Surviving the Startup (Weekend)

Posted by Hernan Chiosso on March 30, 2015 in categoryStrategy

Being around other entrepreneurs is always an invigorating experience. It is like reliving adolescence, minus some of the awkwardness, of course, where everything is possible, and all your wildest dreams can become a reality. An entrepreneur lives in a world of chaotic creation and unlimited possibility.

Startup Weekend
This year, I had the opportunity to be a coach at Rochester Startup Weekend, for the 2nd year in a row. This not for profit event is an intense experience that fosters innovation and brings local entrepreneurs together to work on ideas for web and mobile applications. The objective is to leverage the talent and skills of participants who will, in a 54-hour marathon and with the help of coaches who volunteer to provide advice, refine and get these ideas translated into business plans, prototypes and demos that are then presented to a jury of local business experts that help choose the best product. The prizes are nice, of course, but arguably the most valuable rewards are the learning experiences, the advice of peers and experts, and the thrill of working and accomplishing something exciting.

There were many interesting ideas at the event and countless passionate people having a great time building something together. It’s an experience that is fascinating to witness and exciting to take part in.

It was great to see young, and not so young, entrepreneurs working together on this weekend long marathon of brainstorming, debate and creation, fueled by pure passion - and gallons of coffee.

While passion is never in short supply, there are teams that fall apart, many ideas that are never built, and even for those that do pitch their ideas to the judges, the failure rate of startups in the real world is always high, usually in the 90th percentile.1 The reasons for failure are many and varied, including failure to identify the right market, essential business model flaws, problems with the management team, exhausting the available funds, the ability to deliver a product that satisfies the created expectations, etc.2

Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but that’s part of what makes it exciting. This begs the question: how do you harness that power and energy to improve the chance for success?

Starting with Why
Taking a page from our client Simon Sinek, there is one common component to those ideas that become successful products: they inspire people. They inspire the dreamers that build them, regardless of the many challenges they face, or the criticism they receive. They inspire consumers to choose them because they identify with the idea that lies beyond the product. Anybody can learn the rules and play the game of innovation, but an inspiring idea simply rewrites the rules and pushes the market in a new direction.

Driving Clarity
You may have a great idea, but how can you get there? You need to have clarity in your vision. As an entrepreneur, you are a person of action. You are always anxious to hit the ground running, but you should not jump to designing and building a solution without first spending enough time defining the problem with clarity. As the great Albert Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Choosing the Right Partner
You should not walk your path alone. Startups founded by a single partner are more likely to fail3, and many investors share that concern.4 You need to find the right partner that shares your inspiration and your values, that is committed to your team’s success, and can share the road and the load of a startup with you. Someone who has the same values and similar criteria for decision, so you can act as one and stay together even in the face of the many obstacles you’ll find along the way.

Engaging the Team (and Yourself)
Running your business can be stressful and it requires a lot of energy. But tolerating stress is much easier when you’re doing something you truly care about. You are able to recharge your energy in finding meaning to the work you do. Why else would someone spend a whole weekend on an event like this, after a long week of work or study, instead of relaxing with the family? Where does all that energy come from? The research of psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan regarding the Self Determination Theory5 shows that the conditions for intrinsic motivation are tied to the need for personal autonomy, competence and relatedness. That is, engagement comes from feeling you’re pursuing your own dreams, that you’re learning and improving through that pursue, and that you are doing it as part of, and for the sake of, something bigger than yourself.

What I Got from the Event
As someone dedicated to managing talent and culture in an IT organization, I am of course interested in cool new technologies and ideas. But the most interesting part of this event –for me– is to watch the evolution of the ideas from their initial drafts to the actual pitch, which is also an evolution of the teams and the people who are part of them. It is also fascinating that it’s not necessarily the most original idea that wins the prize, but rather the one that truly inspires people to work as one to make it a reality.