Startup Weekend: A How-To Guide

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a great experience at Startup Weekend EDU in Oakland. Today, I’d like to share my thoughts on how to make the most of SWEDU and what I admired about the winners, mySidekick.

  1. Pitch your idea. Yes, you. Startup Weekend always begins on a Friday by opening up the mic to anyone who wants to pitch a business. It’s nerve-wracking and extremely tough to convince people of your idea in just 60 seconds, but you may be surprised how many other participants would love to help make it come true. Teachers: designers, business people, and developers come to these events to make education better, and you’re the experts. mySidekick was pitched the first day by a teacher who immediately got technical people on his team by explaining how frustrating current technology is for communicating with special needs students.
  2. Go with the flow. Don’t panic if your team (or your market) tells you that your idea needs to be changed substantially. Keep your eye on the prize – making education better through a sustainable business model. What you came to SWEDU to build might not happen, but you may end up accomplishing something much bigger. Tech people: remember that educators are probably the end users. However cool your prototype is, if they tell you they’d never use it, it’s time to pivot. Keep doing that until you get excitement from students and educators.
  3. Respect everyone’s expertise. The strongest teams I saw at SWEDU were the ones in which team members were asking each other for feedback. If you aren’t the marketing guru, sit tight while she’s telling you about user acquisition. If you aren’t a developer, ask what’s possible and work with him to build something you both like. Teachers spend years speaking in front of groups and encouraging others to do the same. Let them guide your preparation for the final pitch.
  4. Make the problem easy to understand.

    At the final pitch competition, mySidekick presented the problem in about 15 seconds and made it immediately clear even to those of us who haven’t worked with special needs kids. Current technology is too slow and too complicated, which stresses users out and can fail to work when it’s needed. Having a special needs teacher give a quick example was more convincing that a ton of quantitative data.

  5. Demonstrate the solution. This was the toughest part for a lot of teams. If you can show us a working prototype or actual feedback from users, we’ll believe it’s possible.
    MySidekick presents their solution

    mySidekick showed us how they simplified communication for special needs students into a one-step drag motion.

    You may be experts in your subject area and have all the data in the world to back you up, but the audience (and the judges) may not get it right away. Showing off even the most basic prototype or proving user satisfaction will show us that it’s both doable and potentially viable as a business. mySidekick built a prototype app that they demoed in a video during their final pitch. After having already shown us how laborious current communication apps are, they made it really easy to see that theirs was far more elegant and user-friendly.

  6. Get market data. The most convincing data will depend on what kind of product or service you’re pitching, and different people in your team will be able to get different information over the weekend. In the case of mySidekick, they were ready with the number of potential users and the prices of current products on the market. For other teams, the most convincing information was real feedback from users outside the competition. Reach out to your contacts and let them know you’ve got a solution to their problem. We’ll vote for you if you prove that end users prefer your solution over the current options.

I’m very glad that I pitched an idea this time. I’d participated in one other SWEDU event, and while joining a great team is a wonderful learning experience, it was even better to compete with something that I’d been thinking about on my own.

If you have any other tips for making SWEDU fun and productive, comment below or tweet me at @finnismundi.

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About Finn Smith

Oregon... some places.... SF. Working in education, technology, and social impact (or some combination of the three).
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