5 lessons from Startup Weekend on Social Impact

I participated in the DC Startup Weekend on Social Impact at ImpactHub organized by UP in Washington DC from June 12-14. It was my second Startup Weekend and here are the 5 lessons that I learnt from the whole experience.


1. People who have been thinking of an idea for too long are too wedded to it.

During the weekend, I worked on an idea that one of my teammates, Dave had pitched. It was to build Carousel, a platform that is like Netflix for charities. The platform would let users donate little amounts of money to as many charities of interest while maintaining a steady monthly donation amount. For the past few years, Dave had spent a lot of time on this idea and also had thought out the complete strategy for the product, the launch, the media campaigns to promote the event. It was such a large scale effort that neither pursuing it nor validating it would have been a worthwhile effort during the weekend. The entire team wanted to pivot to a lean startup approach and tweak certain proposals including product branding and launch, but Dave refused to budge on his ideas and the team spent a considerable amount of time trying to get him on board. Eventually he just gave up and agreed with the team, but still wasn’t personally convinced that the changes in the ideas/execution plan were actually good.

2. There are a lot of 1-person companies in the Startup world. (or at least at Startup Weekend)

My team had 5 members in total and my four team-mates were all C-level executives at their one-person startups. Throughout the course of the weekend, I also met several CEOs who had built a specific app by outsourcing development and were trying to market it through the event. Even in my previous Startup Weekend experience at TechShop, 2 of my team-mates were CEOs of their own companies. I don’t know if this is as common in the general Startup community as it is in Startup weekend. Generally such people were looking to promote their startup, look to hire someone part time (weren’t necessarily looking for co-founders) or were looking to use the Startup Weekend to get some help on the initial steps of idea solidification and execution plan.

3. No beachhead market means no business plan.

The New Ventures class at MIT taught by Bill Aulet has taught me well that if you don’t identify a beachhead market and focus on it, you don’t have a business plan. While this might sound very obvious, I found that it is very easy to lose track while putting together a business plan in 50 hours. The team did start off identifying specific user personas in detail in the hope of identifying a specific segment to target, but since the process of mapping out the thought process for each persona was taking long, the team decided to punt on it and come back later. Big Mistake. The whole business plan ended up being shaky in the end, because we didn’t invest the upfront time in identifying the target market, but instead looked to finish the things necessary for the final presentation.

4. Excessive focus on mobile apps and developers.

There were about 50 pitches over the course of Friday night and more 80% of the ideas involved some form of an app that would be built as the product. Invariably, the pitcher was looking for developers on his or her team. Coming in, I did not anticipate such a focus on technology and was expecting most ideas to be services or businesses that had a strong underlying charitable component especially given that some of the cited examples of companies in this space were Opower, Toms shoes and Soapbox Soaps. Perhaps folks in the field recognize that there is a dearth of technology enabled solutions in the space, but it was interesting to see nonetheless.

5. It’s not just about the idea, it’s the way you pitch and present it.

Over the course of the first night many interesting pitches were presented and about 14 ideas were voted on through a public vote. Of the 80 or so pitches, the ideas that did get chosen in the end included ideas that have so multiple solutions already available in the market. Some examples on the top of my head:

In the end people voted on the flair of the presenter and ideas they could relate to even if there were solutions in the market that they weren’t necessarily aware of. You just have 60 seconds and in such a case it’s better to capture the audience than present an obscure idea that may very well have it’s niche.


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