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Learning about startups

Auckland Startup WeekendAs a Product Training Manager at Xero, and an accountant/lawyer/manager type with no previous personal entrepreneurial experience, I decided to push myself by attending the Xero sponsored Auckland Startup Weekend event last weekend.

Startup Weekend is all about learning the basics of founding startups and launching successful ventures. It has been undertaken in over 200 cities around the world. The weekend starts with any attendee welcome to pitch their startup idea. Teams then form organically around the most popular ideas. What follows is a 54 hour frenzy of business model creation, coding, designing, and market validation.

The weekend culminates with presentations in front of local entrepreneurial leaders, with another opportunity for critical feedback. I found it to be a fantastic experience and if you have even just an inkling of entrepreneurial spirit in you, then read on.

Our idea and team

Not having an idea prior to the event didn’t deter me from giving an initial pitch, as one popped into my head very soon after soaking up the entrepreneurial buzz on arrival. I didn’t expect my ‘throwaway’ idea to get traction, but for whatever reason it became one of the 12 ideas (from 35 pitched) which people clustered around to form teams. And then the fun and madness started…

Startup weekend team

Luckily for me, our team was a diverse bunch, including a developer, as well as business and design minded people. So when the team’s enthusiasm (including my own) for my initial idea quickly faltered, we were able and willing to shift to something new. Our idea changed massively and frequently. So, it wasn’t until Saturday evening that we drew a line under what we all agreed was something we could take forward, which turned out to look nothing like the original idea:

“A self installation wireless sensor-based system for elderly/vulnerable people living alone, which monitored and interpreted unusual activity and then relayed suspected medical trends/emergencies back to a mobile application (held by friends, family, other relevant/concerned parties etc).”

Being an unproven entrepreneur, as with most/all of the attendees I suspect, I had a lot to learn going into the weekend.  While some things like identifying your target market/s and size, creating a business model etc came more naturally for me – other things felt far more foreign.

What did I learn?

I learnt that while it is easy to obsess over how great a solution/idea looks/feels (i.e. the sexy part), the real grunt work and focus first needs to be on identifying whether there is even a real underlying problem. No existing problem – then your solution would be lost on people, regardless of how many bells and whistles you wrapped around it.

It also seemed like most of our weekend was taken up “validating” with real potential customers/interested parties to assess whether there was a problem there and whether our potential solution would solve that. The temptation was there just to jump to the fancy slides for the final presentation, rather than gathering insights through annoying endless Pac ‘n Save shoppers or suffering the embarrassment of being escorted out of Westfield Mall (my Saturday morning adventures…).

However the time spent validating, discounting ideas, revalidating new ideas etc before moving any further forward proved critical. Another key thing I learnt and which we had to keep reminding ourselves of was that no idea is ever truly unique. If you looked hard enough you would find out someone else was doing it/had already done it, but the real question to ask was whether you could deliver it better.

Then there was the people side of things – being thrown together with five strangers all with different backgrounds, areas of expertise and of course potentially conflicting personalities is hard enough on a normal day. But when you spend almost 54 hours straight in each others’ faces, with extreme pressures placed on you to deliver a massive amount by the Sunday night, the roller coaster ride’s twists and turns seemed faster, greater and seriously unpredictable.

As a team, we hit some heavy lows, including a very near and understandable “walk out”, serious differences of opinion, and hours and hours stuck on what seemed like a broken record of ideas, and why’s/why nots. We also fell into the trap of wrongly believing that we were the only team in the room experiencing these set backs and that the other teams were lovingly moving forward on a smooth track to success.

The pressure of the weekend ensured that there was no smooth ride on offer for any of us. Moreover, with hindsight, it’s clear to me how healthy all that pressure really was. We spend a lot of our lives understandably avoiding or managing pressure out of our day to day lives. However, when it is thrust upon you as it was this weekend, it is amazing how much quality can be achieved in so little time.

Collaboration

One other interesting aspect to the weekend was the collaboration between the teams. Yes, it wasn’t real life, but at times it certainly felt like it and winning was definitely on everyone’s minds. So it was refreshing to see stressed teams still being open and taking time out to help other teams (e.g. through answering surveys, offering up relevant contacts, suggesting improvements) rather than locking themselves away. It reminded me of being back at work in a way e.g. Xero’s inclusive approach to its employees, clients, and Add On partners leading to a better overall solution and everyone winning.

I entered into the weekend expecting the sleep deprivation and intensity of it all to have taken its toll on me/the team as the weekend progressed; the reality was quite the opposite. The cliché of a “second wind” could not have been more true. Once we had necessarily dealt with all the uncertainties and found real purpose and direction, the pressures upon us only helped fuel us towards a final presentation that we were proud of.

Just in case you are wondering … no, we didn’t win. All the teams produced fantastic results throughout the weekend and I have no doubt that the deserved winning team backed itself to win just as much as the rest of us did. Oddly though, not winning didn’t leave the bitter feeling I thought it would have. Reflecting on what the team and I had achieved in the circumstances took care of that.

Lastly, thanks have to go out to all the organisers, mentors, judges and sponsors (including Xero) of this event. The finest of details were thought through to ensure the event ran smoothly and professionally. The room was full of insightful, energetic and enthusiastic people who stuck with us through every stage of the journey to ensure we got the most out of it that we could.

 

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