Why Grownups should go to Startup Events?


It is never too late. I went to my first Startup Weekend at the age of 48 in Cape Town where I attended  Startup Africa 2.0. A year later I attended the Startup Weekend in Helsinki. Both times I went for curiosity – to experience what it´s about and to learn what kind of ideas people bring there. And both times the idea of going there felt pretty intimidating. Why?

  • I will be the only grownup.
  • All others know what to do.
  • It will be all about technology, coding and apps. Acronyms like UI, UX in the registration form almost freaked me out.
  • Do I have to pitch an idea? I don´t have any.
  • I will not last all those long days after the hectic workweek.
  • I have to eat pizzas the whole weekend.

Helsinki Startup Weekend proved all my fears to be pointless, including pizzas. This is what the weekend was about:

On Friday late afternoon I joined the anxious looking crowd wearing the Startup Weekend T-shirts. I immediately knew I was in the right place. Soon I too was given a T-shirt, an L size and ugly green (for attendees classified as Business).

The theme ´Sustainability & Biofore´ had attracted a nice diversity of participants. In total, we were around 50. The number of nationalities was exceptionally high for a Finnish event – it almost felt like at Heathrow airport. On the other hand, less than 20% were coders and developers and, in the same way, only a few had attended a Startup Weekend earlier. This became clear when the moderator asked about it – I felt almost a pro being there for the second time. Many people were young as I expected, but I was delighted to see a few grownup faces other than coaches and experts. One of them was Henry, a youthful and curious super grownup, in a nice blue T-shirt – he had been wise enough to tick himself in as Marketing to get a nice colour T-shirt. When I asked Henry what brought him to this event, he said curiosity.

The Friday evening was all about introducing ideas in 60 sec pitches. Close to 30 courageous souls used the opportunity to pitch their ideas. This time I did not even think about pitching, as I wanted to focus on learning from the pitches. It really impressed me how smartly people had spotted market opportunities in everyday life and how creatively they wanted to solve them. And I sensed all that energy and passion.

After the pitches we attendees voted for the ideas and teams were formed around the top 12 ideas. We could join the team we found most interesting. After short team introductions we were told to start real teamwork the following morning. End of day, I was at home by 10pm.

The Saturday was fun as it was about building the idea. We teams immersed ourselves enthusiastically into the work. There was not much group level guidance; we received coaching as much as we wanted, but we had to be proactive and ask for it. Very much like in real life. On the other hand, to get an educational impact a short explanation of Business Model canvas and Get-out-of-building would have been in place. My team literally left the building and interviewed potential users in various places. It was fun, but the real learning  came when one of the coaches pointed out afterwards that many of our target users were actually in the same room. Anyway, the main thing is not to get stuck on trying to solve the problem within your team.

The energy level on Saturday was so high that we easily worked till 10pm. It felt like back in the student days, only the food was better and healthier.

The Sunday was the pitching day, so we felt the pressure from the morning. When we asked for a pitch advice from the coaches, we surprisingly got five different pitching storyline suggestions. It all felt confusing and annoying. As a team we started to feel the tension. At this phase I noticed the grownup growing inside me: the temptation to take an easy road of being right, ´I have done this before, I know the answer´. Maybe the same happened to coaches and that´s why we got so many different suggestions. Afterwards when I reflected I got an ´aha´ moment. All that pressure and conflicting advice simulated real life experiences; all kinds of people tell you how you should build your idea but at the end you will have to make the decision whether any of the advice matters. Finally on Sunday evening all the 12 teams pitched what they had built over the past two days. It was amazing to hear how ideas had evolved into a completely different level in such a short time.

To sum up, I did not learn so much about Bioeconomy & Sustainability but instead  I got a great hands-on experience on building a startup idea in a team with great diversity. And I connected with a number of new interesting people. Some of those discussions might even lead to working together in a project. Finally, I´d like to share my learnings about Dos and Don´ts for a grownup at a Startup Weekend:

  1. Take the Startup Weekend as an opportunity to play with a startup idea. Nobody expects you to succeed.
  1. Don´t feel intimidated, just go. Very likely most of the other attendees are there for the first time. If you do not have an idea or do not want to pitch your idea, you can join a team and play with somebody else´s idea. In case you feel more comfortable knowing some theory beforehand, read Steve Blank´s, the startup guru´s, tools.
  1. You get the most out of the event if you leave your ´where is the business case´ attitude and your grownup ego at the office. Be open, curious and humble.
  1. Be a curious grownup – join a team  you would never have thought.
  1. Seek and absorb all possible advice throughout the weekend – that´s how you learn most.

More information on Startup Weekend.

Twitter: @tuija_pulkkinen

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