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Startup Weekend, Trending or Tour de Force?

31 Jul 12

In many ways the internet returns accountability to the good-old pre-tech days when word of mouth could make or break a business. There is after all, no escaping the wrath or love of the online review or product forum! The internet also heralds an era of entrepreneurial collaboration that couldn’t have existed previously. If the internet made an explosive degree of idea engagement possible, the Kauffman Startup Weekend is the flagship that has ridden this wave of knowledge sharing to great effect.

By equal measure, the internet is responsible for the evolution of trending everything from thought pieces to crowd funding to gadgets. So how does one differentiate between todays trending topic and an actual tour de force?

In the case of Startup Weekend it may be the entrepreneurial ethos that founded the concept that ensures it’s future as ground-breaking and ongoing. In other words, Startup Weekend is built on stronger bedrock than the fickle feelings of the here today gone tomorrow punter whose attention span (also thanks to the net) may only be a few seconds long.

Get behind the scenes at a Startup Weekend and you’ll see what I mean. Even at a local level, the infrastructure and core intent is solid. To ‘validate this concept’ I visit Startup Weekend Wellington.

From inception Startup Weekend has created a culture that allows for regional nuance and for organisers to enjoy significant leeway in the organisation of individual events. In Wellington they have capped the number of participants at around 90. Around 45 pitches are made, about 10 are accepted and teams gather around these ideas. Mentors facilitate growth and development throughout the weekend. The desired intent is to build community rather than business although a good number of Startup Weekend alumni have achieved success.

New Zealand organiser Alan Froggatt sees these as positive offshoots but not the core purpose of Startup Weekend. In order to know more about who he was backing Alan visited the Kauffman Foundation Startup Headquarters in the US and came to the conclusion that, "Startup Weekend founders and key staff are interested in the heart of entrepreneurship, its their mandate that they are about building community not about building business. I think they have the right flavour for our times, slightly ahead even, and the whole thing is very grass roots so it can be driven from the ground up, rather than from head office down.”

Serial entrepreneur and investor Dave Moskovitz chimes in with similar sentiment, "Startup Weekend is a place where we can celebrate each other’s trials, and it’s about things as basic as, ‘how do I communicate with other people in a group?’ Here we emotionally connect with other people, understanding their feelings so that we can arrive to decisions together in a special way.” These are sentimental words about a weekend promoting new enterprise but it’s becoming clear that Startup Weekend is more than that.

The community building ideology is reflected in the level of active involvement across business and government. All Startup Weekend workers are volunteers and prizes are donated through private and business philanthropy. These efforts are government backed through the facilitation of resources. Karen Bender of Grow Wellington talks about the generosity of spirit that is the underlying premise of every conversation I have during Wellington Startup Weekend, and the resources available through government agencies.

"One of the values that entrepreneurs must have is the ability to create more. There isn’t a finite amount of money or human energy or product in the world, there is always the ability to create more… that translates into generosity of spirit because people know they won’t be cheated out of an opportunity because there is always the ability to create more.” Karen’s job is to connect and facilitate hyper-change activities in enterprise. Grow Wellington help companies with R&D funding, capability funding and information and resources. They are an excellent first port of call for entrepreneurs looking for advice.

All that said, it seems perfectly fitting that a group from the previous Startup Weekend sit busily typing in a corner of this vast facility filled with overtired, adrenalin charged entrepreneurs. Startup Platform pitched their idea in Auckland and although they didn’t win the weekend, they reflect the promise of organisers that this weekend is not just about the win. After Auckland this team received support and encouragement to continue with their project and what better place to work on the Startup Platform than at Startup Weekend?

It is also perhaps apropos that yours truly is a Startup Weekend alumnus. Last September I joined a team of entrepreneurs and now work for TranscribeMe. Our company is only 10 months old but this weekend I am using the TranscribeMe iPhone app to record interviews. Last night I returned to my hotel in the wee hours of the morning to find my interview transcriptions ready and the quotes you read here, clearly formed on the page – just waiting for my article.

Startup Weekend Wellington proved to be another great success. Winners Questo, who took both top prize packages, will now receive time in San Francisco at the Kiwi Landing Pad, Trademe credit, MYOB packages, Microsoft packages and the list goes on… Questo is a platform that gamifies education to increase student motivation. In addition to the prizes Questo take away, they also now have the attention of New Zealand’s leading business people, investors and facilitators.

Questo aren’t the only winners of Wellington Startup Weekend, although they did take the prize. All participants now have access to the New Zealand entrepreneur networks that will go a long way to enabling their success. Angel investors, venture capitalists, mentors, government agencies, business partners and friends in the community are now just a phone call away for all. Built on a foundation of goodwill and community, Startup Weekend is more than a trend and quite likely, a tour de force.

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