Startup Weekend Recap: The “Secret” Ingredient

Startup Weekend New Haven 2011 was an amazing event – congratulations to everyone involved, and all of the teams formed. Our top three teams were as follows:

First: Shuga Trak (Team Members: John Fitzpatrick, James McFarland, Cliff Hayashida, Marianne Pantalon, Michael Pantalon, David Rhodes, Diego Scatalini & Harvey Zar) – A new way for teens and parents to manage diabetes.

Second: Merit Booster (Team Members: Keshav Patel & Rajesh Patel) – A platform for youth excellence. (Also the “Team Choice” award winners!)

Third: SociaBO (Team Members: Brian Lynn, Brad Armstrong, Philip Gager) – A dating app which leverages groups of friends to make connections.

After such a huge effort by so many people, I felt the need to write a recap of the event to make sense of what happened.

My take is that part of the reason the event was so successful (14 teams formed over the weekend) and productive has to do with some of the realities of the “startup” process.

Startup Myths
Starting a company can be tough, lonely work. Can be. Sometimes people even want it to be.  But it doesn’t have to be. Among the strange beliefs we have about “startups” (e.g., they are glamorous), there are two I particularly dislike:

- Your “average” startup star sprang forth fully formed,

- It takes a brilliant idea to succeed at a startup, and

- The best startups and entrepreneurs never fail.

Even really, really smart people have a tough time winning at a startup – and most successful products differ significantly from the original idea that got them going.  But the entrepreneurial process is much, much easier when it is undertaken within a community.  From trends like Agile or Extreme Programming to Customer Development, we’ve slowly been unpacking some of these untruths – “Fail Fast” has become a rallying cry.  But not yet a pillar of how ecosystems function.

At the end of 2010, I gave myself a goal – help create 11 startup companies in New Haven in 2011. The reason was pretty self-serving: my guess was that it would be more fun if I was working around lots of other startup people. And that it would probably make doing a lot of things easier.

The Impact of Creating Community

So we formed a team of organizers, and tried an experiment called Startup Weekend in New Haven this November, which turned out to have a broader impact than we expected.  On the face of things, the event was a business plan competition – but in reality was a startup-creating hackathon-like contest reminiscent of efforts like HackHaven or area meetups.  Points weren’t awarded for talk, or perfection.

Mentor John Seiffer talks with participants during Saturday's brainstorming session.

Startup Weekend New Haven also had another level – the formation of a real-life, open, face-to-face community effort supporting ventures and embracing some the inherent messiness of team and idea formation.  About 80 people entered the weekend, and 14 teams emerged – with no barriers to entry other than first come, first served.  You didn’t have to apply, or meet specific criteria.  You only had to get involved, and open up to the process.

And we found that it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy – create an open platform where people of all kinds can open up and work together, and the community ends up supporting ideas, caring about their success.  And as a result, you end up with momentum that one person could never create all on their own.

Startup Weekends are weekend-long, hands-on experiences where people of all backgrounds and varying experience levels can come together to test the viability of an idea through a trying challenge similar t0 what every startup goes through. The challenges are real, and so is the reward.

And the weekend gave our community a first-hand peek into how you can dispel damaging myths of the startup process.

Community = Success

Community = Success – it may be part of the new math.  The facts bear that equation out.

Over 150 people were involved in the weekend, either as participants, organizers, sponsors, speakers, judges, mentors, or just volunteers. 80 participants registered from 7 states (CT, NJ, NY, MA, OH, RI, VA). Support from 17 sponsors – Independent Software, the Grove, EDC New Haven, United Illuminating,

Startup Weekend participants collaborate during lunch on Sunday.

Wiggin & Dana, the Entrepreneurship Foundation, Fiondella Milone and Lasaracina, Bad Girl Ventures, Launch Capital, Southern Connecticut State University, Start Community Bank, Elm City Market, Quartet, Funding Post, CTC, and CVG – made the event possible.  Our organizers included Slate Ballard of The Grove (@slateb), John Seiffer of the Angel Investor Forum (@betterceo), Jacob Galloza and Anne Gatling Hayes, both of the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven, Mike Morris of Recdesk (@Mikeymo), Mike Roer of  The Entrepreneurship Foundation , Lisa Burns from AIGA (@lburns24), and myself, representing Independent Software (@derekkoch).

The aftermath has produced a cohort of people who are ready to take the next step.

Conclusions
In the end, Startup Weekend New Haven led us to some powerful conclusions about how an ecosystem works, and how to make it more vibrant:

1 – Don’t Create Startups – Create Opportunities to Team Up and Create: If you bring people together for enough quick bursts of “launching” ideas as informal teams, you’ll get some percentage that go on to be startups. Teams with kernels of products are a key ingredient to successful startups.

2 – Learning is Crucial to Startup Formation: Whether the learning is about customer needs, or about the entrepreneurial process, or is centered on developing new technical skills, the learning process fuels ideas. Tinkering, hacking, woodshedding – whatever you call it, learning is a crucial ingredient to idea formation.

3 – Avoid Exclusivity: You don’t need to be an ‘entrepreneur’ in order to participate! So many different types of people end up having success in startups that there’s no formula for ‘who you should be’ or ‘who you should know.’

What comes next? Across Connecticut more Startup Weekends are launching (Storrs, Stamford, and again in Hartford and New Haven). But we’re also launching new initiatives in New Haven to continue these efforts – Launch Haven (to continue to provide momentum to the community of entrepreneurs and teams), StudyHall (to encourage 100 people to learn to code in 2012).

Startup Weekend New Haven Press Coverage: “Startup Weekend New Haven Gives ‘Rapid Start to New Businesses” - New Haven Register
“New Haven Hosts Its First Startup Weekend” - Your Public Media
“Start-Up Weekend Winners” - Conntact.com, Connecticut’s Business Address
“Startup Weekend in New Haven a Grand Success!” - Start Community Bank
The Innovation Scene” - The New Journal

About derekkoch

Derek is CEO and Founder of Independent Software. Independent Software’s mission is to “help entrepreneurs win”; the company works with early-stage ventures to build new web and mobile software products, place talent through the A100 software apprenticeship program, and access the statewide startup community through the company's online magazine, The Whiteboard. Derek and the company also partner with such organizations as UP Global, Startup America, CTNext, the Grid, and the Connecticut Technology Council, Derek works to create and advance initiatives that help entrepreneurs manage and lead successful startup ventures rooted in Connecticut. Derek holds a master's degree in Management from Northwestern University's Kellogg School. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and their two sons.

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