Winning Startup Weekend and Competing In the Global Startup Battle

Startup Weekend is back in town on Friday at the Houston Technology Center. The winning team will go on to represent […]

Startup Weekend is back in town on Friday at the Houston Technology Center. The winning team will go on to represent Houston in the 2nd annual Global Startup Battle during Global Entrepreneurship Week.

With all the recent attention startups have been getting, it’s an exciting time to participate in Startup Weekend and work on creating something new. I’ve participated twice at Startup Weekend, and now help organize the event.  In this post, I share my experiences and offer some suggestions based on past events I’ve attended.

At both events that I participated in, I attended with Dave Cebrero, talented designer friend. In the first Startup Weekend we attended (February 2011), we didn’t come with an idea and joined a team after listening to the participant pitches. Our team came in second place for Street Teachers, a concept developed by our third teammate, Kojo Idrissa. When the next Startup Weekend came around, Dave and I adopted the same approach and didn’t come with an idea. We teamed up with Natasa Lekic, who wanted to create a story-making app for children. Originally from New York, Natasa had decided to attend Startup Weekend to pitch her idea and get a sense of the local startup community. She also had a background in the publishing industry, but she needed help translating the idea into a product.

The three of us began working Friday evening by outlining our expectations for what we wanted to accomplish. We knew we wanted to create a mobile application that would allow children to drag and drop objects (animals, spaceships, etc.) onto a canvas and add other components such as voice or animation. We then delegated roles – Natasa would work on the business and validating our idea with customers, Dave would design, and I would code. By delegating separate roles, we were able to allow each other to work independently on what we felt our strengths were, while discussing our progress occasionally. Nozar Noghani joined us on Saturday and assisted Natasa with customer validation and the business model. With only four people, our team was small but efficient, and we were able to make decisions quickly. We decided to name our team Tapja (a ninja penguin).

Tapja, the ninja penguin!

Sunday afternoon quickly came, and the demo and presentation were ready. We made our way to the auditorium for the pitches. There were some really great presentations and some not-so-great ones. I was surprised that some teams had 4+ developers but no demo.

I cannot stress this enough – if you have more than one developer on your team, you should build a prototype. 

If your project is too complicated, refine the prototype to something that you can accomplish in a weekend, but stay ambitious. The persistence will pay off.

Once the presentations were over and the winners announced, the work was far from over – it was time to promote Houston in the Global Startup Battle. We created a one minute video promoting our concept, and spread the word through social media, local news outlets, and word of mouth to get votes. Tapja ended up placing 3rd in the nation, and 16th worldwide.

Some tips to make the most out of Startup Weekend:

  • Optimize – You don’t need five developers or seven business people. Go with the absolute minimum number of talented people and require everyone to work to their fullest. Our February team consisted of three people, and our November team was only four people. Extra bodies are just dead weight, and can lead to confusion, disagreements, and lack of progress.
  • Delegate – Quickly determine who has what responsibilities, and make sure they’re held accountable for getting their work done. There’s no need to constantly check on each other, but every few hours is reasonable.
  • Design - Find a designer immediately. The judges only see what you present on Sunday, and aesthetics do make an impact. In both Startup Weekends I participated in, I feel that our design put us ahead of the other teams. If you can’t find a designer, don’t worry; the kind folks at Aleberry Creative will be design mentoring this upcoming weekend.
  • Prioritize – You’re not going to build a startup in a weekend. You’re going to take an idea, validate it with customers, build a prototype, and present your findings. Be aware of your long-term vision, but have realistic expectations of what can be completed in the short time frame, especially regarding the prototype. Pick one or two great features that people would pay for and get them working by Sunday.

Startup Weekend can be an immensely rewarding experience if you push yourself to learn and create. What are you waiting for? Register now.

About Hesam Panahi

Hesam Panahi, Ph. D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Bauer College of Business at University of Houston, where he teaches management information systems and entrepreneurship. Hesam is also a Houston Startup Weekend organizer and the faculty organizer for 3 Day Startup at University of Houston. To learn more about Hesam, follow him on Twitter (@hesam) or view his LinkedIn profile.