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Startup Weekend – A schedule and plan of action

5 November 2011 One Comment

So you’re going to Startup Weekend and you want to know how to manage your time during the event? Looking for a schedule or an outline of some sort? Well look no further.

After participating and helping organize the February 2011 Houston Startup Weekend, I’ve thought a lot about what a new startup can accomplish in a weekend. As a participant and an organizer I got a great view into how all the teams were spending their time. I felt that, in general, pretty much all the teams (including mine) were spending a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what to do and they had no clear guidance.

Note: Consider this a ‘draft’ blog post. I just wanted to put it in front of people to get feedback and hopefully provide a bit of value. I will be updating the contents of this post over time.

What NOT to spend time on

Here are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind and the discussions I saw teams having last time around:

  • Should I be writing a business plan?
  • Do I need to think through financing?
  • Do I need a marketing / PR strategy?
  • What kind of legal structure do I need?
  • How can I build an architecturally sound application in such a short time?
  • How do I deal with customer support and bug tracking?
  • Do I need to think through a sales strategy?

Inspired by Startup Weekend, I’ve been focusing on two startup projects for the last six months or so. While taking a deep dive into the startup world, I decided to read through several of the most popular startup-related books and blogs. My view now is that all of these things are *completely* useless until you’ve proven that you have an idea worth pursuing. They are especially useless when you only have 54 hours to figure out if your idea is worth pursing. That being said, these things are necessary when you have an idea that you’ve validated is worth your effort to grow and continue building into a real business. The thing is that you’re probably not going to reach this point during Startup Weekend, so my opinions is, why waste your time?

Bringing together what I’ve learned of all the books, lectures, and blogs I’ve been reading, I put together an outline of what I think teams should be focusing on during the next Startup Weekend.
In short, the first thing you need to do is define a problem that people have, then come up with a solution to solve that problem. Then you need to validate that the solution is something that people are willing to spend money on. That’s it. Sounds simple, right?

Honestly, at Startup Weekend you don’t need to market anything (in a traditional sense anyways), do press releases, create a C-corporation or LLC, write a business plan, or write an employee handbook. You don’t need to talk to an accountant, a design firm, SEO expert, or investors. You basically just need to get in front of as many of your potential customers as possible and talk to them. You need to find out if you understand their problem, if they understand your solution, and if they are willing to pay for your solution.

You *may* need to talk to an attorney, but not to set up a business structure. Don’t waste your time getting advice on the differences between all the different types of corporations and partnerships you could choose from. The only thing you’d want clarification on from an attorney is if some aspect of you business model may have certain legal ramifications. For example, if you want to set up a business to crowd-fund investments, you may want to talk to an attorney about the legal regulations on that. There is no sense in building a business model around something that is illegal or doesn’t abide by regulations.

What to spend time on

On the startupweekend.org FAQ ( http://startupweekend.org/about/faq/ ) it lists the three main judging criteria at the end of the weekend as business model, customer validation, and execution. My opinion is that you can demonstrate progress in these three areas as follows:

  • Business Model – Create a Lean Canvas or Business Model Canvas
  • Customer Validation – Show the results of your problem, solution, and product interviews and sign up as many paying customers as you can.
  • Execution – Build a really good high-fidelity mock up or a working Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Here is a summary of what I think you need to accomplish over the course of the weekend:

  • Outline who your customers are, the top 3 problems you think they have, and the simplest possible solution(s) to those problems that you could implement quickly. A Business Model Canvas or Lean Canvas works remarkably well here.
  • Interview potential customers to validate the problem you think they have
  • Create a set of mock ups, narrow in on early adopters, and interview them them on your solution
  • Create a Minimum Viable Product, which implements (as simply as possible) the solution
  • Narrow in on early adopters and interview them, showing them your MVP. Ask them to pay for it up front.

Startup Weekend Schedule Overview

Here is a high-level overview of the schedule I’ve put together. There is a pretty good chance that you will not follow this schedule exactly. Your specific Startup Weekend event schedule, team availability during the weekend, rate of progress, and venue hours will all impact your specific schedule. What I’m offering is a starting point that you can modify to fit your team’s needs.

