[Book Review] Startup Weekend: How to Take a Company from Concept to Creation in 54 Hours


Startup Weekend (http://startupweekend.org/) is a global network of entrepreneurship evangelists, who organise weekend-long events to help aspiring entrepreneurs pitch ideas, form teams, develop prototypes and business plans, take customer feedback right at the design stage, and pitch the final results to business experts and potential investors.

Marc Nager is the CEO and co-director of Startup Weekend, along with Clint Nelsen and Franck Nouyrigat. Startup Weekend began in June 2007 and the core team has grown to eight full time and three part time employees, along with a network of over 120 volunteer facilitators and organisers around the world.The 54-hour events bring together developers, designers, marketers, and startup enthusiasts. In some cases, actual apps and startups have been created, and funding has also been received for the startup ideas and teams.

The book does not provide in-depth details on business plan formation and product pivots, but gives a flavour of how these issues are addressed in a typical Startup Weekend. More specific material on variations of the Startup Weekend model in cities around the world would have helped; there are just a few such anecdotes in the book, eg. there may be reluctance to share ideas in the beginning in places like Singapore; there is less trust for sharing ideas in regions such as Eastern Europe.

The material covers best practices, lessons learned, and examples derived from events around the world. The events have helped entrepreneurs understand the importance of trust and empowerment, flexible organisational structures, the power of experiential education, and action-based networking. The events have been shown to inspire, educate, and empower startups, and also galvanise the local startup ecosystem by creating buzz as well as networking ties.


“Startup Weekend” draws on startup literature such as the Lean Startup model by Eric Ries (see my book review), and the work of Brad Feld (see my author interview and review of his book “Startup Communities” here).

“We are currently standing at the beginning of the entrepreneurial revolution,” the authors begin, which is “as significant and world-changing as the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century and Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.”

This global “democratisation of entrepreneurship” is due to six factors: shorter product development cycles, lower costs of building and launching products (thanks to the Internet, mobiles and open source), global growth of investors and incubators, new management models about startups, consumer-driven innovation (beyond government and corporate labs), and rapid adoption of innovations.

The decade 2000-2010 has witnessed a boom in specialised education about startups, and represents the beginning of the entrepreneurial revolution. “Startups are not simply smaller versions of large companies. While companies execute business models, startups search for a business model,” the authors explain.

“We may remember this decade as the time when scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs were integrated into the fabric of society faster than they had ever been before, or when the speed of how companies operated changed forever,” the authors predict.

Event and Impacts

The Startup Weekend event begins with ‘open mic’ pitches on Friday, where attendees describe their best ideas and inspire others to join their team. Over Saturday and Sunday teams are formed and focus on customer development and validation of ideas, practicing ‘lean startup’ methodologies for building a minimal viable product. On Sunday evening teams demo their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts.

One of the success factors of Startup Weekend is that it brings together all the key stakeholders face-to-face, which really improves communication and energy levels. All this is available at a nominal cost for attendees (between $75 and $150 in some cities), which covers meals and other sponsored materials.

Weekends are a good time to bring together aspiring entrepreneurs, since they daydream more on weekends and want to hatch ideas they have been toying with during their regular jobs. Ideas are “a dime a dozen,” so Startup Weekend takes ideas to their next step – validation and execution, leading to a functional startup.

“Trust first, doubt later” is the philosophy of the Startup Weekend, but some entrepreneurs may feel their ideas may get stolen by others if they pitch them openly. “Let go,” the authors advise. Their event format offers people a way to “get out of their bubble” and take the plunge with a “high-energy low-risk way” of trying out ideas.

The requirement is that the pitch for an aspiring entrepreneur last no more than 60 seconds, covering who they are, what problem they address, what the proposed solution is, and who they need in terms of skillsets.

Catchy names and taglines work well here, to help attract the right talent and energy and even pique the initial interest of potential investors. The requirement to finish in less than two days also helps startups understand how to deal with constraints and deadlines via a three-step process: brain-dump ideas, prioritise and refine, and allocate resources within a timeline.

Final entries are judged by customer validation (even a few good phone calls to potential customers will do), business model (revenue streams, differentiation from competition), and execution (prototype or visualisation).

In terms of education, entrepreneurs learn through the act of creating, or experiential education. It helps them go beyond ideas and theory to actually strategising and building. It also helps techies understand the principles of social and business networking, and customer connect.

While there are numerous other networking events for startups, the Startup Weekend goes beyond happy hours or business meetups or speed networking to actual cross-pollination and linkages between makers and doers. Most pitches are about real-world problems and feature people (potential co-founders) who are committed to realising these projects. “You will build long-lasting relationships and possibly walk away with a job or even an investor,” according to the authors.

At the end of the day, entrepreneurs are exposed to a whole range of new skills: ideation, recruitment, team-building, validation, technology trend assessment, design and development.

Entrepreneurs also get face time and even “brutal feedback” with thought leaders, ranging from local to international tech and startup leaders who participate as coaches and judges. Entrepreneurs can join Startup Weekends in other cities as well and pitch their ideas to find potential marketers and funders overseas as well; there are currently over 45,000 Startup Weekend alumni, “all on a mission to change the world.”

The book profiles successful Startup Weekend projects, apps and companies; some of these have been covered in local and international media as well. They include: Memolane (for tracking the ‘memory lane’ of users via content organised according to timeline), Foodspotting (a mobile and desktop app that allows users to find and share the foods they love), BelongingsFinder.org (for disaster victims to identify missing belongings, eg. after the Japan tsunami), TripLingo (for tourists to learn foreign languages), Ming.ly (for managing networking contacts), FashionSpace (fashion aggregator site), and Animotion (smartphone videos).

“Over 36% of Startup Weekend startups are still going strong after 3 months. Roughly 80% of participants plan on continuing working with their team or startup after the weekend,” according to the authors.

A good startup leader has to be a combination of both visionary and worker bee, according to the authors. They should have good ‘pattern recognition’ skills in analysing problems and solutions. “Startup Weekend can help fill in the missing pieces of the entrepreneur’s curriculum,” according to the authors.

Resources and Roadmap

Useful books cited are The Four Steps to the Epiphany (about customer development, by Stephen Blank), Making Ideas Happen (Scott Belsky) and Founders at Work (Jessica Livingston).

The book also identifies other initiatives such as Kaufmann Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Week (www.unleashingideas.org), Ignite (http://igniteshow.com/), Coffee 2.0, Startup Drinks, Founder Dating, Women 2.0, BarCamps, YCombinator, Tech Stars, Startup Labs, and FailCon. (I would also add MobileMonday.net to this list for mobile startups.)

The road ahead for Startup Weekend is to hold more events in more cities, conduct more research in formation of startups, and build a network of co-founders in cities around the world. The entrepreneur movement is getting noticed by media around the world and even being adopted inside big companies.

In sum, the Startup Weekend helps people understand the six key leaps for success: the entrepreneurship leap, co-founder leap, startup leap, funding leap, scaling leap (eg via accelerators), and external growth leap (eg. IPO). It also helps them understand how to make these leaps more often.

Bo Fishback, formerly with the Kaufmann Foundation, even says that Startup Weekend may be the “single most powerful force for good” on planet Earth. “Viva la Revolution! Long live the Startup Weekend Mafia!” the book exhorts.

[Follow YourStory's research director Madanmohan Rao on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MadanRao