No talk, all action: Madison Startup Weekend gives energy to new ideas

Have you ever read about start ups in a business magazine – I am thinking of Wired or Red Herring – and wondered where the entrepreneurs got their ideas? Social media, payment systems, and microfinance are all new business types that appeared to me, at least, to lie along an unlikely intersection of technology and specialized knowledge. Where, I wondered, do the experts in bleeding-edge technology marry with the needs of real-world ideas? And how do they come up with solutions that are so audacious?

To learn, I am sitting in a large room on the second floor of a technical college in Madison. Around me are 100 or so 20-somethings who have decided that this room is the best place to spend the weekend. Though I’m old enough to be their father, I have also signed on. We are in search of that elusive entrepreneurial spark. Only we don’t know what it is.

That’s what we are here to find out.

The venue is Startup Weekend, an annual (for Madison) foray into the place where technology, ambition, and creativity meet. Funded in part by the Kauffman Foundation and embodying the latest ideas in teamwork, strategy, and technology, its tagline is “No Talk, All Action.”

At Startup Weekend, the ethos is discovery. Within an hour of kickoff, 50 people are lined up to present one-minute – a precisely timed one minute – ideas. There is no limit to the idea. It can be campaign finance reform. A beer recipe app. A language tutorial. Wedding photography. A scientific knowledge database.

One woman sitting near me has been practicing her one-minute pitch under her breath during the entire event. Reading from notes, she makes a nervous pitch that is audacious and original: a social network for would-be philanthropic donors, including tools for discovering and communicating your philanthropic ideas.

Then, after 50 or so ideas are put forth, we vote using sticky dots on a voting panel. The more dots, the more votes.

Campaign reform is the clear winner – but then something surprising, and telling, happens. The ideas need to compete for participants who will develop “ideas” into start ups over a two-day period. The winning ideas haven’t won yet. The leaders are told to take 10 minutes, waiting in specified areas of the room, so that potential participants can find them. This is where the competitiveness of the weekend comes to the fore. The idea leaders who are gaining participants, I note, are not idly waiting for them to come by. They are working the room, making spirited pitches all over again, and coming up with teams of technologists, businesspeople, and spokespeople.

Some of the ideas that seemed so promising by dot count, including the campaign reform idea, don’t have teams. And others, including my own badly pitched idea for a literary map, do gain participants.

After the final teams are pitched, it seems the competitive nature of the weekend is relaxed somewhat. Teams are encouraged to be open to new ideas and to collaborate enthusiastically. I believe in this rhetoric with all my being, but even so I find it hard to relax control over “my” idea. Still, it changes from a literary map to a mobile app, and we call potential users and visit consumers to validate the features.

One of our team is a hardened programmer, and he goes heads-down into his computer with barely a break for meals. He confers briefly with technical mentors who roam the room on Saturday afternoon, then dives back in.

A note on “mentoring,” Startup Weekend style. It is different from mentoring as I know and practice it. In part, this is because there is no time to establish relationships. But it also highlights the competitive nature of the exercise that underpins all the talk of teamwork and collaboration. The technical mentors talk fast, give judgments quickly, and move on. No time for niceties. But then again, it appears that half of them have just survived a Chicago hackathon and have been up for a week. I learn that developers of mobile applications sleep less than tax lawyers in April.



Sunday opens with the lead facilitator urging that the final five-minute presentation be written in the morning and practiced during the day. I am to give the presentation and find myself unusually nervous at the prospect. Is it the time pressure to develop the presentation, the time pressure to give it, or the (to me) newish market, technology, and business model concepts? I rehearse vigorously and then, with 20 minutes to showtime, one of the mentors suggests that half of the presentation is unnecessary fluff. Ouch. Cut. No time to be nervous any more.

We present as a team and I am happy with the overall effort, recognizing that the presentation left out important business elements. Like a pro-forma P&L. Oh well. The technology looks like a million dollars and we understand that the judges are likely to be gear-heads.

Did I mention judges? Five or so stern-faced entrepreneurs and event sponsors. This highlights the ultimate start-up reality. Lots of failures. Lots of gates. Lots of opportunities to learn and start over.

The presentations have varied in quality – some showing technical expertise above others, some showing full-fledged business plans and consumer focus groups, others balanced between business and technology.

The clear leader is the philanthropic idea. The concept itself is audacious, the technology well developed and, surprisingly, the graphics are compelling and elegant.

We congratulate our winners, high-five the others, and run for home.

Lessons learned? Start-up weekends, like start ups, take practice. There are start-up weekends occurring each weekend all over the world. And I for one am determined to learn from this one and, frequent flyer miles in hand, to practice “start-up weekend” via my own brand of “start-up weekend tourism.”

Wait! That’s a good idea …

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