Before Startup Weekend

  • Buy your ticket
  • Read Running Lean
  • Find a team
  • Prepare yourself for building your Business Model Canvas / Lean Canvas
  • Prepare yourself for building your mockups
  • Prepare yourself for building your product


8:45pm – 9:30pm
– Choose a team

9:30pm – 10:00pm
– Make a set of explicit agreements with your team

10:00pm – 11:00pm
– Do a Business Model Canvas or a Lean Canvas

11:00pm – 11:30pm
– Prepare your problem interview scripts

11:30pm – 12:00am
– List out potential customers


8:00am – 11:00am
– Do as many problem interviews as you can
– Set up development environment

11:00am – 11:15am
– Pivot or Persevere

11:15am – 2:15pm
– Create mockups
– Narrow in on early adopters
– Prepare solution interviews

2:15pm – 5:15pm
– Do solution interviews

5:15pm – 5:30pm
– Have the ‘Pivot or Persevere’ meeting again

5:30pm – 12:00am
– Build Minimum Viable Product
– Narrow in on early adopters
– Prepare MVP interview scripts
– Prepare presentation


8:00am – 2:00pm
– Finish MVP
– Do MVP interviews and sign up as many people as you can

2:00pm – presentation deadline
– Update presentation

Startup Weekend Schedule Details

Here are the details of my proposed weekend gameplan:

Before Friday

Buy your ticket

Read Running Lean
Purchase Running Lean by Ash Maurya and read through as much of it as you can. This book is a practical, step-by-step guide to running a “Lean Startup”. It is rooted in the Lean Startup methodology popularized by Eric Reis. There are several other good books out there that I think you should read as well, but if you only have time to read one book, it should be Running Lean. If you have time to read a few more, these are the ones you should read, in this order:

– Running Lean – http://www.runningleanhq.com
– Business Model Generation – http://amzn.to/rDfCwg
– The Lean Startup – http://amzn.to/v5ruBc
– Four Steps to the Epiphany – http://amzn.to/tGQR9Z

Find a team
If you can organize a team before the event, you’ll be able to hit the floor running (remember, no existing product allowed, so don’t start building your product before

Prepare yourself for building your Business Model Canvas / Lean Canvas
Your two options are two go with the Business Model Generation book, which shows you how to create a Business Model Canvas, or the Running Lean book that shows you how to create a Lean Canvas. I reference both of these books below. I recommend getting Running Lean. Print out some templates and walk through one or two “existing” businesses and do some canvases so you get the general idea.

Prepare yourself for building your mockups

  • Become familiar with a wireframing tool. I like using Keynote on the Mac. You can use PowerPoint as well.
  • Purchase any wireframing stencils you might need (http://keynotekungfu.com)
  • Practice building a mockup or two

Prepare yourself for building your product

  • Development environment (IDE, version control, databases, libraries, build scripts)
  • Deployment / Hosting environment (Amazon, Heroku, WordPress, etc.)
  • Domain name and DNS mappings (if you already have an idea / brand in mind)


8:45pm – 9:30pm
Choose a team
This is one of the hardest parts, so I would recommend forming your team before you come to the event if possible. At least try to find one other person that you know to come to the event with you.

9:30pm – 10:00pm
Make a set of explicit agreements with your team
I like this set of agreements:
– Nobody on the team has to continue working on the startup after the weekend
– Anybody can run with the idea on their own after the event is over if they want. More specifically, if different people in the group don’t want to work together but want to separately pursue the idea, they are free to do so.
– Whoever pays for something (like a domain name) owns it
– All documentation, source code, materials, etc. will be accessible by the entire team after the event, indefinitely.
– Any money that the team makes off of the product over the course of the weekend will be evenly divided among team members. The money will be divided before the end of the event.
– After the weekend, a followup meeting will be set up to determine who wants to continue working together if anybody. All team members will be invited to that meeting.

E-mail this out to everyone on your team, and have them e-mail back with “I AGREE to these terms”.

