Musings of a Startup Weekend facilitator

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Sitting on the return flight from a turbulent weekend, I feel content as well as tired. Doing Startup Weekend stuff is on a volunteer basis, and it’s incredibly rewarding to do it. But the price you pay is the Monday after!

Startup Weekend Glasgow got me as their facilitator about a month before the event. The assignment system is completely arbitrary and it’s strictly up to the facilitator to remind the global Startup Weekend people that you exist. I choose to do this gently, but I sometimes feel there’s a pecking order that I’m not scoring high on. I don’t mind doing small cities like Glasgow, but I imagine some facilitators think big cities like Berlin, or London, are more glamorous.

Allan LoydsAllan LoydsAllan LoydsI checked in with the organizing team when we were matched up, and I got a message of mostly “everything is under control”, which works for me. The fact that they have a facilitator means the organizing team is inexperienced, so it’s good to keep an eye out. But in this case, after one conversation with the main organizer, a young guy called Allan Lloyds, I had good feelings. I booked hotel and flight, and promptly forgot about the whole thing until a few days before I got on my way.

Allan LoydsThere were some sporadic emails, but mostly it still sounded under control, and stress in the team is normal in the week leading up to the weekend. Allan seemed detail oriented – he preferred I book my hotel myself (the hotel was the venue which was really convenient for me!) so that no confusion was possible on Friday afternoon. I like detail oriented people, I’m one myself. A good sign.

So when I arrived at the venue, a super cool co-working space (the Scottish call them business clubs for whatever reason) called SocietyM, around 14h, the space was still bustling with co-workers and the organizers hadn’t arrived yet. We had had an exchange of emails that Friday about the presentation. This is one of the tiresome things about being a facilitator, we have to do the introduction to the event, with a 20 minute slide deck that has mostly silly and irrelevant information. But, rules are rules. In this case, Allan wanted to do some speaker before it, and then introduce me. This breaks the narrative in a way that I didn’t like, so I put my foot down by email and was afraid he wouldn’t back down.

The thought of not getting along with an organizing team terrifies me – imagine the bad vibes for an entire weekend. So I vowed to be as accommodating as possible to his requests, and if necessary bending (but not breaking!) the Startup Weekend rules. The moment he and I met in person, I realized immediately we would find a compromise quite easily, which we duly did: I would start with the obligatory ‘Why are you here’ slides, and then do the speakers’ slides while he spoke, and then Allan would do the thank you’s for the for local sponsors when it came up on my slide. Goal accomplished. He and the speaker, Chris Adams, from Cleanweb UK in London, turned out to be totally cool guys that were as eager as me to reach a compromise!

What Allan couldn’t know is that I like to do it that way in any case – I want to give the local organizing team the maximum amount of credit for their work, because I know it can feel unfair for them when a facilitator swoops in at the last moment and takes all the credit on stage. Having been on the receiving end of that myself, I vowed when I became a facilitator to avoid this as much as possible. So, during my Friday and Sunday presentations, I bring the team on stage and praise them loudly, regardless of whether they deserve it. I also tell them that, as a facilitator, I’m all theirs the entire weekend, and they can put me to work, including moving furniture, anything.

So I did my last moment edits to my presentation, and did the all-important tech check – make sure the microphones, projector and wifi work. In this case, the setup wasn’t great but it was adequate. It also turned out that the Sunday presentations would be in a bigger, better venue. Awesome!

Soon enough, the organizers got all set up, and before you know it the attendees started streaming in! This is one of the busiest and stressful times for the organizers, and I observed how they managed it was well as they could – no screw-ups. Excellent!

And before I knew it, it was time to start. I experience zero stage fright these days, but the speaker was definitely having some, so I distracted him by asking him stuff about him. It turned out Cleanweb UK is an interesting outfit, and I found myself getting along with him, and adding himself to my mental people-to-visit-my-next-time-in-London list.

Soon, Allan gave us the green light, and we started!

For those who’ve never been to a Startup Weekend, the opening is a fairly critical time. A lot of people that sign up don’t really know what they’re getting into, and are sometimes prone to dropping out on Friday night. They’re also a bit uncomfortable and tense because they’re in a room full of strangers. So I always start with the usual ‘why-are-you-here’ slides, which do a terrible job of explaining it, so i usually just run them through the mechanics, the process, of the event, with a focus on what they are supposed to deliver on Sunday. This usually does the job of explaining what they’re supposed to be doing.

The other challenge is to get as many people as possible to pitch on Friday. There are some cultural differences here: Southern Europeans are far more outgoing and willing to make a fool out of themselves on stage then Northern Europeans. Being in Scotland, I anticipated trouble, and sure enough, when I asked people raised their hand if they wanted to pitch, only 6 people (out of 65) raised their hand. I wasn’t concerned but the organizers had a massive freak out. But – they hadn’t seen my trick yet – I keep asking throughout the evening, and I always get many more people to pitch that way. Especially after the first pitches are done, people see it’s not so scary, and are more prone to do it. In this case, we ended up with 30 pitches, which i was secretly very proud of, and the organizers breathed easier again too.

