Ten Tips for Triumphing at Startup Weekend

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Good for you for taking the entrepreneurial plunge! Startup WeekendEDU promises to be an exhilarating, mind-­expanding, and yes, exhausting experience. Expect to learn about lean startups, about project management, and about working with teammates (most of whom may be strangers). The journey really counts here. And of course, you’ll get to network with others interested in edtech entrepreneurship.

So to help you make the most of it, EdSurge, your handy-­dandy source for what’s happening in edtech, has pulled together the wisdom of some smart folks and compiled this Cheat Code for you. Many thanks to our experts, including:

Ten Tips for Triumphing at StartupWeekendEDU

  1. Bring: several ideas, an open mind, flexibility and an extra toothbrush.
  2. Plan to pitch an idea: This isn’t a spectator sport.
  3. Be willing to morph: if your idea isn’t lighting up people, jump to a team 
that sounds more promising.
  4. Do some homework before you come about the “EDU” part. Expect to 
validate your market.
  5. Learn from the educators.
  6. Use the mentors -­-­ but wisely.
  7. Get to know the judges.
  8. Practice your pitch. Practice your pitch. Practice….
  9. Network: Bring business cards and contact info.
  10. Have fun!

Top Ten Tips for Triumphing at StartupWeekendEDU (extended play version)

1. Bring: several ideas, an open mind, flexibility and an extra toothbrush.

StartupWeekend is a DIY ideafest. Bring raw but interesting ideas. It can be an idea that you’ve tried out on some friends. What you should leave at home: an ironclad determination to find “code monkeys” who will build your vision. You’re in learning mode here: expect to end the weekend with some radically different ideas than the ones you brought with you. And yes, although you are likely to get home to sleep, you’ll be spending a lot of time in a relatively small room-­-so mind your hygiene!

2. Plan to pitch an idea: This isn’t a spectator sport.

Pitching is part of the learning experience: You will learn a lot about your idea and yourself if you are brave enough to stand up and pitch an idea. Ideas love company, so arrive with several. Even if an entrepreneurial enterprise isn’t fully thought out, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pitching. Sometimes, simply hearing others pitch may change or crystallize one worthwhile concept out of two or three in your head.

3. Be willing to morph: if your idea isn’t lighting up people, jump to a team that is sounds more promising.

Past StartupWeekends suggest that between two to three times as many ideas get pitched as wind up with teams. Listen carefully to the rest of the pitches. Who would you enjoy getting to know this weekend? Who has an idea that clicks with what you know about education? Successful entrepreneurs share one particular trait: they are enormously persistent, with a fail-­and-try-again mentality. If your pitch doesn’t win fans, you’ll likely get inspired to rework and improve the idea, or think up a different idea that’s way better. Or you may end up working with such an awesome team during the weekend that you join them. Either way, as long as you’re fully engaged, you will learn--and that is why you’re here.

4. Do some homework before you come about the “EDU” part. Expect to validate your market.

The biggest single failing of edtech entrepreneur wanna-­bes is naïveté about the edtech market. “Education” is not a single market even if it’s all lumped into one Startup Weekend. There are big differences between customers and buying behavior across K-­12, higher education, continuing education and lifelong learning. 
So do a little homework (browser around on EdSurge) or come with allies. Bring an educator, instructor of professor along for the weekend. Let people know you’re attending a SWEDU and find out if you can call, tweet or contact them on Saturday for input. Customer validation is golden: if you can reach a group of educators or students on a Saturday, you will be a very valuable player on any team and make many friends. 
Once your team gets rolling, be ready to validate the idea. If you can’t demonstrate value to customers, the judges will tear you apart. Such validation will improve your idea, too: Justin recalls how a mentor once directed his team to prove its business model could really hold up. “We cold-­called and interviewed a dozen potential ‘customers’ and half of them told us straight up they wouldn’t pay. We ended up retooling our business model and our pitch was much stronger in the end (and the judges commented on how they liked our market validation).”

5. Learn from the educators.

You remember being a student? Guess what: that doesn’t count as “on the ground” experience in the classroom. Customers also have to be willing to pay for products. Use StartupWeekend as an opportunity to meet school leaders and teachers and learn from them. In many cases, they are likely to be your customers and users. And the difference between your perspective and their’s might surprise you. Remember, they are breathing their school and interacting with the “digital natives” every day.

6. Use the mentors -­-­ but wisely.

The mentors can be amazingly helpful. They can also be distracting. Use them thoughtfully. Read all of their bios beforehand and understand their expertise. Proactively reach out to them when you want help in their areas. Mentors will often offer advice on every aspect of your idea: after talking with five or six, you might feel more at sea than when you started. Think of their advice as data points. Remember that when it comes to the actual core problem you’re trying to solve, you and your team probably know more about it than anyone else in the room.


7. Get to know the judges.

The judges will probably be hanging around for part of the weekend prior to the pitch competition, so talk to them! Get their thoughts on what you’re working on.

This isn’t about gaming the system-­-it’s about getting very relevant feedback. If the judges are making themselves available and are willing to give advice, you should definitely reach out to them.

8. Practice your pitch. Practice your pitch. Practice….

The pitch matters. The last thing you want is to spend 54 hours doing everything right, fleshing out an awesome idea and building a sweet prototype only to deliver a mediocre pitch that doesn’t get anyone excited. Start working on the PowerPoint early. Keep refining it through the weekend. Practice delivering your pitch to anyone who’ll listen. The little things matter: pace of speech (don’t go too fast), eye contact, confidence, enthusiasm. Get constructive feedback and keep practicing. If you’re really brave, video yourself. Watching yourself will feel intensely awkward and embarrassing but nothing will drive the points home harder. Also plan for what might go wrong: do you have something to say if your slides have to be rebooted?

There are infinite ways to deliver an effective pitch. Be yourself. Everyone has his or her own style. Go with your strengths and your own personal style. Authenticity counts. Likeability does, too: Who wants to give money to jerk?

Devote one slide to your team: If you can convince the audience that you and your team are the best ones to tackle the problem and you’re worth listening to, then they will be that much more attentive to everything else you say. So start there – convince everyone in the audience that you are the shiznit and grab our attention!

9. Network: Bring business cards and contact info.

The people you meet during StartupWeekend will become a lifelong resource for you. These are future co-founders, employees, employers, mentors, advisors, partners, investors or friends. Carry business cards; share your Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. You won’t want to forget-­-or be forgotten-­-by these people.

10. Have fun!

OK, even though this sounds a bit rah-rah it’s true: enthusiasm will help carry the day. You’ve come to this event to find your passion and figure out what to do about it. Be passionate. As long as you’re enjoying the ride, you’re probably doing the right thing. Besides, these events are as addicting as potato chips: you’ll be back for more!

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