intrigues you the most — that way, you can look forward to attending that and also have the option of stopping by less popular ones along the way as time allows.

Some events are first-come, first-serve, however, so putting those as a priority on your schedule is a good way to make sure that you show up on time and get to participate in the fun.

You also have to consider that sessions and events alike are held throughout the entire city of Denver, not just across the span of a couple blocks, so registering in advance allows you to plan your days by which parts of town you’ll end up in. Plus, you don’t want to show up late or miss an event because you forgot to factor in the commute — Denver is more sprawled than you may think.

If you’re more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of attendee, you have two choices: either go full-spontaneous and risk missing out on some really cool events, or make your schedule so far in advance that you manage to forget about it and then surprise yourself the week of the event with your preparedness. I would recommend option 2 here, trust me — it works.

Finally, registering and planning your week ahead of time provides a great opportunity to be more environmentally-friendly, especially if you’re attending with a group or you find some new friends along the way.

Coordinating who’s heading where opens up the possibility for carpooling, and while Uber and Lyft drivers probably make a fortune on DSW attendees, consider how much more efficiently you could get around the events if you had a solid car-share plan in advance.

(Pro tip: if you have the time, consider biking around sessions that week — B Cycle is a smarter way to get around Denver, especially with the inevitable downtown traffic you’re sure to encounter!)

4. Bring the right tools

Every attendee is bound to get the most out of DSW if she shows up with a clear goal in mind — and the proper accessories to make that happen.

If you’re there to network…

…either for your company or for your own career opportunities, bring your business cards. It’s a reflex to pack these for all events for some — but not all — attendees. Don’t be the person who says “I would give you my card, but…”

Start off on the right foot; come prepared to spread your name and reputation the right way.

If you’re attending for the educational value…

…bring a good notebook and a pen or two. It may seem obvious, but if you consider that a lot of sessions’ locations either don’t have normal seating or may not have any chairs at all, a hardcover notebook will serve you well no matter where you end up taking notes.

Also, backup pens have a double utility: if your first one craps out, you can fluidly pick up where you left off without missing a single point, and if your neighbor asks to borrow one, you can be a hero and a friend by loaning out yours.

(Bonus: check in with your pen-borrower after the session wraps up and cash in on a valuable networking opportunity — you’ve done them a favor and in turn made yourself seem more favorable in their eyes, and you’ve created the perfect introduction for a more meaningful conversation.)

If you’re a visitor to Denver and plan to spend DSW without a home or office “base”…

…pack like you’re a well-prepared tourist.

The combination of the high altitude and dryness can ruin any visitor’s DSW experience, so bring plenty of water, snacks, comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, and hats, jackets, or umbrellas if the weather forecast is sunny or not (Colorado’s weather patterns tend to have mood swings: rain, shine, wind, snow, hail…you name it; we have it).

Of course, DSW is happening throughout an established city, but if you want to spend more time attending events and less time (and money) buying what you didn’t anticipate for, it’s better to pack like you’re touring the city on a business trip.

If you really, really want to be prepared for anything, pack a backpack — it’s a casual enough event and culture in Denver that it’s normal to see more backpacks than briefcases around town.

Another note on being out of town: if you’re not the best with directions, consider starring the locations of your top events in your maps app on your phone (personally, I recommend Google Maps for this neat feature). That way, if you’re unsure where you need to go for a session, you can find the location on your DSW schedule and then instantly pop in directions to take you there.

If you happen to forget any “supplies” for the big week…

…you’re in luck: a lot of the showcase events have brands that are giving away free swag, and as swag is becoming more about usefulness, you can pick up some useful items like pens or notebooks almost anywhere.

Forgot a snack? Someone’s handing out granola bars for sure. Need a bag to lug your free swag around in? I’ve seen those handed out before, too.

Of course, there is no guarantee that you’ll find any free item that you need, so consider this as a backup option if you forget to pack it yourself — but try to come prepared nonetheless.

5. Take advantage of Basecamp

What is this Basecamp, anyway?

DSW’s website explains it best:

Located at The Commons on Champa, Basecamp serves as the epicenter and soul of Denver Startup Week during the five days of dispersed programs, sessions, social events, and more. The activities at Basecamp represent the best of Denver Startup Week — including keynote speakers, premier session highlights, on-site mentoring with prominent startup leaders, networking events and meetups, and access to exclusive learning opportunities and resources.

Even if you’re incredibly busy and can only attend a glimpse of what DSW has to offer, Basecamp is like a buffet: you get a taste of all the things that make DSW the unique experience that it is, all in one convenient place.

A Basecamp bonus for locals: the Commons on Champa also happens to be a great year-round resource for entrepreneurs, so getting familiar with the place and learning more about how it can help your business is useful far beyond the week of the big event.

If you’re an out-of-towner who gets to partake in the DSW festivities, Basecamp truly does serve the purpose that the name implies: it offers a comfortable place to circle back to and rest up between sessions or events.

Plus, you can mingle with all sorts of people, even if there isn’t a particular event happening at the moment, making it the ultimate happy hour-like opportunity around the clock.

All signs point to Basecamp, too, so it’s truly the nucleus of DSW and worth including in your itinerary — that’s where the celebrity presenters, event organizers, and other shmooze-worthy folks of the startup world tend to hang out during the week-long event.

I’m not kidding when I say “all signs point to Basecamp.” Keep an eye out and you’ll be guided there from most any starting point in downtown Denver! (Source: Denver Business Journal)

The Bottom Line

If you take advantage of…

  • The free learning
  • The friendship-forging happy hours
  • The schedule feature on the website
  • Preparing properly for your goal
  • The awesome, open-to-anyone Basecamp

…you’re going to have an awesome Denver Startup Week. I can feel it.

First-time and returning attendees alike, let this article be your guide to getting the most out of participating in this year’s Denver Startup Week.

And remember: take the time now to properly prepare in order to get the best value out of the event when September rolls around.

(Seasoned attendees, do you have any top tips for making the most of DSW that you didn’t see above? Please comment below!)

I hope that you feel more equipped for an awesome DSW after reading this, and I can’t wait to see you there!

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Zofia Antonow is a marketing strategist with a passion for writing; she loves to attend & report on local Denver events, nerd out over marketing trends, write opinion pieces on social issues, & more.