Jess Bialecki, the 25-year-old dean of students at a New Orleans school, arrived in New York in early February with a one-page document for a business idea. She had been pondering it since the start of the year, wondering how on earth she could move it along.
As a teacher, she had been amazed to see the effort that teachers put into decorating, arranging and supplying their classrooms before the start of each school year. They would agonise over how to arrange bookshelves, what posters to put on the walls and what supplies would best serve their children, all within limited budgets. So, what if there was a website where teachers could share their classroom designs, through pictures and explanatory notes and, even better, click on items they liked and immediately be taken through to the vendor.
It was a fine idea, she thought, but executing it would require a team with an array of abilities she did not have, in website design, e-commerce and marketing. It was not something she could do alone during the evenings and weekends when she returned home from an already gruelling job. And in New Orleans, her friends were mostly teachers.
So she did what an increasing number of aspiring entrepreneurs have done and bought a ticket to a Startup Weekend, the fastest growing of dozens of similar entrepreneurial boot camps. In the three years since its launch, Startup Weekend, a non-profit organisation, has grown to manage 1,200 volunteer organisers running events in 100 countries, and has annual revenues of $4m from ticket sales, sponsorship and gifts. It is the start-up boot camp with the greatest global reach, the most events and the largest number of participants.
The event Ms Bialecki attended was in New York and focused on education. For $100, she would spend an intense 54 hours, starting on Friday evening, in the company of 100 or so people with a similar interest in education and start-ups, seeing how far she could get. The participants were screened to ensure there was a good balance of business people, developers, designers and engineers – some come with an idea, others simply want to join a team.
By Sunday night, after multiple presentations and rounds of judging by her peers and a group of executives and investors, her College Blueprint was judged the best pitch of the weekend, and she was being urged by potential investors to arrange meetings the next week. “After 54 hours, my mind is just spinning,” she said.
Whether or not College Blueprint becomes a formal business, let alone succeeds, this Startup Weekend, like scores of other entrepreneurial boot camps taking place around the world, is part of a new phenomenon in which people get a taste of the start-up life before deciding whether to plunge in.
“Startup Weekend is the best simulation of the creation of a new company that anyone will go through,” says Brad Feld, a venture capitalist, Startup Weekend board member and founder of Tech Stars, an entrepreneurial incubator. “This is a great way to experience it with very low risk. There’s pressure, discomfort, conflict and fatigue and you have to sell your idea. This is what you live when you start a company.”
The story of Startup Weekend is an entrepreneurial adventure in itself. It began in early 2009 in Boulder, Colorado, formed by Andrew Hyde as a for-profit company that charged people a small sum to attend events where everyone worked on a single project and received a kind of stock option.
Later that year an overwhelmed Mr Hyde met Marc Nager and Clint Nelsen, two 23-year-old unemployed marketers from Seattle, and offered the company to them. Mr Nager and Mr Nelsen were soon joined by a young Frenchman, Franck Nouyrigat.
The three revitalised the organisation – turning it into a non-profit and working full-time on the project.
“We can’t even keep up with demand at this point,” says Mr Nager, speaking before heading off to New Zealand for a month to relax. “Our vision is to be the world’s single largest starting point for entrepreneurs.”
Mr Nager dropped out of business school in frustration at the pace of learning. Startup Weekend, he says, offers something different – a highly experiential, intense few hours in which aspiring entrepreneurs learn by doing. On the first night, they pitch ideas to each other and try to gather teams. Managing team dynamics is perhaps the most crucial part of the experience: “65 per cent of start-up failures come down to team issues, co-founder issues,” says Mr Nager. “How do you build a good team? How do you find a good co-founder? Does your spouse support you? Are you in this for a million dollars?”
Participants are encouraged to be open about sharing ideas and are told bluntly that while ideas are everywhere, what is in short supply are good people and good teams to execute them.
Speakers then drop in during the weekend to discuss new ideas and specific aspects of entrepreneurship, whether it is angel and venture financing or the iterative testing of basic versions of products before deciding which opportunity to pursue. The climax is the pitching to investors and entrepreneurs.
The average participant, says Mr Nager, is 32 years old with nine and a half years’ working experience. Just 17 per cent are women, a fact Mr Nager says he and his team are working to change.
Venture capitalists come to scope out new ideas and see how people are using and thinking about new technologies. Charlie O’Donnell, a venture capitalist who judged the New York education weekend, says that attending these events helps him as an investor by allowing him “to see patterns and trends” among start-ups.
Mr Feld says that while “companies may come of it, really you’re giving people the experience so they can understand it”.
One notable success, though, has been Zaarly, an online, buyer-led marketplace. Created at a Startup Weekend in Los Angeles in March last year, Zaarly quickly caught the eye
of investors and within six months had raised $14m and had Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and former CEO of Ebay, on its board.
Greg Gottesman, a venture capitalist at Madrona Venture Group in Seattle, says: “If you are into entrepreneurship and starting companies, this is like crack.”
Mr Nager says Startup Weekend taps into a human desire that transcends cultures. He ran a weekend in rural Malaysia at which the winning idea was a simple bakery.
Startup Weekend, as Mr O’Donnell says, is a “very easy way to dip your toe in, to get a taste of what it’s like to be in a start-up. For some, it’s
not for them. For others, they never look back.”
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