Thursday, January 23, 2014

Startup Weekend Anthropology 101

Let's kick things off with a quote:

"I chose cultural anthropology, since it offered the greatest opportunity to write high-minded balderdash" - Kurt Vonnegut

Last month I attended an event up in Ogden called "Startup Weekend". I had heard various things about Startup Weekend through word-of-mouth channels but until this event I had not directly participated in one of these events. Thanks to one of my Agile colleagues Maile Keone and local event organizer Alex Lawrence not only did I have a ticket to the event, but also very nice accommodations next to where the event was hosted.

I didn't walk into the event planning on becoming a Startup Weekend anthropologist, but I certainly walked out as one. Over the next few blog entries I'll be rambling on about what I learned over the course of one weekend in Ogden.

Being a Startup Weekend virgin, I wanted to preserve my opportunity to learn about the event organically so I made the decision to minimize my event pre-res... *snort*

Sorry, couldn't get through that sentence with a straight face. Let's try this instead:

Being a Startup Weekend virgin I did the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to not look like a completely clueless buffoon when I showed up. Or at least I thought I did.

When you look at the outward packaging of Startup Weekend you see the following:

Startup Weekends are weekend-long, hands-on experiences where entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs can find out if startup ideas are viable.

Reading the above I made two assumptions. One was that a significant number of attendees brought in their business ideas and that there was a significant percentage of startups that launched as a result of Startup Weekend events.

It's a good thing I do clueless buffoon well. I was wrong on both assumptions.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. One of my goals for the event was to engage not as a technical resource but as a business resource - I'd bring in an idea, I'd pitch it, hopefully gather a team and see what happened. I also decided I was going to hack the idea pitch at the beginning of the event by not promoting how cool the business concept was but instead to promote how the team engaged with me would get a better event experience by delivering not one MVP by the end of the weekend - we'd deliver at least 4 or 5.

This great idea of mine lasted maybe 15 minutes into the introductory presentation. What killed it was the admonishment of the event coordinator that you should not pitch your pre-conceived business ideas but instead pitch the problems you are interested in solving that others would also be interested in solving.

It seems I wasn't alone in my mistaken assumptions. There were a number of other first-time attendees I talked to that had made the same assumption. It was interesting to see how many persisted in pitching their concept even after the suggestion to focus on an interesting problem. For the record, I trashed by carefully crafted pitch (after hours of rehearsals and timing practices) and pitched the underlying problem to see what sort of interest it would generate.

None, as it turns out.

But the story doesn't end there. As a matter of fact, that's where the real story begins.

After having my grandiose idea completely ignored I started looking at other ideas that I could jump into and work on. One in particular caught my eye. The idea centered around building some sort of a mobile device multi-player game. This idea was pitched by a 17 year old that had attended 3 prior Startup Weekend events. It wasn't the idea that I found interesting - it was who was pitching it. Honestly - how many 17 year olds do you know that show up at an event like this?

So I wandered over and introduced myself, intending to provide expertise as a business and process expert. I didn't even get to the part where I explained what I was good at before he had handed me an assignment.

It wasn't the assignment that made me walk away from this project. From his perspective I am sure he thought it was the right thing to be doing. But it was clear from that one interaction that I'd have to do a lot more work from a "managing" perspective to get things moving toward a successful presentation at the end of the weekend. And that realization made me question whether it was a good idea for me to be walking into any team there and imposing my experience on them.

I know, the hubris is just dripping from that last paragraph, isn't it? Let's set aside for the moment any discussion of the "value" of my skill set and just focus on personality. My personality is such that I gravitate towards leadership of any group I'm involved in. For better or worse it is how I operate. But I realized in that moment that managing a team to deliver isn't something I really needed or wanted to experience at this event. What I really wanted to experience was how these ad-hoc teams fared over the course of the weekend.

And was I ever glad I did. In that moment I became the Startup Weekend incarnation of Margaret Mead.

Stay tuned for Startup Weekend Anthropology 102: The highest of highs, the lowest of lows

No comments:

Post a Comment