I stumbled upon Startup Weekend four years ago while attending a conference in San Francisco. I’d seen hackathons of all shapes and sizes in the past, but never something with such a holistic approach, where developers, designers, business people and entrepreneurs come together to build a startup.
Hackathons, on the other hand, are typically focused on developers specifically. Groups of engineers will work on a specific set of programs on a prescribed platform – like Hacking Health, which aims to improve healthcare by inviting technology creators to solve problems posed by healthcare professionals.
Although hackathons are great for spurring creativity, they simply don’t compare to a Startup Weekend. In fact, for this reason, the organization specifically states on its website that it’s not a hackathon.
It didn’t take long for me to buy into the concept of Startup Weekend. I loved the idea of bringing diverse groups of people together for an intense, 54-hour weekend where they could get real experience building startups. And while I’m well aware that it’s difficult to compare it to the experience of building a startup in the real real world, nothing compares to the education that comes from learning through doing.
If you only read about Startup Weekend, it’s tough to truly grasp its power. As the organizer of Toronto’s first event in 2010, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. I was certain however, that the city craved something bigger than a hackathon; something that acknowledged the fact that startups are more than just developers and designers.
I knew that if we pulled this off, wonderful things could happen: participants would learn how to pitch, form teams, validate their product offering and execute under pressure – in other words, they’d learn the requisite skills of a startup founder; skills that are difficult to learn and practice if you aren’t part of a real startup.
My goal in organizing these events was to grow the city’s entrepreneurial footprint at a grassroots level. What I didn’t expect to see was successful startups being formed directly out of Startup Weekend. A recent survey conducted by Startup Weekend showed that 36 per cent of all startups formed at Startup Weekend are still going after three months and that roughly 10 per cent go on to raise funding for their ventures.
Companies like Vuru (acquired by Wave Accounting) and Groupnotes took shape at Startup Weekend. The latter won the 2012 Global Startup Battle and went on to be accepted into the Hyperdrive accelerator in Waterloo. There’s also Visualize.me, founded by Eugene Woo at Startup Weekend Toronto in 2011. Visualize.me was recently acquired by Parchment, founded by Matthew Pitanksy, former CEO and co-founder of Blackboard. Globally, some very large companies took their first steps at Startup Weekend, including LaunchPad, Foodspotting and, perhaps most notably, Zaarly.
The point isn’t really the size of the companies coming out but just the reality that you can create the beginnings of something real in just 54 hours. Of course, the really hard work starts after the event but, what a terrific thing that more people now understand what they can achieve and have a platform to go after it.
Chris Eben is an investor, startup mentor and Startup Weekend organizer with more than 15 years of product management experience across web and mobile under his belt. He is a partner at custom software company The Working Group, where he invests in and incubates startups and leads a growing team that crafts powerful Internet applications for web, mobile and tablet. Email Chris / Follow Chris on Twitter @ceben