Startup Weekend pep talk: It ain’t the code

This is a rough transcript of a talk I delivered recently at the start of Startup Weekend in Austin.

Startup Weekend is a friendly competitive event in which teams of 3-5 build a startup from scratch over the course of a single intense weekend. It culminates with informal presentations to a panel of judges who declare a winner, but of course the competition is only an excuse to facilitate the true benefits: honing startup skills through experience, the thrill of pressure, and working side-by-side with other ambitious people instead of superficial “networking.” Indeed, although most startups produced by Startup Weekend don’t persist, frequently participants recombine weeks later to form real startups.

You have only 50 hours to build an entire little functional company, so I’ll be brief. But I’d like to share one piece of advice which I believe significantly increases your chance of walking away on Sunday with a real business.

Everyone here is a builder, a creator — whether a back-end programmer, a Linux hacker, a front-end producer, or a designer. You make stuff.

That’s great of course, because in a startup you either need to be making stuff or hauling in revenue — there’s no room for managers and executives and strategists. But this also produces a natural weakness, and those who overcome this weakness over the next few days are most likely to win.

You and I know you can code an app and produce a simple clean home page. Everyone here can. So the quality or quantity of that creation will not be why your company succeeds.

In fact, I was on the judging panel last time, and the tech and design had nothing to do with our decisions. Judges don’t think “Which had the best algorithm” because this isn’t a programming contest. Judges don’t think “Which had the cleverest logo,” because this isn’t a design contest. This is a startup contest.

And this bigger than just Startup Weekend. Customers don’t patronize companies on the basis of the difficulty of the code or the unit test coverage percentage or whether you used Bodoni instead of Times New Roman on the home page. In fact I’ve made millions of dollars on companies with hideously ugly websites and buggy code. Those things are actually not the most important things. Real life is a startup contest too.

So if these things — the raw materials and skills used in web-based startups — are necessary but insufficient, what is valuable? What will separate the companies this weekend? What are those things outside your comfort zone which nevertheless are the things that will determine who wins?

Here’s just a few:

  • Sharpen your pitch, achieving such clarity and brevity that any potential customer immediately understands that you’re relevant to their pain and your product could very well solve it, and so that it’s equally apparent to other intelligent people — like the judges or future investors. Your verbal pitch should be under 60 seconds; your home page should entice in three words and explain in under fifty. This is harder than it sounds because it forces you to make strong choices about what you’re building and why and who cares and what they’ll pay for it. It is these choices that are valuable; creating a brief pitch merely forces the issue.
  • Get 5 strangers to give you feedback, if not on a prototype then just an interview. Validate the pain, what’s minimally needed to address the pain, and what they’d pay for it. Even if they don’t agree, even if you change your story each time, you’ll learn what’s critical and what you still need to resolve. A concept validated by five people is far more valuable than a working application that no one has critiqued.
  • Construct a plausible business model. Not a business plan, but rather a simple spreadsheet with pricing model, how money flows in and out during normal operation, customer acquisition cost, and therefore how many customers you’ll need to break even on operating costs, and how many more to break even including human costs. It’s surprisingly difficult to build a company where revenues outweigh costs of marketing, salaries, and operations, even at scale. If you prove yours can work, you’re already ahead of the group.
  • Produce evidence of potential customers already looking for a solution to this problem (e.g. complaining on Twitter, asking on forums, musing on blogs, paying too much money for crappy alternatives). Too many companies build cool tools which no one particular wants. Evidence of searching and asking demonstrates not only need but suggests a way to reach those people.

Your problem is that since coding or design is what you like, what you’re good at, what’s fun, you’ll be tempted to dive in and spend too much time inside TextMate and Photoshop.

But then you’ll have built a curiosity, a hobby, some trivial code and a typical website, yet another public repo on github and a free WordPress blog. Of course you can do that — all of you can — which means it doesn’t help you with the judges. All that work doesn’t make a company, it makes a website, and this weekend is about companies.

If all you build this weekend is a landing page that describes what your company will do and asks for an email address to be notified when ready, and if you manage to get 50 emails, that is far more of a real company than a team who builds something that works but no one asked for it. Because if you can identify a need, all of you have the skills to meet that need. The opposite is not true — a website cannot generate people who are interested in it.

