Key Learnings From Seattle Startup Weekend 2011

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By Yijen Liu (Participant, Seattle Startup Weekend) Last night, a friend of mine referred to me as the perfect West Coast entrepreneurial type.

What does a perfect West Coast entrepreneurial type even mean? I don’t know, but I ate it up (and he knew it). I’m a great entrepreneur in my mind –- obsessed with the product, creative, persistent, money-minded, charming, all kinds of wonderful, etc. In reality, I went to a name brand school, studied finance like everyone else there and subsequently took safe jobs at two name brand tech companies -– Hello, I am what Mark Suster calls a “wantrepreneur.”

Startup Weekend was my introduction to the Seattle startup community. I knew a lot of developers but almost none who coded in their free time -– How does a person watch “The Social Network” and then play Halo for the rest of the day? I started questioning whether I needed to watch Star Trek because it didn’t seem we were speaking the same language… Put down your light sabers. I’m kidding.

But seriously, as a non-programmer with a ton of ideas, I imagined that a baby unicorn probably would cry for every great opportunity neglected. Thank goodness for Startup Weekend, where I finally found like-minded people. I was able to prototype Chattersphere, a location-based chat application I’d obsessively talked about for months.

This past Startup Weekend just over half a year later, I was greeted by friends and familiar faces -– and once again, I was one of a handful of females there. It was an amazing weekend and I worked with an excellent group of guys.

We built ShakeupCall, an alarm that calls you until you get up (validated by answering a simple math question) and gets your Facebook friends to customize your wakeup message if you miss your call or get the math problem wrong.

Key Learnings from Seattle Startup Weekend: Appeal to Your Audience -- Developers get excited about crazy ideas with no fathomable sustainable business model. They are somehow protected from ridicule and in fact loved for pitching these ideas. Your audience loves ideas that are “out there” or just plain hilarious. They don’t bite on things that are low hanging fruit, lookalikes or just plain acquirable. They don’t love a quick buck, so frame your idea to appeal to your audience.

You’re a Visionary, Not a Business Person –- Don’t call yourself out as a business person if you can avoid it, unless you are a VC in which case tell everyone you are a VC. I’m a product manager and should’ve avoided sounding like the business person/”idea person”/person who’s ready to use you to get some work done. I straight on called myself a business person in my pitch, and it likely only hurt me. So don’t demolish your nerd cred off the bat. You’re the product visionary.

Own Your Femininity, and When It Works Tell Me What You Did –- Charisma in the business world is not the same as charisma in the techie world. I’ve seen numerous presentations where a guy gets up and spews out a crazy idea, with adorkable enthusiasm –- the opposite of a Steve Jobs presentation. I can’t picture a female doing that –- or maybe I just don’t want to. I don’t want to stop pretending I’m Angelina Jolie. So how do you keep your feminine persona and also get a room full of developers to believe in you? Please do tell what you’ve seen work. If you have a role model in the tech industry, let us know who it is.

Pick a Project You Can Do in a Weekend -– We’re all waiting for a good show on Startup Weekend demo night, so think hard when you choose a project whether the MVP (minimum viable product) can be finished by the end of the weekend.

Find and Hoard Designers -– Decent designers are a rare breed, usually the hardest team member to find during Startup Weekend. It’s like someone’s hiding them. Where are you, designers? I’d pay a designer good money for their services first thing after Neiman Marcus gives me back my disposable income and soul. But seriously, please take pity upon our ugly products and make them better.

Team size matters –- You should generally find at least three developers for your team, because you’ve got a lot to accomplish in a single weekend. In our case, we had four developers, a product manager and a marketing guy. Aside from being short a designer, I couldn’t have asked for a better staffed yet lean team.

Start with the Demo and Work Backwards -– Your entire effort will be boiled down to your performance on demo night. Keep the end vision in mind, but figure out by Saturday morning the happy case that needs to work for the demo. Then, let that happy case guide what you focus on for the rest of the weekend. Skimp on the rest. Wiley, but we’re talking basic survival tactics -– just like smiling, wearing lipgloss and not revealing your intentions to take over the world on a first date.

Balance Your Product with a Woman’s Perspective –- Most of your developers don’t wear heels, but your potential users might. If the product is turning into a 25-34 year-old nerdy male dream widget, contribute the perspective that the other 50% of the world shares.

Have Fun -– You do have a lot of work to get done, but you’re also building relationships with your team and other entrepreneurial people. It’s a mix between boot camp and summer camp, so work hard and play hard. If you want to go out until 4am and 2am on Friday and Saturday of Startup Weekend, do it!

My team came away with the prize for “most disruptive" at Startup Weekend.

I look back at the past several months between my first Startup Weekend and now, and I’m amazed at and grateful for the entrepreneurial friends I now have –- it can be lonely out there in the corporate world.

If you haven’t been to a startup event and feel like an exile peddling your ideas from a trench coat, I highly encourage you to try Startup Weekend.

Unlike your average networking event, you get to show what you’re capable of, find likeminded people, and compress a startup experience into a single weekend. And that’s a steal.

Ladies, I wish you all the best of luck in your startup endeavors.

Have fun, be beautiful and make it happen! If you were a participant in Startup Weekend and have additional learnings to share, I’d love to hear them and we’ll add them to the list here, a nifty little website to create and share lists with all your friends.

Thanks to Eugene Hsu for the Startup Weekend photo, and Twilio for putting Sunday pitches on YouTube. About the guest blogger: Yijen Liu leads product management of mobile applications and tablet optimization for Amazon Cloud Player and the Amazon MP3 Store. Prior to Amazon, she was a senior financial analyst at Microsoft and studied finance and management at the Wharton School. She spends her free time dreaming up new business ideas, fraternizing with entrepreneurial types, throwing down at karaoke and going broke at Neiman Marcus. Follow her on Twitter at @qqnoodles.