10:00pm – 11:00pm
Do a Business Model Canvas or a Lean Canvas
A Business Model Canvas is a tool to quickly communicate a business idea without having to write out an entire business plan. It is defined in the Business Model Generation book that I listed above. The Business Model Canvas is a bit generic in that it can be used to outline any kind of business. In Running Lean, Ash Maurya outlines a modified version of the Business Model Canvas that is more relevant to online businesses. The best advice I can give you here is to read through the appropriate sections in Running Lean and do a Lean Canvas. Here is the template for the Lean Canvas:

[Click on image to see full size]


11:00pm – 11:30pm
Prepare your problem interview scripts
The focus of the problem interview is to go to people who are potential customer and validate that they actually have the problems you think they have. The script should be about 30 minutes long. You should introduce yourself and the format of the interview, then ask some questions to help categorize the customer. Afterwards you list out what you think are the top 3 problems they’re having and ask if those problems resonate with them. Find out how important those are to them and have them rank them. If there are other problems that are more important, have them clarify what those are. Then have them talk about each of the problems and just sit back and listen. Don’t try to sell them anything (yet). You can find advice for how to run these by searching online. The book Four Steps to the Epiphany gives great guidance in this area, and Running Lean gives you sample scripts that you can use.

11:30pm – 12:00am
List out potential customers
Start with people at the venue, because if your potential customer base is in the building, then you can run through your interviews more quickly. If you must, get out of the building and go talk to people directly outside, at coffee shops, or in your personal network. If you know who your potential customers may be and have some personal relationships with them, you could invite them to come to the venue. Interviews are better done in person, but if your customers are people in other geographies, then try to interview them through video-chat.


8:00am – 11:00am
Do as many problem interviews as you can
Try to interview 5-10 people. Divide an conquer with your team. Do the interviews in pairs with one person interviewing and the other observing and reminding the interviewer if they forgot about something. Take notes as the customer talks and compare notes afterwards.

Set up development environment
The developer(s) on your team should start getting their development environment prepared. If you have enough people to run the interviews and prep the environments at the same time, then you’re in good shape. If not, then you need to be very efficient with your time.

Remember, the key isn’t to have perfect production-quality system. You just want to get something functional up as fast as possible. If you can use a content management platform or blogging platform to implement a simple version of your product, do that. You don’t have to build everything from scratch. Try to use WordPress or Drupal. If you’re using a web framework (RoR, PHP, Django, Grails, etc) then get everything set up for development and deployment. Things you need to think about are:

– Version Control – github works well
– Deployment environment – heroku
– Domain name registration / DNS mapping – Dotster or GoDaddy
– IDE setup (create new project structure)
– Database creation
– Download any third-part libraries and tools

If you don’t have any developers on your team, then just get your system ready to do mocks. I find it best to use Keynote or PowerPoint along with a set of stencils ( KeynoteKungFu is good – http://keynotekungfu.com ).

11:00am – 11:15am
Pivot or Persevere
Have a meeting with your team to decide whether you should move forward with this idea or change it. If you feel that you’re on to something because you’re getting consistent and positive feedback on the problem from your interviews, then move forward with your mockups and solution. If not, you need to “pivot” and define a new problem that you can validate. Hopefully you weren’t so off base that you need to start from scratch. You should be able to tweak your canvas and your scripts a little bit, hit up a few more people, and quickly feel comfortable about your new direction.

11:15am – 2:15pm
Create mockups
Have one part of your team pull up Keynote or PowerPoint and get a set of stencils (like Keynote Kung Fu – http://keynotekungfu.com/ ) and start whacking away. Keep it simple. Try to just have 3-4 mockup screens that show your solution to the problems you’ve defined. Leave off all the bells and whistles.

Narrow in on early adopters
While one part of the group is working on the mockups, have the other part of the group narrow down your list of interviewees and create a profile of the type of person who is likely to pay for your product before it is fully featured. They are the people who will put up with the problems of an early product and are willing to pay full price because it solves a problem that they really need solved. Also screen a few more people that fit your “early adopter” definition and get a solid list of 7-10 people.

Prepare solution interviews
After the mockups are ready, create a new script that reiterates the problems and shows your solution. Ask the interviewees if they feel that the solution you’re showing them solves their problem.

