After having had the honor and excellent experience of serving as a judge for New Mexico’s first Startup Weekend held in Santa Fe back in the spring, I knew I wanted to be a part of the experience when it came to Albuquerque this summer. I also knew I wanted the chance this time to be in the middle of the nitty-gritty action. And so my husband, Lawrence, COO, APPCityLife, and I served as coaches when Startup Weekend Albuquerque commenced this past Friday night in Downtown Albuquerque. In fact, our thirteen-year-old, Thomas, who first showed his affinity and interest in starting businesses at the tender age of three, joined us for much of the experience.
The Initial Pitches
There were over 100 people in attendance for the initial evening of pitches, and within a couple of hours, nine teams of varying sizes were formed around the most popular ideas presented. For judges and coaches, Friday night is mostly about standing back and observing the individuals – how the ideas are presented, how the attendees interact with each other, and how the teams are eventually formed. To be honest, it’s one of my favorite parts of a Startup Weekend event. I find myself secretly hoping for a spectacularly bizarre idea to find its way to the pitch microphone, but I am also on the watch for the ideas that inspire deeper thought or immediate inspiration as well as those which already have the makings for a viable business model. I am not disappointed with the wide variety of pitches presented on Friday and am pleasantly surprised to find several with the possibility of excellent traction.
After the coaches, judges, and spectators head home for a good night’s rest, the facilitators and attendees get down to the business of building a business in 54 hours. The judges won’t be a part of the action again until they hear the polished pitches on Sunday, but the coaches are back on deck by mid-morning on Saturday.
We arrive mid-morning, and several of us serving as coaches are in attendance at the first coaches meeting, some of whom bring expertise in business development or graphic design while others offer technical advice or insight from their own experience as an entrepreneur. We are met with instructions on how to best mentor the nine teams who are working furiously in often cramped work spaces. Ask leading questions, we’re told. Don’t tell them what to do; just point in the right direction and leave the choices up to the team. And then we’re turned loose to share our collective wisdom with teams who have spent the morning fleshing out their initial concepts and are now moving on to customer validation.
I meet with several groups, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by one or more of the other coaches. As is so often the case, the advice proffered by the coaches is diverse and even contrary to each other. As I tell one team, “Ok, so here’s the thing. The last coach just threw a bunch of water at you in one direction, and now I’m going to throw some in the completely opposite direction, so you’ll be sloshing around in the pool and have to figure out which waves are the ones you want to ride.” It’s not at all unlike the experiences we often face in the real world of entrepreneurism where we’re often given heated, vociferous, emphatic advice about what is best for our company, but it is up to us to do the gut-check and decide for ourselves what is the best path forward.
As the day progresses, I am impressed by what I see of the teams. There are no slackers here for the weekend – at least none so blatant I notice. Most are readily and willingly pitching in and filling newly defined roles within a team, working quickly to meet the goals.
I am impressed with one young lady, still in college, who has gathered the largest team around her idea – including many talented young developers who work through the night to complete the website in time for Sunday’s demonstration. This young lady already exhibits leadership qualities as she interacts with her team, but I am most impressed with her tenacity in searching out and vetting information and her willingness to come ask questions. More than once she leaves her workspace to hunt me down and invite me back to listen to an idea or to field questions about myriad concepts she is considering. As entrepreneurs, it is so important to not isolate ourselves or spend countless hours searching for an answer that might just be a phone call away if only we’d ask for help. There is no room for pride in this business of being an entrepreneur; asking help is a skill that is vital, and she is using hers well.
As the morning wears on, many of the teams discover holes in their initial idea that forces a pivot, and most quickly arrive at either a variation of the initial idea or at a completely new concept. One team apologizes for having pivoted yet again when I meet with them, but as I listen to the latest twist, it is clear that this time they’ve arrived on a much better plan that has a lot more potential not only for customer acquisition but for filling a unique niche in the market. “Don’t be afraid of the pivot,” I tell them. “It brought you here. Had you stopped, you wouldn’t have arrived upon an idea with a lot more merit than the one you started with.”
By late afternoon, it is finally time to leave our teams while they hunker down and work well into the night – some all night – to finish their work and begin on their final presentations. It is tough to leave, because now I’m invested, rooting for those I’ve helped, and I want to help them see it through. But, as is also true in life, mentoring cannot replace the real work that can only be done by the entrepreneur. And so the coaches leave and wish their teams well, wondering what we’ll find when we return to help them finalize their pitches before their big presentations.
Polishing and Pitches
We return to the workspace on Sunday afternoon, a couple of hours before the final event. The presentations are mostly completed, and now all that is left is the tweaking, practicing and polishing. We have our final coaches meeting and offer up feedback on who we have found to be a standout individual of the weekend. The coaches mention several, and it is encouraging that so many are singled out for praise for myriad reasons – not just those who rose to the top as leaders, but also those whose initial ideas weren’t selected who have enthusiastically thrown their energies into another team as well as those who have worked out of the limelight to create technically challenging pieces of software using completely foreign coding languages.
When the coaches meeting ends, I listen to several pitches, give suggestions where I can, but mostly I just encourage the presenters to relax and enjoy the process. The presentation room fills quickly, and when the pitches start, I find I’m like a nervous parent. I’m rooting for “my” teams, but I’m also rooting for all the participants. They’ve all worked hard and deserve their moment in the spotlight. The pitches go quickly, and we have a few moments to visit with our teams while we await the judges’ decisions. And when the judges return, I cheer those who are named as the finalists and feel a real tug of disappointment for those who didn’t. This is the tough part, but it is also part of the process.
When I tell one of these teams they did a great job, I am told, “Yeah, but we didn’t win.”
“That’s not the point,” I tell them. “The point is that you have skills you didn’t have on Friday night. You spent one weekend learning what some entrepreneurs take years to learn. You discovered whether you like being an entrepreneur or not. And whether you earned one of the top spots or not doesn’t mean this has to be the end of the road for your idea.” Most people do not get funding from the first investor they talk to. Or the second. Or third. Sometimes, but not often. It takes honing in on the message, addressing the pain points, and maybe pivoting yet again. Or even starting over with something new.
The best part is that “not winning” at Startup Weekend really is still winning. Whether a team is named as a finalist or not, the experience is well worth it.