So force yourself out of your comfort zone. You’ll also do coding and design and that’s fine of course. But force yourself to do those other things that create a valuable business, because those who make substantial progress on even one or two of those points are the ones who will win this contest and are mostly likely to have in fact built a viable little company.

This is a life-lesson that extends beyond Startup Weekend. You don’t need more practice writing code or creating logos — you can do that any time. Why not take this opportunity to practice something you’re not already expert at? Why not use this as a chance to grow and get better at other things which are equally important to the success of any startup?

You can go back to building things for the sake of building things on Monday. This weekend, build a company.

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  • http://blog.futurevoice.eu Martynas Spokas

    From my practice the only thing that matters – presentation :)

  • http://www.mcneel.com Bob McNeel

    From my experiences the only thing that really matters is paying customers :)

    • http://victoriasecretcouponscodes.blogspot.com Coupons

       Exactly :) This is the only important thing…

  • Jay Berlin

    Really interesting advice.  How many of the groups took it?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Unfortunately I fell ill and wasn’t able to see.

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  • http://mkeblx.net/ mkeblx

    At a 24-hour hackathon I got half way through before thinking to myself that while I could spend the rest of the time coding and getting more functionality in place, and it would certainly be the most comfortable thing to do coming from a dev background, it’s not what mattered most.

    I stopped coding, put up a email capture page, and got ~50 beta signups to show demand for the product. Judges will recognize that you understand that a business isn’t just about creating a good product and see your willingness to step outside your comfort zone like you’ll be required to do every day of a startup.  It was crucial for me getting into the tech incubator and getting seed funding.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.antonelli Rebecca Antonelli

    You, Jason, are awesome. I have been subscribing for over a year and continue to relish each and every word.

  • http://stackoverflow.com/users/260080/marco-demaio Marco Demaio

    Jason thanks, IMHO this is one of your best article!

    in a real life startup where you have more than 50 hours, would you say that point (1 Sharpen your pitch) and (2 Get 5 strangers to give you feedback)  could be achieved by setting up a small website even if you still do not have the real product/service to sell yet?!

    By doing this:

    1. you force your self to create an HOME PAGE that “entice in three words and explain in under fifty.”

    2. and at the same time if you get 5 people asking for information about such product/service after having visited the website, you can then start to develop the product.

    Is it carzy?! The basic idea is, since putting up a website nowdays takes nothing, let’s do it and see if anyone is interested. If they are we then develop the product.

    Strong in me is the dark side of the coding force. :-)
    But it’s still better than developing the product 1st and then discover later that no one is willing to buy it. What do you think?!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Of course! In fact that’s exactly what people like Rob Walling recommend (http://www.softwarebyrob.com/).
      Use something like a free WordPress blog on wordpress.com or a service like unbouncer.com to create your page, then off you go!

  • http://twitter.com/uhhuhthatkate Kate Hiscox

    This was a very good post and this struck me. 

    “Everyone here is a builder, a creator — whether a back-end programmer, a Linux hacker, a front-end producer, or a designer. You make stuff.That’s great of course, because in a startup you either need to be making stuff or hauling in revenue — there’s no room for managers and executives and strategists.”

    And yet, typically, the people you described above don’t have the skills needed to validate a model and market, crunch the numbers, identify target customer characteristics, create a marketing plan tied to revenue goals and well.. all the other things you should do before a line of code is written. 

    Its sort of a chicken and egg scenario but I believe someone on a startup team has to be able to do the above to insure someone is ‘hauling in the revenue’. Typically a builder/coder/designer doesn’t have (or want) these skills just as a biz co-founder often doesn’t code or design. In my mind, the dream team is a threesome comprised of a back end programmer, a front end designer/coder and a biz whizz that does nothing but validate, strategize, connect and sell, sell, sell.

    I’ve seen so many decent apps and services bite the dust because while they’re built and work, no one on the team had the faintest idea about how to generate revenue. If it were as simple as tossing up a subscription (packages) page and tweeting how great it is, well.. everyone would be doing it. Wait they are!