2:15pm – 5:15pm
Do solution interviews
Run another set of interviews with your new list of potential early adopters. Listen and get feedback. Keep notes on their thoughts and suggestions. Remember divide and conquer to get these done as quickly as possible.

One of the most important outputs of this meeting is to find out what someone might pay for this. An old trick from Steve Blank (author of Four Steps to the Epiphany) is to first ask them, “Would you use the product if it were free?”. Then ask them, “Would you use the product if it were $1,000,000?”. Finally say, “What would you pay for it?”. The price you ultimately go with should be a price where some people say they would pay, and other say they wouldn’t.

5:15pm – 5:30pm
Have the ‘Pivot or Persevere’ meeting again
If you’ve gone through all the problem and solution interviews and have determined that your solution doesn’t really solve a problem that people are willing to pay for, you may have to pivot to a different solution or different problem. If that’s the case, you may have to start the process all over. There is no sense in building a product that people aren’t willing to pay for. Don’t feel obligated to move forward with building something that people won’t pay for just so you can show a product during the demo. Again, hopefully you weren’t so off base that you have to start completely from scratch. You may be able to adjust things a bit on your canvas, scripts, and mockups then go run a few more solution interviews to validate that your new direction will work.

5:30pm – 12:00am
Build Minimum Viable Product
Start building your Minimum Viable Product. This is the minimum set of features you need to solve the problem. Remember, you’re focusing on providing something to early adopters. There are people who are willing to pay full price to get early access to your product, while still dealing with bugs and lack of robust features. Don’t go overboard. Build an app that only has 3-4 screens and does little more than what you showed in your mockups. If you’re questioning whether a feature, button, tab, image, or text should go in, leave it out. If its not a core part of solving the problem that your customers have identified, leave it out. For example, you don’t have to have build functionality for things like online billing, security, email responders, or search unless its core to your product.

If you don’t have the programming capabilities on your team, and nobody knows how to configure use a content management system (like Drupal) or blogging platform (like WordPress) to implement your solution, then I would refine the mockups to make them more high-fidelity. Make them look as close to what they will look like on the screen. Make the buttons and links on the mockup be anchors to other pages in your Keynote or Powerpoint presentation, so you can actually click on them and you can see the navigation.

Narrow in on early adopters
Again, you need to take the list of people you interviewed and cull through it to eliminate people who don’t just “get it”. If you have to push to convince them of the merits of your product and the solution, then they’re not your early adopters. Adjust your profile of what an early adopter looks like based on the results of your solution interview and then update your list with as many people as you can think of that would fit that profile. Hopefully you can list 10s or 100s of people that might fit your profile.

Prepare MVP interview scripts
Your going to prepare one more set of scripts. You’ll describe the problem again, but this time you’re going to show them the MVP you built when you talk about the solution.

Prepare presentation
Remember the judging criteria: Business Model, Customer Validation, Execution. Here is the order in which I would do the presentation.

  • Problem – Describe the problem that your customers have. No bullet point slides here. Perhaps show pictures or screenshots that describe the problem and existing solutions.
  • Execution – I think the important thing to do is to demo your product or mockups first. No powerpoint slides here. Practice your presentation workflow so you don’t waste time.
  • Business Model – Next you want to summarize your business model. You probably shouldn’t show your canvas, because its too much to read during such a short presentation, but quickly go over the key parts.
  • Customer Validation – Finally, you want to talk about the result of what you learned about your customers through your interviews over the course of the weekend. Talk about any money that you made and what the profile of you early adopters looks like. Talk about how what you learned reinforces the business model you just described.


8:00am – 2:00pm
Finish MVP
Keep coding…

Do MVP interviews and sign up as many people as you can
At the end of this interview ask the interviewee if they want to sign up for early access right now. If you’re not sure you’ll continue with the idea, just get their contact information. Assuming you know you’re going to continue with your business, collect the money on the spot.

2:00pm – presentation deadline
Update presentation
Tweak and update your presentation as the MVP is finalized.

Good Luck!

One Comment »

  • niloofar ghotbi said:

    hi may i have an email contact with you please. I need some basic information about how to start an Start up weekend if poosible. your advice will be appreciated.