The pitches always go quickly: one minute each, and I line them up and aim for 20 seconds between pitches. Because I’m so focused on process – I run the timer, I hand them the microphone, I instruct them to go the table to get a sign, unfortunately I had very little opportunity to listen to the pitches themselves, but the impression I got was that they were no worse or better than any other Startup Weekend I’d ever been to.

After the pitches, it was beer and voting, which the organizers ran without me having to lift a finger. I did help them deciding how many teams to go with – they chose to do 12 teams, which, with 65 attendees, I think leads to teams that are too small. But I let them to do what they wanted, of course, and it turned out fine in the end. Two teams merged, so we ended up with 11 teams. When the teams are announced, recruitment starts. This, for me, is one of the most fun parts of the event – this is where magic happens. People that were total strangers a few hours before are now busy negotiating, discussing, and starting to build! I love it – this is the magic. For the organizers, it’s a good time too – all you have to do is put the newly formed teams in rooms and you hand them some office supplies!

This is the first time the organizers get to relax. They deserved it – almost everything went flawlessly. I can relax a bit too, at that point, knowing that the organizers aren’t completely useless.

So we sat down with a beer in our hand (the last ones from the sponsor), and focused on another important Startup Weekend ritual: the organizers partying heavily but invisibly. Due to some weird Scottish law the booze run had to be made before 10pm, which they duly did. I’m not much of a beer drinker and they only got the cheapest beer on top of that, so I already knew I wouldn’t be a big part of it, but I appreciated that this part too, was organized well – they had a hotel room set aside where we could unwind and have a cold one – excellent! The speaker, Chris, joined us, and soon enough the atmosphere was relaxed and we were swapping stories about organizing startup events in different cities. Allan was from Edinburgh, and Chris from London, and since I’m from Paris, we had a lot to compare. Being old and wise, I decided to leave at 11pm and get to sleep before midnight – a Startup Weekend is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and you don’t want to exhaust yourself on the first day..

Saturday

The next morning I explored Glasgow a bit, and the architecture turned out to be less depressing than my friends had warned me about. The local dialect was very difficult to understand sometimes, and as always when I’m in the UK, I’m a bit clumsy crossing streets and that was no different here. What I really wanted was some tea and that beacon of predictability, Starbuck’s, was one block away from the event.

I walked into the venue around 11am, and I liked what I saw: teams working hard. When I checked in with the organizers, there were no big surprises, and we visited the other venue – the one for Sunday, in a local landmark called the Lighthouse. It turned out to be a great space in a beautiful monumental building – one huge room.

When I inquired about the tech setup (microphone, wifi, projector, the holy trinity), I was told ‘everything would be OK tomorrow’. This was tricky for me, our facilitator training tells us not to accept that answer, and to insist on seeing a full test. I briefly weighed my options and decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.

We also talked about Saturday evening – Allan wanted to show some movie (always a bad idea), and we started fielding questions about the presentation format for Sunday. The more the attendees know about the format, the better, obviously. The way I do it in Paris is that I have a handout on Saturday that I (or the mentors) talk about. Here that hadn’t happened, hence the confusion. I suggested an example pitch, and regretted it immediately, thinking the honor would fall on me to do it. But fortunately one of the organizers was a recent Startup Weekend winner! So we decided he would pitch before the movie.

And then it was mentor time! I already knew that one of the mentors was in charge of ‘distributing’ the mentors. This is an important point: you need to prevent the mentors each going to every team and asking them what they do, which is horrible for the teams. I’d met the lead mentor, Murray Buchanan, on Friday, and he seemed OK, but I knew nothing about him so I made a mental note to make sure he was doing it right. As it turned out, Murray was one of the highlights of the event – one big mass of rigorous Scottish well-organized entrepreneurial wisdom. He organized it wonderfully, including pitch practice on Sunday with the mentors.

So Saturday was over before we knew it! Another booze run was efficiently done before 10pm, and after some hanging out I was in bed again before midnight.

Sunday

Sunday is the big day! At least, for the facilitator it is – the Sunday presentation is the biggest balancing act. The organizers usually also have me brief the jury, and to do the deliberation with them for their winner selection. So my to-do list is extensive: prepare the presentation (I always add photos of weekend for the people that weren’t there, plus the jury bios, plus prizes, etc etc), brief the jury when they arrive, then I run the stage during all the pitches (two hours worth), plus the jury questions and answers.

I tend to be proactive with the jury, cutting them off if they ramble, which adds work. Then I go with the jury to deliberate, and I run the stage for the prize announcements. Allan had decided on 6 incomprehensible prize categories, which made it even more interesting. After the prize announcements, I have to thank all the parties involved, which I make a big fuss about – so many different people contribute to an event like this, it’s really incredible.

So when I came in at 11am again, I was determined to get the presentation done before lunch. This didn’t work – I got dragged into mentoring stuff and one team implosion. Team implosions are a common phenomenon at any Startup Weekend, but they tend to be dramatic in the sense that the organizers freak out about them, and it can destabilize other teams too if you’re not careful. In this case, it worked out fine – one team member basically left.

