I was a first-time mentor at a Startup Weekend recently and, appropriate to my day job, it was focused on education technology.
This Startup Weekend Seattle EDU was only the third time a Startup Weekend was dedicated to turning entrepreneurs loose for an entire 54 hours to innovate in education (the first two were in San Francisco). And it won’t be the last, because Startup Weekend is launching a dedicated EDU vertical Oct. 14.
Even though this Weekend wasn’t part of the official EDU vertical, Seattle sold out. Depending on the count, 125 participants registered and 127 attended. Top-tier keynoters were Mitch Kapor (closing night) and Vinod Khosla and Michael Arrington (opening night). Tweets of pithy speaker quotes and the occasional snarky aside had #SWSEAedu trending. Overall, the team at Seattle-based TeachStreet did a great job of organizing the event and deserves a shout-out for pulling it all together.
I formally mentored five of the 15 teams throughout the weekend, and informally many more taking part. In the process, I learned a lot about what refines raw enthusiasm and intellect (and, generous sponsorship aside, it’s not just Golazo sports energy drink).
1) Don’t be too attached to the idea you arrive with. Seattle began with 53 (or 54; I lost count) startup pitches early Friday evening. These were culled via voting to 15 later Friday night, further reduced to 13 due to team M&A activity by Saturday morning, and ballooned to 15 again as teams fragmented before Sunday evening’s final presentations.
One mistake participants can make, noted more-experienced mentor Audrey Watters (she also attended the San Francisco EDU event), is to arrive with a fully developed idea and, as a result, lose the flexibility this constantly changing tide demands. Her advice? “Don’t just come looking for code monkeys.”
2) Come with more than one idea. Ideas love company, so arrive with several. Even if an entrepreneurial enterprise isn’t fully thought out, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pitching. Sometimes, simply hearing others pitch may change or crystallize one worthwhile concept out of two or three in your head.
3) Expect to collaborate and work on a team. Watters also warned that attendees need to realize their carefully incubated and cherished idea “may not be so awesome.” Team dynamics can expose the ugly underbelly of undeveloped assumptions. But fired in the crucible of 54 hours of team interchange, a starting point may become part of something better.
4) Do some homework on the “EDU” part. This was the biggest failing of edtech entrepreneur wanna-bes in attendance. “Education” is not a single market, even if it’s all lumped into one Startup Weekend. A little advance familiarity doesn’t hurt. There are significant differences between customer sets and buying behavior across K-12, higher education, continuing education and lifelong learning, a sausage which at one end is ground more like government and at the other tastes more like consumer.
When the assembled masses were asked how many teachers were there, three or four (of 125 to 127) participant hands went up. It was also telling that of the final 15 presentations, only one clearly targeted the K-12 school market, as opposed to direct-to-parent, colleges or, well, fuzzy or completely undefined markets. That single K-12 school-focused effort had a teacher on its team. That single K-12 school-focused startup, Text2Teach, also won.
Better than homework? Bring an educator, professor or instructor with you for your team. Or at least have one you can reach out to as a lifeline. As venture capital luminary Vinod Khosla said in his opening chat, “If you want to change education, leverage the ten percent of teachers who are really passionate.”
5) Maintain good humor and personal hygiene. Your team mates will appreciate both by Sunday afternoon after 54 hours in close quarters. The reason for the former is obvious.
As for the latter … don’t ask.
Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose “Practical Nerd” columns appear regularly on GeekWire. He consults via Intrinsic Strategy and tweets @FrankCatalano. He learned a lot at Startup Weekend Seattle EDU, especially how consistently good humored Dave Schappell and Joey Aquino of TeachStreet can be when faced with two dozen mentors.