Startup Weekend: Five Tips How to Ship

I was a coach at Seattle Startup Weekend on Saturday. Thanks go to Madrona Venture Group’s Hakon Verespej for the invite — it was a lot of fun! And congratulations go out to LilyDrive, a startup I coached, for the win.

Watching people build their ideas is a wonderful experience. I’ve gone through Startup Weekend myself: I participated in the Los Angeles 2009 event, and learned a lot about working with a team in a time compressed environment.

This advice is a bit late for Seattle, but there’s hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of other Startup Weekend events going on during the next few weeks. They need help. We should coach or do our own startup. Here’s a few tips.

Put together a schedule

What you don’t do is almost more important than what you do.

54 hours may seem like a lot of time, but it isn’t. When you have a team of seven people arguing about the second or third pivot 5pm Saturday, you’re going to look really stupid come Sunday afternoon without a coherent pitch deck.

Here’s the schedule I would follow:

  • Within an hour: Have a complete team.
  • Friday night: Have a domain name, Twitter account, Facebook page and any other social media ready to go. Starting scheduling tasks around the cheat sheet in this folder.
  • Saturday morning: Start sketching ideas and coding. Start validating the idea through social media and Google Docs or Survey Monkey polls.
  • Saturday evening: Start your deck.
  • Sunday noon: Practice your deck.

Your team will always be short on time. What you don’t do is almost more important than what you do. Drawing out wireframes on paper instead of using software is one task I would consider doing differently. It’s important that your prioritize your needs crisply, and figure out the right level of effort. The demo and pitch deck is about good enough, not great.

Have the right team

Balance is very, very important for delegating tasks.

The team I was part of was wonderful, but it was overloaded with marketing and project managers and short on engineers. When it came time to do the things that startups do — you know, write code, design, register domain names — it ended up the responsibility of me and another guy that could write code, and a couple of people were sitting around or left to join other teams. We really weren’t balanced.

The Dave McClure model of hacker, hustler, and designer works because the team needs to have the right pieces. Having a visual designer that understands user experience is especially important, because a good looking demo and deck can hide a lot of flaws. If I were to build a team today, I would recruit one hybrid designer, two or three engineers, one marketing person that can write copy, and two or three generalists that can go out and talk to people. Balance is very, very important for delegating tasks.

Team chemistry isn’t important as you would think. It’s only 54 hours. You aren’t working with these people for the rest of their lives — they should likable enough so you can get through the weekend. If you need to, you can “fire” them quickly.

Use existing tools

Your idea doesn’t have to scale to millions of users, it has to work well enough for the demo.

It’s much easier when you have a starting point.

Build a great looking prototype today is much easier than a few years ago. We didn’t have frameworks like Twitter Bootstrap and Foundation, and there weren’t very many open source social networks and other tools.

When I was talked with LilyDrive, I suggested all kinds of ways to leverage other people’s code to build their idea as quickly as possible. WordPress plugins with easy to change code, Chrome extensions that are open-sourced and flat HTML pages that could be  designed quickly  all came up during the conversation. They went simple with a HTML button and landing page, because it demonstrated the concept clearly.

Another team repurposed open source code to quickly build their idea, so all they had to do was turn it on.

Your idea doesn’t have to scale to millions of users, it  has to work well enough for the demo. If it’s an idea worth pursuing, you can rip it apart and build it again.

Find advocates

Since most of the coaches are startup types themselves, they might be willing to help.

Ask for help, you just might get it.

I talked to a few teams, but LilyDrive was the idea that resonated with me — it helps non-profits by attaching filtering technology to my content so people can donate to causes they are familiar with.

During the conversation. we talked through several personas, and I was the closest to a publisher persona because I could see putting their technology on this blog. They worked on the technology on their side on Saturday. I volunteered to write an article about Startup Weekend because I think it’s such a cool idea. So you could say I was their first customer.

This is a lesson for other Startup Weekend founders: research the coaches and figure out how they really can help you. They might be able to help in ways like I helped LilyDrive. There are no rules. The startup world will never be fair, and you have to seek every advantage you can get.

You never know where your advocates are going to come from. Since most of the coaches are startup types themselves, they might be willing to help.

Be laser focused

You don’t have to have every page completed, you need just enough to tell a  story.

Showing one use case effectively is good enough. Your pitch is only a few minutes, and the coaches aren’t going to go down every user flow. They will ask more questions around the business model and potential pivots than asking if you have the Lost Password screen done.

Successful startups are laser-focused on their idea, and anything that distracts them from it, they ignore.

And remember, have fun! That’s why you did it, right?
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