    • Innovative Thinker

      I’m an innovator. That’s what I do all day. I come up with innovations of all kinds. Then I research whether or not they can be monetized. So, at the end of the day I’m also an entrepreneur.

      The problem with your view is that I’m having *extreme* difficulty finding *funding* for plans. Today VCs and other investors are looking for products. They’ll invest in companies that don’t have a marketing team if the company has even just a half-assed software product. If you plan up-front, all those plans become outdated as the product is being coded.

      The idea is everything! Some people say the idea is not that important, it’s the execution that counts. But, colleges produce well trained executives and managers all day everyday that can execute. Natural born innovators are one in a million.

      You have to make the idea “real” for investors to give you money. A patent can make an idea real. Even though a patent is nothing more than a map of the idea. It gives investors a way to see something. In software development, code makes an idea real. So, if you’re gonna’ show investors something you’re better off showing them a screen with some working code.

      I recently planned and plotted and researched and strategized for a SaaS EHR system. I identified customers, markets, streams of revenue, early adopters, etc. But, I can’t find one red cent of funding. All the extensive planning is for naught if you can’t get funded.

      http://innovativethinking.posterous.com/

      • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

        You’re not quite right about what investors what. Half-baked products ALONE aren’t getting funding. What’s happened is that teams aren’t getting funding until they show traction, which is a combination of a product (possibly half-baked) and — more importantly — some external proof that it can be taken to market.
        For some (me) that has to include revenue; for most, it’s OK to forego revenue if you’re trading in for impressive growth.
        In short, you have to prove that other people want whatever it is, in whatever form it is.
        That’s execution, by the way, not “an idea.”

        And you’re right, I believe the days of funding “an idea” or a plan around an idea without traction are over.

    • http://twitter.com/stuckaholic Alex Dogliotti

      Hey Kate, yeah I was thinking the same. But I totally see Jason’s point. I had exactly the same discussion the other day with a friend who is about to launch an iPhone application. Do you know his strategy to get people to download it? Nothing. Wait and see. It’s not about having the skills, it’s about getting out of the comfort zone (or make it bigger). Look, I launched a blog 2 days ago. I read Jason’s article before that and did lots of research. But did I ask anybody: Hey, what do you think about a blog such and such? Would you read it? No I did not. And I’m doing that now, 9 articles in and no traffic (well, ok it’s been 2 days only, but still.) It went out of my comfort zone. 

  • Ryan Arp

    Great post. I’m walking proof of this. I took a year on and off to build something because of my own need and I’m slow to find people with the same need. Last week I asked a question to members of a linkedin group about another idea and had almost 50 sign ups in 3 days using an unbounce landing page and sign up form. I’ve continued to ask/answer questions with that group as I’ve built out a version 1 to satisfy their need. 

    It’s a completely different experience when you start out with customers and build what they’re ready to pay for.

  • Anonymous

    I loved this post but your statement that “there’s no room for managers and executives and strategists” seems a little at odds with the point you are trying to make.

    Executives and strategists are theoretically the people  most skilled at sharpening a pitch and identifying a robust business model. These ‘business people’ along with their ‘worthless ideas’ are often the people responsible for making sure that you end up building a company and not a website.

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  • Anonymous

    I would add: make friends, these people speak your language and share your vision that the world, our world, can be changed and bettered.  

  • http://profiles.google.com/redcort Redcort Software

    You nailed again Jason. Did you really mean to say there’s no room for strategists?  It seems to me the entire point is to challenge coders to become business strategists.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Right. More accurately, there’s no room for people who *only* strategize. Too much to do, and it’s not something that ought to be compartmentalized.

  • http://twitter.com/ramonsuarez Ramón Suárez 【ツ】

    Great post Jason. Can we reproduce it in Startup Weekend Brussels’ blog ? It will be a great source of inspiration for the participants in our next weekend. Thanks!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Sure, just put the attribution at the top and link my name (Jason Cohen) back to the main blog URL (http://asmartbear.com).


      Jason Cohen
      http://blog.ASmartBear.com
      @asmartbear

      • http://twitter.com/ramonsuarez Ramón Suárez 【ツ】

        Done! http://brussels.startupweekend.org/2011/08/09/it-aint-the-code/

        • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

          Please add an attribution back to my blog at the top, thanks.

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