Lessons from Startup Weekend Santa Cruz
So we finished up at Santa Cruz’s first ever Startup Weekend. The focus was on sustainability and social impact and boy, did we nail it. Startup Catalyst led teams took out First Place, Third Place and Honorable Mention while Second Place had some excellent guidance from another Startup Catalyst veteran of Startup weekends. The other teams pitched some amazing ideas too so overall a huge success and a lot of people commented that the energy and outcome of the Startup Weekend would have been totally different without our ragtaggle band of Aussies. After the fervor of the awards ceremony and after party, I took some time to articulate the lessons I’d learned this weekend and how they fit with what we’ve been told over the trip.
1. Write down your mission first.
Mission, vision, purpose, whatever you want to call it. If you’ve found a problem, identify it succinctly and figure out exactly what it means for you. People have amazing tech ideas for what they want to make and they clinge to them like their life depends on it. It can destroy teams, hold back progress and make you feel crap when people don’t agree with you. But if you have an overarching mission, you can pivot around the original idea but still point to the same mission you are trying to achieve. It’s like following a compass bearing.
In my case, I want to fix farming, make agriculture more sustainable and less detrimental. This is a legitimate problem and a succinct mission that can be expressed in two words, one of which is too colourful to use here. As much as I love the solution of having everyone adopt aeroponics, aquaponics or even standard gardening, that was only going to work for some people. We also identified problems within the mission that could use a different solution. So we pivoted and kept pivoting until we reach an end point that worked well. Having a mission also gives people the courage to stop the direction they’re heading in if it violates their values and mission statement, which is what actually helped the team that won. Additionally, having that mission in place can give very good insight into the kind of specific market fit needed for validating an idea. We just had to think of the vision we had and who would believe in it and a very detailed set of characteristics fell out that led us to the customer validation we needed.
2. Use the mission and your values to choose a team
Part of what makes a startup truly successful and resilient in the long term is having a cohesive team of compatible people with shared values. In fact, as noted by the guys at VMWare, the team is much more important than the tech when acquiring a startup. Although this seems really obvious at first, people always appear to struggle. Common issues are taking on more people than the team leader can feasibly wrangle based on their experience or what the team needs. Another is keeping people whose values and vision for the project are found to deviate significantly such that it impacts the work you can get done. Finding the courage and finesse to let someone go or ‘fire’ a team member is not something that comes easily for most.
3. Steel your resolve because if you’re going to do great things, you can’t give up.
Startup Weekends are fairly high pressure, especially if you’ve emerged as team leader. You’re responsible for guiding the team’s actions or inactions, spearheading validation and making key decisions that will affect the business’ final incarnation and its success. The number of times I wanted to pack it in, disband the team, not do a pitch and just give up on the idea could be counted on one hand but were so unexpectedly overwhelming given how passionate I am about the business idea. Turning back to the mission in times of doubt and difficult made all the difference as well as accepting that sometimes things don’t always go as planned and to weather the storm anyway. As Tammy from DropBox noted, do things that make you uncomfortable because the mental resilience that comes from it will keep your startup alive. And there are times at the StartupWeekend that are about as uncomfortable as it comes. Talking to strangers, letting go of an idea to pivot, pitching in front of people, getting roasted by judges; push past these experiences, because even if you don’t learn anything new from them, they certainly build the type of character required to run a startup.