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54 Hours to Launch a Business


It happens in more than 1,250 cities in 115 countries, and attracts more than 113,000 people. It's Startup Weekend, which is organized by a Seattle-based non-profit charitable organization. The goal is to bring developers, designers, marketers, product managers and others together to pitch their ideas, form teams, create products and services, and launch new businesses.

Is this just an academic exercise? Absolutely not.

This isn't just about networking, or sitting around listening to presentations; rather, this business experience is hands-on and immersive. In this post, discover how to make the most of a startup weekend. Get an insider's perspective on this exciting event.

Jumping into a Startup Weekend

Are you ready to participate in an intensive business project?

Businesses that originate at a startup weekend have a good chance for continuing on. According to the Startup Weekend website, “Approximately 55% of Startup Weekend participants continue working on their idea with all of their team, and 23% with only some members of their team."

A startup weekend is great practice in launching a viable business, but it's more than that; it's a place where real ventures are born. “Over 36% of Startup Weekend startups are still going strong after 3 months. Roughly 80% of participants plan on continuing working with their team or startup after the weekend.”

Startup weekends are focused on building and launching businesses. This focus may give you concern. You might worry about what you can bring to the weekend, asking yourself questions like: "Do I have any business ideas?"

Even if you have scarcely any fresh business ideas, you can still participate in a Startup Weekend. You have experience that is quite valuable to a startup team project.

Now if you're an experienced entrepreneur, you're probably thinking that you'll come to Startup Weekend, gather a team together, and everyone will work on your idea. How cool is that?

Well, not so fast.

Every Startup Weekend idea has to be pitched. And voted on. It's possible that your idea won't be chosen, and that you'll be asked to spend the weekend on developing someone else's concept. Are you willing to accept that?

Insider's View: Startup Weekend in Tucson, Arizona

This past summer, Entrepreneur Magazine referred to my city as an “emerging entrepreneurial hub.” One of the secrets of our local success is Startup Tucson, which is growing a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem. One of its signature events is Startup Weekend.

Decision Time: Which Persona?

Startup Weekend registrants must choose who they want to be for 54 hours. There are five options and you must pick one:

  1. Designers - Graphic and Web
  2. Technical - Makers and Engineers
  3. Technical - Hackers and Developers
  4. Technical - Other
  5. Business/Non-Technical

I chose: Business/Non-Technical. Even though I've spent much of my freelancing career in the design realm, I wanted to try something new. Startup Weekend is a great place for that. So, step outside of your comfort zone!

Involving the Community: Meet Your Congressman

Startup Weekend isn't just a three-day event. There are numerous community happenings leading up to it. Most are free, so why not attend as many as you can?

Take, for example, the University of Arizona-hosted breakfast with U.S. Representative Ron Barber on Wednesday, September 4. The Arizona Congressman's campus appearance was part of Startup Day at UA, which was organized by Startup Tucson's student chapter.

The Barber breakfast's 8 a.m. start didn't prevent a roomful of people from turning out, including recent UA grad Stephen Ost. He's a Startup Tucson member and the founder of UFree? This is a mobile app that answers the age-old question posed by college students everywhere: Who's available to hang out with me right now? Ost started the company after participating in Startup Tucson 2012.

College Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Stephen Ost College Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Stephen Ost (shown with back to the camera) gives Congressman Ron Barber (center) a smartphone demo of his new mobile app, UFree? Startup Tucson chairman and CEO Justin Williams is to Barber's left.

Ost is awaiting word from Entrepreneur Magazine, which has included him among its College Entrepreneur of the Year finalists. The Ufree? team came to Startup Weekend 2013, where they won one of the seven Shark Tank awards.

What's Your Business Model?

The Startup Tucson organizers encouraged all registrants to learn how to use the Business Modeling Canvas so we could quickly put our ideas into action. The Canvas poses nine tough questions:

  1. Who are your business' key partners?
  2. What are your key activities?
  3. What's your value proposition for customers?
  4. How will you build customer relationships?
  5. What customer segments will you be dealing with?
  6. What key resources does your business have or need?
  7. What are your sales channels?
  8. What revenue streams do you expect?
  9. What's your cost structure?

My September 14 encounter with the Canvas felt like a cross between a shouting match and a joke-fest. My Business Modeling class used existing companies as examples, and who knew that value propositions could arouse such passion?

The Big Weekend: Friday, September 20 through Sunday, September 22, 2013

Friday evening featured a frenzy of one-minute pitches at Gangplank, a recently opened coworking space in Downtown Tucson. The time limit was strictly enforced by emcee Justin Williams and a roomful of hollering Startup Weekenders.

From more than 90 registrants came 38 business pitches. They covered a wide range of entrepreneurial activity, including:

  1. automotive engine parts
  2. changing the culture of overeating
  3. cloud-based virtual desktops for law firms
  4. help for students writing papers
  5. improving the theater experience for moviegoers
  6. lightweight concrete countertops
  7. math games for kids
  8. online tools to support real estate agents

Pitching was followed by voting. This was accomplished via sticky notes attached to sheets of paper displaying the name of each idea. Team leaders could also recruit members.

