The Importance of Startup Weekend Honolulu

Twice a year, Startup Weekend is hosted in Honolulu. It's always an awesome time and I've been blessed to be a part of it in some form or fashion for each of the last few years. If you're not familiar with Startup Weekend, it is a 54-hour event that includes people pitching ideas for an app or startup on Friday night in front of a live audience who then vote on the best ideas. Top ideas have teams of developers, designers, and business people form around them and they have until Sunday at 4pm when they need to present what they built and why they built it to a panel of judges. And teams are judged on their presentation, product / technology development, and commitment to the customer discovery process.

I am honored and humbled to be a judge this weekend for the 8th Startup Weekend Honolulu along with a great panel of investors and entrepreneurs. With that in mind, I thought I'd write some thoughts up on why it's an important event and why people should participate.

There's lots of high level benefits Startup Weekend provides for the entire startup ecosystem: entrepreneurs, community organizers, business owners, and even investors. Here are a few of the benefits I see specifically for attendees that are looking to participate:

  • get your idea validated ... If you have an idea for company, don't you think it would be best to see if you're the only one that thinks it's a good idea? If you pitch on Friday, you get at least some data immediately about whether your idea is good or not. Now, you might have a great idea but don't communicate it well, but you'll learn something either way! You must get people to vote for your idea, and if not, you don't get the chance to build a team. So hustle is a big ingredient to accomplish that. Also, it should be noted that I do think there is such a thing as a great startup idea, but it is not a good fit for startup weekend. Single purpose apps for consumers are the sweet spot I'd say for this weekend project, but that's not to say that products for small businesses or other B2B markets couldn't work either (on that note, I think the Spring 2015 Winners of Maui Startup Weekend, Board.Vote, were on to something).

  • get yourself a potential co-founder ... I'd say that one of the best ways to meet people is to work together and go through an intense process like startup weekend. Also, this experience has got to be one of the best venues for business founders to meet technical founders. You can show off your hustle and hacking skills, prove your likability and intelligence and see if you can stand being around each other long enough to actually get something done, and voila: you have some of the best inputs to make an informed decision as to whether you should found a company together with that person or perhaps more accurately you can know what ingredients you need to look for in a co-founder because you shouldn't just assume the person you did startup weekend with is the best. It's shocking that people so flippantly start companies with whomever. This happens everywhere, even Silicon Valley as Sam Altman bemoaned in his How to Start a Startup Lecture 1.

  • get educated ... We all learn best by doing. Startups and technology in particular are very much an immersive experience that's irreplaceable with books and abstract knowledge. You learn the basics of lean startup and importance of customer discovery at Startup Weekend. You learn the importance of communicating your ideas succinctly and intelligently, and hopefully you learn that a cool product that doesn't make money isn't a business, but rather a hobby and you probably shouldn't quit your job to build that app.

  • get something done ... It provides an incentive to roll up your sleeves and get something built. The random idea you had for an app, go try and convince other people it's a good idea and see what they say. Too many people think their idea is gold and they're afraid other people are going to steal it. Don't buy into that, share your idea with as many people as you can to get feedback. Ideas are less valuable then the execution it takes to be successful.

  • get out of the building ... You must do some customer discovery interviews to test your core hypothesis and assumptions. That means you must get out of the building, and got talk to who you think your potential customers are. No better way to see if an idea is worth pursuing. There really is not a substitute for this process. So if you've been waiting for the motivation and help of a team of people to go talk to customers, then now is your shot.

  • get press & exposure ... For founders, they can get some initial interest and if you leverage it right can lead to user traction. At the very least you'll probably get the attention of some accelerators. If I were to participate in a startup weekend it would either be to test a dev or design skill I was working on, or I would lay the ground work for who my dev team would be, make sure I had the support in the audience, come with some discovery and mockups, and have a game plan to go learn while using the experience as a springboard to get the word out about the product or ramp up to hopefully problem-solution fit en route to the elusive product-market fit.

  • get to know others in your community ... Everybody comes together to hang out, eat, drink, etc. There's always a percentage of the crowd at startup weekend that maybe doesn't even know that much about startups but found out about this event from someone and this is their first foray into it. That's cool and there's not too many venues that it's possible to hang out with such a diverse group.

To be fair, it's not all rainbows and unicorns with Startup Weekend. I think it can perpetuate this romanticizing of entrepreneurship and startups. And there's the riffraff that is around with people that aren't serious about startups hocking their made-for-tv wares, multi-level marketing shtick, or other pre-made products that aren't what the weekend is about. I will admit, however, that the riffraff can be entertaining. I also do want to point out that doing startup weekend does not represent all the skills necessary to build and grow a startup. It is a microcosm of many of the experiences and inputs, but in no way does it completely prepare a person for the rigors and challenges of starting a company. Some people assume that and I think it's a mistake to do so.

For Honolulu / Hawaii's startup weekend in particular, there are several examples of founders / companies that I can think of that either got their start or went through startup weekend at some point:

Tealet - First Startup Weekend participant, Blue Startups and 500 Startups Grads.

Minded - Startup Weekend Honolulu #2 project finalist that went through Blue Startups' First Cohort... Mark and Tiff Quezada have done multiple Startup Weekends (gotta love me some namehub.co), and are now co-founders of the awesome product that is Hobnob.

Grumble - Current Blue Startups portfolio company.

Hanai - Spring 2015 Startup Weekend participants that are a finalist for XLR8UH Cohort 3.

Varsity Prep - Winners of The 6th Startup Weekend Honolulu that are also a finalist for XLR8UH Cohort 3.

Profie - Maui Startup Weekend contestants. I just had a chance to sit down with them last week and they are still pursuing the idea. Cool guys for sure!

And there's got to be others I'm not thinking of.

Personal stories... Probably many, but the one I'll mention is my boy Boots / aka Bryan Butteling who competed the same year I did (his team Fan Addicts got first, the team I participated on, 26ideas.com, got second), and he moved on to be the Lead Organizer for SWHNL, and also worked for Box Jelly and with me at Sultan Ventures.

So, we need startup weekend to continue and hopefully grow because it can turn bystanders into startup entrepreneurs, strangers into co-founders, and ideas into validated businesses.

I look forward to seeing everybody come on out Friday and Sunday! If you're on the fence to participate, don't hesitate and dive right in, you won't regret it!

For more information visit the Startup Weekend Honolulu's site or read Ryan Ozawa's writeup. All the festivities are going down at Kakaako Agora for the Friday and Sunday night pitches and The Box Jelly on Saturday for office space for the participating teams.

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