This is a guest post from Sidra Mahmood, UX/UI Designer at tailoredUX and mentor for this weekend.
Last year on a whim I entered Startup Weekend Toronto. I was a higher ed web developer who had lost some of her love for startup culture after getting burned and learning a few lessons. What was supposed to be a weekend of learning and observing turned into one of the craziest and most meaningful weekends I’ve had yet. Our team started out as strangers, but by the end of the 72 hours, we knew we’d made friends for life. Winning Startup Weekend EDU last year opened up a lot of doors for our team, and this year I’m fortunate to be participating as a mentor. For this reason, I wanted to offer up a few tips that helped us find success.
Step 1: Find a problem to solve!
Rather than reverse-engineering problems to fit your product and your monetization goals, it just works better when you have a project centered around solving a problem first.
Ideally this is something you or someone on your team has personally been impacted by and can speak to. The pitches that seemed to get the most attention very simply focused on problems any one of us could encounter in childhood learning situations, like teaching kids financial responsibility, or organizing field trips as educators. My pitch didn’t make the cut because I didn’t do a very good job of simplifying my idea within the provided period of time, so I stumbled over my words. The neat thing about this process is that it’s a collaborative effort, so while you present individually, the pitches are crowd-selected. People who pitched similar ideas tend to band together.
Step 2: Clever collaboration
Working in groups has great collaborative advantages, but there can be conflict when people feel differently about central features. Some people just aren’t used to collaborative work, which is why it’s important to assign an informal project manager who is responsible for keeping everyone on track. Make this the most organized person in your group. Have an open and honest conversation about skills and expertise with your group at the very beginning so you can assign subject matter experts as needed.
The working objective should be to respect people’s expertise and enthusiasm while encouraging engaged and peer-to-peer learning.
For example, while the tech team was working on getting the web application up and running, the educators and researchers worked on compiling potential client lists, writing blog posts, and developing content.
Step 3: Plan and stay on track
Tools like Wrike and Asana are instrumental to getting things done, so you know who’s responsible for what. You don’t need a flashy Gantt chart but these tools make it pretty easy. Even a Google Doc that everyone has editing privileges for will help.
You will hustle at the last moment, and you might miss things.
When you plan, you also have to prioritize your needs based on your resources and time. For example, we realized early on that we had to use an existing jQuery plugin for the timeline feature on our product because it would be too resource intensive to create it from scratch.
4. Practice, practice practice!
While you might be stretched for time near the end, the adrenaline should keep you going until it’s time to pitch. Make sure you eat in between, by the way. Those organizers know what they’re doing when it comes to ordering food, so re-fuel when you need to!
Use that time to practice, and try to keep it natural. This is a good place to figure out which members of your group are great at engaging audiences, and who would prefer to stay behind the scenes. There’s nothing wrong with being a little quiet, by the way, so while it’s a great opportunity to practice your public speaking skills, don’t feel pressured. Chances are at least one member of your group is gifted when it comes to engaging an audience. Come up with an engaging Twitter hashtag for your brand so your fellow Weekenders can provide their feedback or kudos while you pitch.
Show the crowd that you care about your product, and that they should care too. The best thing about these pitches is that they’re not like the Powerpoint presentations you might have done at school, where each slide tends to be a massive wall of text that makes the audience squint. These pitches are actually just a prime opportunity to really illustrate your process and success so far.
Rather than just telling people what they did, many of the stronger pitches had photos and videos illustrating the use of their products. They told a story, and crafted a solid narrative.
Practice also means validation, so some of our team members spent Sunday morning with actual users and their kids, getting their feedback and validating our beliefs that they would love this product.
5. Follow up!
So you’ve won or placed highly, your team is still trying to stop hugging it out with each other (you get real close over the weekend!), and you’re working out what to do with your prizes and conference gear.
Keep in touch! You’ll need some time to recover and get back to real life, but it’s important to plan out next steps, even if they’re little. You may or may not end up with a company, but the connections you’ve made are like no other. I still keep in touch with members of my team on a regular basis and am happy to consider them close friends. I would work with any of them again in a heartbeat.
As for LearningLoop, as a project it’s currently in slow production while we’re all busy with our careers and classes. 3 members have retired from the group. There is a chance we might pivot because of a fast emergence into the scene from comparable players, but we know we’ve got something to offer with our collective of educators, communicators, and technologists. There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, of course. We haven’t made our million but we found each other, worked towards something we cared about that we knew would make a difference, and that was just awesome.
Now go forth and raise hell, and please say hello if you run into a green-haired girl this weekend!