7 tips to help you win Startup Weekend

I should probably say “7 tips to help you maximize your chance to win Startup Weekend”, because if more teams follow my advice, there will only be a one winner anyway. And quite frankly, it still doesn’t guarantee anything because there are judges that decide and pick the winners. I’ve mentored a lot of teams on Startup Weekends over the past few years and I noticed that the top 3 teams have always had something in common. They succeeded in validation, business and product – what are the categories for judging criteria. Here are my 7 steps that help you succeed and maximize your chance to win Startup Weekend .

First things first, though. Winning Startup Weekend feels great and gives you your 15 minutes of glory on the stage. Actually, winning any startup competition feels great. However, winning any startup competition will never make your business successful . It motivates you, gives you some head start in reaching out to partners, advisors and maybe customers, but that’s it. Therefore, your long term goal should never be to win a startup competition.

A quick tip before I get to the particular steps: a complex idea or product (like an enterprise software) isn’t usually a good idea for Startup Weekends, because it’s very unlikely that you will be able to validate the problem and idea as well as build the prototype. Startup Weekend can help you a lot anyway, because the mentors are experienced and can help you get the idea to the next stage (and even connect you with your potential customers). Just have in mind that your chance to win is smaller, because Startup Weekend is mostly about learning the lean approach and it is much faster and easier with small projects.

Step 1 – Prepare elevator pitch


(image source: LinkedIn)

Every Startup Weekend starts with the pitching where the participants pitch the ideas that they want to work on. The pitch is only 1 minute and there can be 20 people pitching, so make sure that you prepare for it. Don’t try reinvent the wheel with what you say and make it simple. Instead of figuring out the super unique original pitch, practice its delivery at home in front of the mirror. I take a video of myself when I’m preparing for an important pitch and don’t finish practicing until I’m happy with it.

This is what Ross from Australia used when he won the Startup Weekend in Perth:

Hi, My name is _____ and I’m here today to invite you to join me in <business name> that <main value proposition>. My background is in <relevant background> and I’ve seen a problem/opportunity where <problem/opportunity>. I think we can solve this by <how you do it>. I need <mobile app developer / web developer / UX designer /etc.>

One super important thing here. Don’t talk about features when describing value proposition. The value proposition is the benefit the the user or customer will get, while feature is the way of providing that benefit .

Step 2 – Build your team


(image source: Wikipedia)

I’ll be getting back to the judging criteria, because that’s what you need do well in order to succeed. You need to validate your idea, create a business model and execute well and you need to build the team that can do all of that. It means covering business (sales and marketing), programming and design.

Don’t think of being only the CEO who coordinates the team. Your job is to motivate the team by putting much effort into the project and doing the most leg work , not by speaking and saying what has to be done. It’s important that every team member has their clear role, understands what she or he needs to do and accepts it.

Once the roles are clear, make a brief plan for the whole weekend and include a short, 5 to 10 minute long, catch up every 2 hours. That will help the whole team understand where you are and what you all need to focus on.

A secret tip: don’t be afraid to talk to people and literally recruit them for your project. Get to know the people before the elevator pitches start. If you like someone, pitch them your idea and ask whether they want to work with you. If you don’t find anyone, do it after the elevator pitches while everyone is voting. Recruiting more people also means more votes and better chance that your project will be selected.

Step 3 – Validate, validate, validate


(image source: necrophone.com)

I’ve mentored over 100 startups on startup competitions. If I exclude a few exceptions, validating that the idea that you are working on is resolving a real problem is the biggest problem during Startup Weekend  of each and every team. I’m not blaming the teams for that, because they don’t know how to do it, schools don’t teach it. You can read more in my post on Techstars Blog. If you are lazy and want only some bullet points, here you go:

  1. Talk to the real people (not family and friends) that are your target audience and literally start as soon as can. There was a startup working on a service for homeless people and they went to the park to talk to homeless people. If they could do it, you can do it as well.
  2. Ask the target audience about what problems do they have and don’t pitch your idea. That would bias them and it’s very likely that everybody would like the idea. However, the fact that someone likes the idea doesn’t mean that the idea solves a real problem.
  3. If you validate that the problem exists, learn more about how are the people solving the problem today and who they are. This will help you understand how complicated it is for your potential customers to solve the problem today and what might be the customer segments within your target audience.

If your target audience are families, go to the mall – families go there on weekends.
If you have a b2b idea, use your network and ask for introductions. It’s very likely that someone that you know knows a doctor, accountant, lawyer, etc.

Go where your target audience is and talk to them. It’s out of the comfort zone, but that’s where the road to success is.

If you don’t validate that the idea doesn’t solve a real problem of real people, you can’t win.

