Takeaways for Early-Stage Founders
I went to a Google Startup Weekend a couple weeks ago. Ran into a great team, ideated, validated, and even built a teeny website.
Early admission: we didn’t win.
Still, I had a great chance to watch the people who did win, and I’ve had plenty of time to agonize about how we could have toppled them. Startup Weekend didn’t shower me in cash or equivalent services, but I'll be damned if it didn’t teach me a few lessons on how to spin an early-stage startup. If you’re about to tackle your first weekend or – much more likely – you’re prepping for an early-stage pitch of any kind, here are some things to keep in mind.
You Don’t Need Tech/Marketing/Business Talent...Yet
The dream Startup Weekend experience is to show up on Friday, hack on the weekend, and leave with a working product, business plan, and market validation.
Which sounds wonderful. It’s just not always possible.
Truth is, few teams are lucky enough to be so well-rounded. At the New Orleans Startup Weekend, we instead saw small gatherings of engineers, or teams with a hefty emphasis on marketing talent. This isn’t the handicap that you might think it is; in fact, the top two teams had relatively uneven skill distributions. They made up for this by being really good in their given fields.
The winning team didn’t have a developing corps strong enough to build a functional prototype. What they had was a working mockup, some excellent market validation, and an absolutely beautiful pitch deck. Put together, these were far more convincing than a few lines of non-functional code, and even beat out the second place team's offering, which actually was a functional prototype.
Startup Weekend – and just about any pitch, really – is judged on the basis of what you’ve accomplished.
There’s a huge lesson here for potential founders. At LookFar, we frequently work with idea-stage entrepreneurs without a shred of coding talent. The ones that we’re most eager to meet are those who understand that but still find ways to hit milestones. As exciting as ideas are, they need to be accompanied by demonstrable, hard work and no small amount of hustle.
So, if you’re looking at ways to turn your own startup idea into a company, start by figuring out what you can do on your own or with your original founding team. Sure, you may eventually need a programmer to execute your vision, but you also need a business plan, a solid pitch deck, and as much market feedback as you can find.
In short, anyone is capable of bringing more than just an idea to the table. Founders can accomplish one heck of a lot before they go looking for help, and those that make measurable progress on an idea look much, much better to prospective partners and investors.
Build First, Talk Later
Startup Weekend is a two-day marathon, but darned if it doesn’t feel like a sprint. That said, the limiting reagent here isn’t time. Two days and change is a heck of a lot of room for a fast-moving group to build out a pitch. One founder amply proved this by putting together an impressive deck – including a product mockup and some basic market validation – without a single team member to help.
There’s something to be said for working alone. As helpful as team members can be, even small interruptions or disagreements can slow progress to a crawl. And that’s not even touching on the violent meltdowns that SW veterans mention (usually with a horrified giggle) from time to time.
The fix? Build first, talk later. Teams are judged on the basis of demonstrable product, not on how well they all agree on their mission statement.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but team members are generally at their best when they’re given a task, then largely left alone as they execute it. A process that would take a solo worker twenty minutes can easily generate two hours of discussion if a couple of other people become involved. As good as my team was, we were completely guilty of blowing time on talks that never needed to happen.
Those two hours might help one part of a pitch better match with another member’s work, but they’re still two hours spent talking instead of building a pitch deck, coding an MVP, or running market validation. The trade just isn’t worth it. By all means check in on different members’ progress every hour or so – you can wind up with a non-cohesive pitch if you don’t – but non-essential discussion has an absolutely lousy ROI.
Early-stage startups might not have the same deadline, but they run some of the same risks. Founders who spend time arguing over features that would never even make into an alpha can easily find themselves pitching with nothing but a few slides behind them. Not great if you’re after seed funding.
Validation is the Great Equalizer
No matter how good your product is, the question of the day always remains “will anyone ever use this?” Answer that question in the affirmative, and you’ll find yourself with a vastly more impressive pitch.
There’s a definite line that has to be drawn here between “market research” and “market validation.” It’s possible to conduct extensive market research without leaving your chair. Understanding the space you’re going to enter, identifying trends that create a need for your product, even identifying users with your pain point – that’s all important, but it’s probably not enough to carry you to a Startup Weekend win.
To truly validate your idea, you’re going to have to go talk to people, and you’re probably going to have to do it in person. By all means, make phone calls and post on Reddit, if you’re brave (and don’t mind strangers on the internet calling you stupid), but on a truly tight timeline it's probably best to pound pavement and get some face to face responses. Again, the top two teams at the competition distinguished themselves here. The second place group – a team entirely composed of engineers – simply walked across the street to a park and asked parents if they’d buy their planned product, an interactive robot for children. It’s not hard to get a “yes” from relaxed, friendly people, but that doesn’t devalue the fact that their team went out, found people who fit their target market, and got some confirmation that they were on the right track.
Beats the heck out of some tepid internet comments.
The winning team one-upped them. They actually went out, filmed random people enthusiastically responding to their idea, and then cut that into a quick montage that they ran during their pitch. It was slick, it was convincing, and it stands out as the moment that carried their already strong pitch firmly into first place.
Here’s the lesson: prove that people want what you’re making. It’s much easier to design for an existing market than it is to build something on faith. Your ideal customer – or persona – heavily guides everything from the way a product looks to how it’s promoted. If you can show that you’re building a service that effectively meets existing demand, it’s going to look vastly more convincing than one you’re developing simply because it’s a cool idea. Out of all the words that you’ll hear from your target demographic, there are five that go a long, long way toward getting you prizes, investors, and partners: “Yes, I’d pay for that.”
Stay Light on Your Feet, Hustle, Enjoy
The word “pivot” has been used enough to become one of the startup world’s biggest inside jokes. But, well, early stage founders should be ready to do it. A huge part of the process for a Startup Weekend team, or any other nascent company, is finding your Minimum Viable Product- the tiniest, lightest thing you can build that will take you on to the next step.
It’s a near guarantee that your MVP will change several times. It’s an hourly occurrence at Startup Weekend. New businesses will often find themselves shedding features that only days ago were core parts of their planned beta. This isn’t always a good thing, but it’s often a necessary one – defend ideas that you think are truly worth keeping, but be ready to listen and to abandon them if evidence goes against you.
Beyond that? Stay busy, stay passionate. First time entrepreneurs can easily get overwhelmed by the work that building a company entails, but those that love what they’re doing, even as they lose sleep doing it, are solid gold. Those personalities showed through at Startup Weekend at 1AM on Saturday and during the final minutes on Sunday. They’re the ones that, win or lose, I fully expect to see at the helm of a startup one day.