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Startup Weekend Reno – Playing Entrepreneur Part 2

I was asked to be part of the organizing team for Startup Weekend Reno 3, which took place November 21-23, 2014.  It was really a great experience: working with a fun group of talented people, engaging with the local entrepreneurial community, and rewarding beyond expectations to see what the teams accomplished and how much they learned from the experience.

I’ve previously written about the idea of “playing entrepreneur.”  Startup Weekend clearly falls into the category of “play.”

One thing I really like about Startup Weekend is that they don’t pretend to be anything else.  They admit up front that only ~12% of the teams that form during the weekends continue on with their project, and that the real purpose of the event is to spend a weekend getting a feel of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.

And boy do they get a feeling for it!

After pitching ideas the first evening, teams form around the most popular ideas.  I’ll admit, I was interested by a few of the ideas pitched Friday night, but nothing really blew me away.  A few were ideas that are already being done, some seemed way to general, and others just didn’t seem like big enough opportunities.

Thus, I wasn’t really surprised about the ideas that were picked.  I also didn’t have any strong opinions about the ideas that were picked vs the ideas that weren’t.

What really blew me away was the progress that the teams made over the weekend.  Because I was also asked to be a judge, I didn’t interact with the teams throughout the weekend, I just got to see the final results on Sunday evening.

Teams really embraced the process and went out and did the work.  They interviewed potential customers, ran surveys, built MVPs, had working websites, and  worked with the coaches and mentors to refine their ideas.

They all played, and they played hard!

In the end, while all the teams were winners in my book, Startup Weekend is a contest and there is a winner.  I must admit, I never would have guessed, right up through the pitches, who the winner would be.

The Mobile Brake Service, a team that plans to provide brake services at your location, took first prize.

The idea was pitched by a group of Reno residents, one a local detective and the others local car mechanics, that had only heard of Startup Weekend by chance a couple days before the event.  They knew of mobile equipment that was available for doing brake service, but didn’t really have an idea of how to get started turning this into a business.

They got the votes and a few other participants from the weekend decided to work with them.  Over the course of the weekend they interviewed over 20 people about the service, ran an online survey, worked with the coaches and mentors, developed a financial plan for what they would need to get started, developed a pricing strategy, and thought through the various concerns potential customers might have (for example, they still plan to have a physical location so customers know they can go somewhere if something goes wrong).

In the end, they deserved the recognition for the work they did and I believe they are well on their way to starting a real company.  The fact that they didn’t end up with technical people on their team to start building the service, but they did go out and talk directly to potential customers, shows the power of concentrating on “customer” rather then “product” when analyzing a business opportunity.

So, what made this “exercise” in “playing” entrepreneur so successful.  I started thinking about this after the weekend.

Enthusiasm and energy were a given.  The organizing team was enthusiastic, the participants were enthusiastic, and everyone put their all into it over the course of the weekend.

The ideas felt secondary.  About half of the participants pitched ideas on Friday night and the favorites were picked.  No hard feelings, and as I mentioned, none stood out to me the first night as “amazing.”

Two things really did stand out to me though.  First was how everyone embraced the process and second was the coaches/mentor (ok, patting myself on the back because it was my job to put together the coaching team).

By embracing the process, the participants got the most they could out of the weekend.  They knew they were playing, and they played hard, they played fair, and they played for fun!

And the coaches and mentors, real entrepreneurs and business people from the local community, volunteered their time and expertise to assist and push the teams to be all they could be.

It was really important that the coaches embraced the “play” themselves.  By the time they showed up, the ideas were picked and the teams were working.

They were there to push the teams farther forward and not to push them back.  The 14 coaches that participated did just that!

As a mentor, it can be tempting to ask “big picture” questions, but it’s important to ask yourself if that is what’s really going to help the participants with the weekend exercise.  Our group did an amazing job of inspiring and pushing the teams without getting bogged down.

I also have to tip my hat to the entire organizing team.  Without their work, enthusiasm, and expertise these events would never happen, and would never be the successes that they are.

It was very rewarding for me to work with such a diverse group of folks and watch as each of our areas of expertise added to the execution of a very productive weekend.

Looking forward to 2015!