William Lyon Software, technology, startups, etc...

Reflections on StartupWeekend Missoula 2013

This past weekend I spent 54 hours with some great developers, designers and business people at Startup Weekend Missoula 2013 (SWM2013). For those who don't know, Startup Weekend is a 54 hour event (Friday evening to Sunday evening) "where developers, designers, marketers, product managers and startup enthusiasts come together to share ideas, form teams, build products, and launch startups!" These events are held all over the world and the first Startup Weekend in Montana was January 18-20 in Missoula. I attended as a developer and I'd like to share my personal reflection of the weekend and offer some advice for those thinking about attending a Startup Weekend.

I had a blast! My team won 3rd place for our work on GearSurf.com. But more importantly I had the opportunity to meet so many great like-minded people. I'm very grateful to all the event organizers who helped make this possible, all the coaches/mentors who were willing to donate their time and expertise, and everyone at Startup Weekend.


The big event on Friday is the initial pitch. These are 60 second presentations that anyone can give to try to convince participants why we should work on their idea. There were 35 pitches at SWM2013 (we had about 120 participants). I loved hearing everyone's ideas and the excitement of building teams. Before the pitches began we had the opportunity to hear a keynote delivered by Greg Gianforte. Greg founded RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, Montana which was sold to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion. Greg's estimated 20 percent stake of RightNow was worth $290 million at the time of the deal. I only mention that because Greg's talk focused on Bootstrapping your startup. Specifically, how he built his business without (for the most part) taking venture capital money, resulting in higher ownership rates for the founders throughout the life of the company. This concept really resonated with me and set the tone for the weekend. With every potential business idea I found myself thinking, "Could this be bootstrapped? What is the cost structure? How long would it take for break-even revenue to start coming in?". Throughout the weekend, as we formed the business model for GearSurf any decision we made was framed by the concept of Bootstrapping. The other part of Greg's talk focused on the benefits of operating a tech company in Montana. If you think recruiting talented engineers to work in Montana is impossible, Greg has proved otherwise. Quality of life in Montana can't be beat and talented people are more than willing to live and work here.


Saturday morning we spent some time figuring out team dynamics and individual skill sets. As a developer, I immediately wanted to identify who would be writing code so we could identify complimentary skills and the stack we would be working with. There is a lot of work to go through before any development actually begins, however. An idea for a startup is just that, an idea. What problem are you solving? Does this problem actually exist? How are you going to solve this problem? Are people willing to pay you to solve this problem? If not, how else can you generate revenue? These are all questions that must be answered. Getting out and talking to people around town and reaching out through social media helped us quickly validate the idea. One of the most useful exercises for us was completing the Business Model Canvas early Saturday as a team exercise. This allowed us to flesh out our business model in about 15 minutes. Only once we had a firm business model and validated with potential customers did work on our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for the Sunday presentation begin.


Sunday was final presentation day! Beginning at 9am and with presentations beginning at 4pm, we had exactly 7 hours remaining to put everything together. This was just enough time to finish our MVP (a web application), put together a pitch deck, and go out to conduct actual transactions. That's right, our team was able to go out and conduct three real life cash-changing-hands transactions. From an idea put together Friday night. That's part of what makes Startup Weekend so amazing - how quickly things come together. Final presentations went great. Pivots had been made, but by Sunday afternoon some truly impressive startups had been created. Ecommerce sites went live. Web apps were launched. Winning teams were chosen. It had been a whirlwind non-stop 54 hours of hustle, but talking with other teams at the after-party it was clear the enthusiasm and energy was not fading. Silicon Valley, take note because the startup scene in Montana just stepped up its game.

Advice to anyone considering attending a Startup Weekend

  1. First of all, DO IT! If you are on the fence about it, just go - you won't be sorry.
  2. Pitch an idea! I didn't do this and wish I had. If one of your reasons for attending is networking (and it should be!) pitching an idea Friday night is the first step to making yourself known to the key people you should be meeting. Even if you don't have an idea that you feel is exciting enough to work on for the weekend, chances are that after talking with others about it, the idea will take on a life of its own and morph into something that you will be excited to work on.
  3. Take notes during the Friday night pitches. Jot down a name and a few words describing the idea. Underline the ones you might be interested in. Take a picture of the people pitching ideas that you really want to work on. Finding them later may be difficult and a picture will help you remember what they look like.
  4. Start a twitter account for your startup. Once your team has formed and decided on a name, create a twitter account for your startup. And use it! Tweet about what you're working on. Tweet about what you need help with. Tweet to get feedback from potential customers. Your Startup Weekend event will probably have a specific hashtag (it was #SWM2013 for Startup Weekend Missoula 2013) that you can use to reach everyone. We put a market survey link out through twitter and had dozens of responses within an hour or so. Twitter is also a great way to reach out to mentors and coaches to let them know what you need help with. Which leads me to my next point...
  5. Listen to the coaches. These people are successful developers, designers, and business people who know what they are talking about. Ask them questions and listen to what they have to say.
  6. Network! The most amazing resource at SWM2013 were the people: the organizers, coaches, mentors, judges and the participants. You have access to all these people for the entire weekend! There are very few events where you have so many talented people (with many different complimentary skills) who all share a common interest, startups, hanging out together for 54 hours. I'm still blown away by how many awesome people I met. As a developer one thing I struggle with is design, and specifically art work. It's always a pain point for me in every project I've worked on independently. Last weekend I met an awesome design guy who did all the art work for our team. I'm going to be reaching out to him to collaborate on a project I've had in the works but put on hold because I had art work trouble. This is the real power of Startup Weekend!
  7. Bring business cards. If you don't have any get some printed. Check the swag link you get after you sign up for Startup Weekend, you might get a coupon for free business card printing that you can pick up at the event.
  8. Build something that almost works for the Sunday pitch. The judges will be looking for many things in your Sunday pitch. I'm not going to talk about the judging criteria, but chances are the judges will be most impressed by those teams that present something that almost works. What I mean by this is that your MVP should do something, but it doesn't have to be perfect. Several teams pitched with a UI sketch or a wireframe mockup, which I'm sure is fine to get your idea across (in fact the winning team iwillhelpout.com did this - so take my advice addito salis grano), but as a developer I felt better knowing that our MVP actually did something. It wasn't perfect. It was very delicate, and hacked together, and didn't send out emails or implement a payment processing system like a real production version would have - but it almost worked. By that I mean the UI was there, the database was there, updating the database worked and it was live on the interwebs so anyone could play with it. Gloss over implementation of details that will be time consuming to implement and aren't central to your idea. Your MVP should implement some feature of your product (it makes for a better demo on Sunday), but it doesn't have to do everything. Spend the time you would have spent on these details on customer validation, building a user base, or nailing down your revenue model instead to round out your pitch.
  9. Have fun! As I said earlier, I had a blast. Being in this kind of environment was energizing and I've already registered for another Startup Weekend event nearby.