Step 4 – Create business model


(image source: Wikipedia)

Startup is a business and business needs to earn money. Therefore, you need to understand:

  1. Who is your customer?
  2. What exactly is the customer paying for and how much?
  3. How are you going to acquire the customer? (it’s called go-to-market strategy)
  4. How much does acquiring a new customer cost? (it’s called customer acquisition cost)

A great way to understand all the relationships in your business is to fill out the business model canvas. I’m pretty sure that this is also one of the first things the Startup Weekend organizers recommend you to do.

What is important here is that the customer lifetime value, what is the total revenue from a customer, needs to be significantly higher than customer acquisition cost . If not, your business doesn’t have a chance to be profitable.

You should also know how big is your market. But you don’t need to go into too many details. It’s not easy to do so during the weekend and understanding who your customer is and how are you going to get them is much more important. A secret hint is to use Facebook advertising demographic targeting to define your audience find the approximate number of people interested in the topic.

Step 5 – Get traction


(image source: Flickr)

54 hours and especially during the weekend is extremely short time to get the first user or even customer. But if you manage to get them, it usually counts and is more important that problem validated by interviewing your potential customers. Because customers are the ultimate validation. Don’t try to fake it with friends, because the judges are smart people and can figure that out.

You may also think of how the hell could you get users and customers when you don’t have the product ready. And it’s a totally accurate question or concern. A great workaround that also counts is to create a landing page and collect sign ups from people who are interested in your idea are want to know when you launch. If you get them to pay at least a few dollars, euros, or whatever your currency is, that’s even better.

Don’t spend money on paid advertising. Reach out to your network on social media, ask mentors or organizers for some introductions and post (don’t spam though) to Facebook or LinkedIn groups. Building a simple landing page with a tool like Instapage takes an hour (including the integration with Google Analytics and Mailchimp), so there is literally no excuse for not doing it. Also, even though you are a designer or developer, don’t waste time with building a custom landing page. Rather spend that time on building and designing the product.

Step 6 – Build MVP


(image source: Crisp.se, ©Henrik Kniberg)

MVP stands for “minimum viable product”. There are tons of definitions of what exactly an MVP is, but don’t worry about them. They would only distract you. Think of an MVP as a product that provides its users with the basic solution to the problem that it’s solving for them . For example,

  • the MVP of Uber could allow you to order a car and a driver to accept your order. No payments, ratings, discounts, animated cars, etc
  • the MVP of Facebook could allow you to create your profile, connect with friends and publish a status update with comments. No photo upload, no chat, no videos, no Facebook pages, no groups, etc

Even if it may look like that, an MVP isn’t an excuse for a sloppy app full of bugs. The MVP has to work well, the user experience needs to be good and it needs to look good enough. It has to help the users resolve the problem and be excited about the upgrades that you will be doing. 54 hours is not a lot of time, so avoid spending time on figuring out whether the button would be dark blue or light blue. Some people say that if you aren’t embarrassed for your MVP, it usually means that you spent too much time on it. I wouldn’t take it literally at a Startup Weekend, because design is also what matters. But having beautiful screenshots and slides will not help you if you don’t have anything that works.

Step 7 – Prepare final pitch


(image source: Flickr)

Many teams underestimate the power of the final pitch and don’t spend enough time on preparing it. Now realize that your pitch is the only 4 or 5 minutes that can convince the judges that your project deserves to win .

Don’t forget that there are going to be 10 to 20 teams pitching. How many of them do you think the judges will really remember.

  1. Your pitch needs to be super smooth.
  2. The story needs to be crystal clear.
  3. The details have to address the judging criteria.
  4. It needs a WOW! factor that the judges will remember.

Of course, the presentation needs to look nice as well. But Powerpoint and Keynote have a lot of templates that are good enough.

Now it’s clear that you will need a few hours to do a good pitch. Ideally, one team member should spend the whole Sunday on doing so. However, the final pitch isn’t only about the slides. It’s also about delivering them. Being sharp, full of energy and speaking natural like it’s the most common thing that you do is also important. Delivering the pitch is as important as the content and one doesn’t work with the other one. So practice, practice, practice. Use the mirror, pitch to mentors and ask for feedback, record the video (or at least voice) so you can hear yourself – I know, it feels embarrassing. But get over it. And deliver like a king.

A secret tip: anticipate the questions from the judges. They will very likely be similar to what the mentors ask you. Prepare the answers. And if there is anything that you want to say and don’t have enough time, give the judges only the hook in the pitch. Manipulate them into asking the questions that you want them to ask.

A secret tip 2: learn who the judges are and tweak the presentation for at least one of them. For example if one judge is an investor? Focus on the opportunity and how big of a company could you potentially be. Or if there is a judge from the same industry as your idea? Spend the most time of presenting looking at him.

That’s it. Good luck and have fun! Let me know in comments how did it go and if anything isn’t clear.

(Cover image source: Flickr)