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March 18, 2016

5 Things I Learned at Startup Weekend

Fellow Blackstone team member Ben Stone and I recently attended Louisville’s annual Startup Weekend, an intense weekend-long session for aspiring entrepreneurs. The event offered plenty of learning opportunities. Here’s my recap of the event and five key takeaways.

Friday night kicked off Startup Weekend Louisville and in the 54 hours that followed, I pitched an idea for a new startup business, formed an incredible team (including Ben!), and worked on all the initial aspects to get the prospective business off the ground. In just two days, our team conducted a customer discovery, crafted a business plan, developed a revenue model, and built a prototype.

Our idea was a student loan micro-payment app that we called FundMyEdu. On Sunday evening, each team got to pitch their company to a panel of judges. I gave the five-minute presentation for our team and then the judges had three minutes to grill us with questions. Out of the 11 teams that presented, our team won third place and was deemed the crowd favorite!

To say those 54 hours were incredible, fast, memorable, and exhausting would be an understatement. Most of all, in those three days I learned a lot about startups and saw a glimpse of what it would take to run a company. Startup Weekend was such a great experience. Here are the top five things I took away:

swloupitch Pitching the idea on Friday night

1. Don’t let fear stop you from sharing your ideas. When Ben and I arrived at Startup Weekend my plan was to hear the pitches, pick a few favorites, and find a team that would let both of us join. Michael, the Startup Weekend facilitator, started pressuring the whole crowd to pitch an idea and in the last few seconds I gave in. I was nervous going up in front of more than 70 people, only had about 30 seconds to rehearse my pitch in my head, and I figured nobody would like it. After everyone voted my idea was in the top 5 out of more than 30 ideas.

2. Find people with passions that mirror yours. In the rush of recruiting a team, Ben and I were pretty much open to anyone joining us—even those with very little experience.  One key thing we didn’t do was clearly explain the purpose/passion behind the idea. The quickest way to have conflict is to work with people who don’t share the purpose/passion of the business. There was a time during the weekend where our business model and revenue model contradicted the goal of our business, and it became evident that all of the team members were not aligned. On Sunday, we came to the consensus that it was more important that we stay true to the purpose of our application instead of how to make money from it. With help from the mentors, we were able to figure out a revenue model that didn’t compromise our passion.

3. Research, research, and then research some more. Multiple times I felt like our team was focusing too much on the research and discovery and not enough time on building a minimum viable product (MVP). After the presentations, I realized that we were right to focus so much time and energy on the discovery and research. We had a solid target audience that we had validated, we were solving a problem we knew people had, and we had figured out multiple ways to scale the business. We also researched and vetted multiple revenue models and once we settled on one, mapped out revenue and expenses for the first five years. While we didn’t have as impressive of an MVP as some of the other teams, I felt like we had the data to support our decisions and our business model was solid. In the end, we were smart to wait on building until these things were in line.

swlou2 Presenting to the judges on Sunday

4. When presenting, stay confident. There were parts of our business and financial plans I didn’t really understand and our team was unsure of. I made sure I sounded confident in our plan and our numbers and the judges didn’t ask any questions. Believing in the product is crucial to your success and I think the judges could sense I was confident in our business and product. As soon as you start sounding unsure about something, those judging you will become suspicious—about the product, you as the project leader, or worse.  Another key reason to stay confident is it makes you talk louder and stay on tempo. When you lose your confidence, or at least when I do, I become quieter and I start saying “um.”

5. Sleep a lot before hand, because you won’t during. I knew that Startup Weekend lasted all weekend and how long I would be there each day. What I didn’t realize in advance is, despite how exhausted I was each night, my brain would not shut off. I worked late each night and even when I would fall asleep I would wake up every few hours with a new idea I had to write down—I literally slept on my couch with a notebook on my coffee table. In the startup world, I learned that the ideas never stop and it will keep you up at night.

swlou3 The FundMyEdu team
George, Justin, Amber, Angie, and Ben

On Friday, I wasn’t sure how much I would learn at Startup Weekend that I would be able apply in my career but on Sunday night I realized it was much more than I ever expected. I will definitely participate again and highly recommend that you consider it as well. I’m neither a developer or a designer, but was able to use my marketing and project management skills to impact a great team with a great idea.