We've heard it before: You have a great idea, but you just don't have the time to build it into a sustainable company. Startup Weekend proves that notion false. The three-day event, which has been held in more than 120 cities, has spawned hundreds of businesses—each in fewer than 54 hours. Here's how it works: Participants pitch ideas for start-ups, which are usually (but not always) tech-based, and assemble into teams to build prototypes. Then, on the last day, the teams present their projects to a panel of local entrepreneurs and investors. This month, the co-directors of Startup Weekend—Marc Nager, Clint Nelsen, and Franck Nouyrigat—published Startup Weekend: How to Take a Company from Concept to Creation in 54 Hours, which illustrates each step of the launch process with examples from the many participants who have launched their own companies. Inc.'s April Joyner asked five Startup Weekend alumni for their biggest take-away from starting their companies with a lightning-fast launch.
Bo Fishback didn't intend to pitch at Los Angeles' Startup Weekend in February. But after hearing 30 other men and women deliver pitches, he proposed the idea for Zaarly, a mobile app that would help users looking for specific products or services find nearby sellers and place bids. Over the course of the weekend, Fishback and his team, including eventual co-founders Eric Koester and Ian Hunter, were able to finish an early version of the app. Zaarly, intended to be an online bazaar, ended up winning first place and securing investment from several of the event's judges, including Ashton Kutcher. Since the app's launch in May, Zaarly has amassed some 100,000 users and named Meg Whitman as an advisor. Fishback attributes that momentum to Startup Weekend's quick-start process and vast network: "If the same idea had been executed in a more traditional fashion, it's quite possible that no one would have ever heard of it."
Lesson: Release your product or service quickly to take full advantage of early adopters' suggestions.
By last January, after months of fundraising struggles, Jesse Maddox was desperate for help. He needed money to hire developers for TripLingo, a translation app for travelers. But despite their favorable feedback, the investors he met wouldn't fund him, because he didn't have a team. One investor suggested that he attend an event in Atlanta to find possible partners. There was just one catch: registration had already closed. Thanks to his persistence, Maddox was able to secure a last-minute ticket. The event served as a real-world interview: Maddox was able to see his teammates' design, development, and marketing skills firsthand—and gauge how well they worked together. "It was a great way to quickly vet people," he says. They managed to complete a prototype of the app that weekend, and in the following weeks, four of Maddox's teammates joined TripLingo full-time. In May, TripLingo raised $200,000 from angel investors.
Lesson: Don't put off recruiting others who can help you bring your idea to life.
For months, Alexa Andrzejewski had been hard at work on Foodspotting, an app that would let users photograph and rate their favorite foods. In August 2009, she came to a Startup Weekend event hosted by Women 2.0, a San Francisco organization that supports women entrepreneurs, with the hopes of finding a technical co-founder to develop the app. While she didn't ultimately find a co-founder at the event, what she took away was nearly as valuable. Not only were the other participants enthusiastic about her idea, one investor was so impressed that he offered her seed funding for Foodspotting on the spot. Plus, Andrzejewski was able to consult a range of professionals, from lawyers to marketers to developers, for suggestions, such as strategies for partnering with restaurants. "A lot of ideas we talked about at Startup Weekend are still on the product road map today," she says.
Lesson: Seek feedback from as many people as possible to gain wider perspective on your company's offerings.
Nick Martin didn't originally have the idea for his company, Planely. That may explain why he's never been afraid to turn on a dime. At Startup Weekend Copenhagen in April 2010, he met another participant who discussed the idea of a service that would connect travelers at the airport with people on the same flight. Martin pitched it, and over the course of the weekend, Planely morphed from a travel app aimed at the general public to one aimed chiefly at frequent business travelers. In the past few months, airlines have begun requesting a white-label version of Planely. Martin was initially concerned about diverting his customers to another company's platform. But ultimately, he took a crack at developing the service, which is set to debut in the next few months. "The whole of start-up culture is about not being afraid to fail," he says. "It's more complicated for us, but there are huge benefits from a business perspective."
Lesson: Don't be afraid to experiment—you may find unexpected opportunities.
Kyle Kesterson only registered for Seattle's Startup Weekend in March 2010 at the insistence of a friend. As a toy designer, he was sure he wouldn't fit in among MBAs and engineers. He didn't even bother to show up the first night. When he finally arrived, he found one team working on what seemed like a whimsical pet project: a Tamagotchi-inspired game featuring an animated baby John Stamos. It was actually an experiment in allowing fans to interact more closely with celebrities, and Kesterson's design skills were sorely needed. Kesterson wound up enjoying the experience, and later that year, he and his Startup Weekend teammate Kevin Lenaway founded Giant Thinkwell. Since then, the company has gone through the TechStars accelerator program and released several celebrity-focused games, including a trivia challenge with rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, who hosted a party on Turntable.fm for the game's launch. Kesterson left Giant Thinkwell last month, but he remains a big booster of Startup Weekend. "Once you go a few times," he says, "you get hooked."
Lesson: It takes a variety of skills to build a successful company, so don't undersell what you bring to the table.