I joined CustomJeweler.com, one of 16 projects that was chosen for further development. Custom Jeweler was led by a couple I met during the Business Modeling Canvas class.

Master jeweler Randy Hays has decades of retail and jewelry making experience. His fiance, Cheri Stieve, adds in-depth expertise in corporate supply chain management. Cheri quickly established herself as The Boss for our team, which also included Brandon Powell, a physical education teacher with plans for a sports-based startup, and Chris Raboin, a retired attorney.

Unlike many other teams, we could easily show product examples. Randy and Cheri wore his custom rings and necklaces. Randy also created a model of a special Startup Weekend ring.

Randy Hays Startup Weekend ring model Randy Hays' model of a Startup Weekend ring.

The above ring is an example of Startup Weekend's main goal, a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Cheri's PowerPoint demo of the CustomJeweler.com website was another. Other groups' MVPs ranged from concrete countertop samples to a live demonstration of Ufree?

Everybody into the Pool! And Watch Out for those Sharks!

Much of Startup Weekend was devoted to preparing for Sunday evening's Shark Tank presentations. Since teams needed real-world data proving the viability of their product or service, Gangplank Tucson was filled with requests for survey participation. So were our e-mail in-boxes and social media pages. We also reached out to as many friends, family members, and colleagues as we could find. One team did its polling in a nearby bar.

As Saturday rolled into Sunday, sleep deprivation started catching up with us. Did tempers grow short? Nope. The wearier we became, the more we smiled, joked, and laughed.

A weary trio consisting of Lynn Rae Julie Rustad and Heather Hiscox takes a break from planning a startup that will enable non-profits to create online wish lists A weary trio, consisting of Lynn Rae, Julie Rustad, and Heather Hiscox, takes a break from planning a startup that will enable non-profits to create online wish lists.

Boss Cheri took charge of creating our group's website and slide deck. While she worked, I went scurrying after information ranging from SEO keywords used on competing sites to a 50-state count of custom jewelers in an online directory. I also edited Cheri's web copy. Brandon helped with business idea brainstorming and design of our consumer and jeweler surveys. Randy created a demo of the customizable jewelry design process.

For the Sunday evening Shark Tank, we walked to the nearby headquarters of our local electric company. The Unisource building was full of highly polished metal and glass, quite the change from the paper plate, beer cup, and food wrapper chaos that Gangplank had become.

After a boisterous happy hour and catered Mexican meal, the action moved to the auditorium. Shark Tank time, with judging by six members of the Desert Angels.

And let me tell you, those guys may be angel investors from the oh-so-polite city of Tucson, but they have teeth. Several presentations were brought to a screeching halt when the speakers asked for funding. Can't do that, the judges snapped. You're  violating securities law, so what else do you have to tell us?

Ouch. Time for Plan B: Wrap this presentation up before the angel-sharks attack again.

The Desert Angels' evaluations were based on:

  1. Business Model Validation. Who are the key partners? Is there a customer acquisition/rollout strategy? What are the customer demographics and locations? Did the team get out and talk to customers? What is the value proposition? What is the cost and revenue breakdown?
  2. Product Execution. Did the team create a Minimal Viable Product? Were they able to demonstrate something functional?
  3. User Experience Design. Does the product or service have a professional look and feel? Does it deliver a compelling and captivating user experience? Is it memorable? What key insights were gathered over the weekend to go in this creative direction?

So, how did CustomJeweler.com do? Well, we sure didn't win any prizes.

The top award for a new business went to Vegas Booze, which will deliver packaged liquor in Sin City. In the existing business category, the winner was CloudBurstIT, which will provide cloud-based Windows 7 desktops for law firms.

Despite the lack of awards from the Shark Tank angels, our team learned a lot. Cheri and Randy plan to move ahead with their business. And we're going to stay in touch. Did I mention that becoming part of a community is one of the biggest benefits of Startup Weekend? It's the perfect antidote to the isolation of freelancing.

Startup Weekend First-timer Tips

Interested in attending Startup Weekend? It's a global movement with a local face. It may very well be happening in your area. Check the calendar on this page.

If you have a business idea, great! Be prepared to rocket-pitch it on Friday evening. Make your idea appealing enough to inspire others to join your team. And keep that pitch to a minute or less. No business ideas? You may think of one during the weekend. Or you might be a valuable contributor to someone else's startup team.

If you're a long-time freelancer with a certain specialty, step away from it. Try something new. Even though much of my income is derived from web design, I didn't touch a content management system or write a line of HTML during the entire weekend. That was Cheri The Boss's job. She assigned me the task of searching for market research data. So, search and report I did!

Finally, bring lots of business cards and be prepared to stay in touch with your fellow Starter Uppers. This is not one of those "over and done" events — it's a community of doers.

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Photos by Martha Retallick.

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