So it was 2pm when I finally sat down to do the presentation, and I also did a jury handout because of the weird prize categories. One thing I like to do is to keep the order that the teams pitch in a secret. This way, they can’t stay away and keep fiddling with their presentation until it’s their turn. We usually fix the order as alternating good and bad ones, ending on a strong note. As the facilitator, I knew next to nothing about the teams, so I relied on Murray, the king of mentors. He produced the list and I was able to put it in the jury handout for their convenience. I got ten copies printed and put them in my bag so no one could find them.

Allan was already running around to the new venue. To his embarrassment, there was a problem with the microphone setup. I sighed deeply and decided not to lecture him, but instead let him focus on solving the problem. It tied him up on the phone, I could tell. They wanted everyone to turn in a PDF presentation so there wouldn’t be the chaos of connecting a different computer each time. I advised against it (I’m more tolerant to chaos because I live in France) but they went ahead and did it this way.

We then herded the attendees to the new venue (a 5 minute walk away through the pouring rain), and they opened registration for people who come for the presentations. I was told there would be 100 people in total. When I walked in, the first thing I saw was two people fumbling with the microphone setup. They only had one mike with a wire working at that point. Unusable and a show stopper. I joined the fumbling, which didn’t help. I left them alone and they got two wireless mikes working, sort of. They kept turning themselves off, and it was a nuisance for me for the whole three hours I had to use them.

The jury had a nice table next to the stage, the way I like to see it. I also want for them to have something to drink on the table, and they set up water, and I saw some beers too. So far so good. I had to take them out of the room for the jury briefing, and we ended up doing it standing the hall. I kept it short, and gave the handouts I prepared. They were all intelligent people with expertises in the relevant background. Part of my standard briefing is “It’s up to you if you ask tough questions or not, but if you want to be mean, feel free to make them cry”. This gets a few chuckles each time but it gets my point across – you’re doing the teams a favor by being tough on them.

I brought the jury back, and waited for the green light from Allan. When I got it, I went through some photos of the event – including ones where people are sleeping on the floor, taken by organizer Jennifer Tough, who seemed to possess a mean streak that I liked. Then I had Allan explain the prizes (no one got it, as I predicted) and we swiftly went into the team pitches. I announced the first team 5 minutes before they had to start, and they were soon off! I started holding the timer as well, but thankfully Murray relieved me of that duty – another sign of how solid this guy was.

Listening to 11 pitches and Q&A is a lot – it’s two hours, and I didn’t have any rest the entire time. I kept the jury on their toes as best I could, and they did a great job, I have to say, I was impressed. Jury and mentor selection are are a great way to see how good the organizers are and this event was a top score.

After the pitches, Allan had cleverly scheduled two speakers, while I deliberated with the jury. One was through Skype, I and was convinced it wouldn’t work. I wasn’t there to see it so I can’t be sure. It did happen, but did people like it? Could they hear the guy well? I don’t know.

They prepared a room for us for the deliberation, with several bottles of wine, beer, and water and some nibbles. I tucked into everything, we all did. For the jury, I prepared a sheet so they could score each team (1 to 10) on the three main Startup Weekend judging criteria: Execution, Customer Validation, Design and UX. I was ready to add up all the scores, but it became more of an open discussion.

We exchanged opinions on all the teams, and to my surprise, their opinions lined up pretty well. I took the opportunity to start assigning teams to prize categories, and they went for it. After twenty minutes, one of the volunteers came up, a bit embarrassed, to ask how far we were. I told her to tell us, and she admitted we needed to finish in 10 minutes. Which we did! We easily agreed on team-prize category matches. So much easier than with French jury members!!

When we came back, the audience was tired, distracted and thirsty. I knew their attention span had been exceeded, and kept it as short as I could. Each jury member announced one prize. Each winning team came on stage and I ask them silly questions. 10 minutes was all it took. Then I did the ritual thank you with Allan, who had the good taste to get gifts (wine) for some. Embarrassingly, I got one as well, although I was hardly the one contributing the most to the event.

After that, it was a quick apero, and the venue kicked us out quickly, so we told everyone to go to the pub across the street. I stayed for one drink, being thoroughly exhausted, I walked back to the co-working, where we had to remove our stuff, and decided that my hotel room sounded very good right about then. But the others partied on until the early hours, I heard the next morning!

Conclusion

This was a very successful Startup Weekend event. I’m convinced they would’ve been fine without a facilitator, but i was there and they used me as a resource, which is the smart thing to do. I’m looking forward to the next event put on by this team!

Written by Wessel Kooyman

The author, Wessel Kooyman, is the CEO of Cole Street, a software company. Wessel is an entrepreneur and developer and has a lot of expertise in working for startups in Europe and the US.

One response to “Musings of a Startup Weekend facilitator”

  1. Fiona Godsman says:

    Great write up, very detailed! I thought it was a great event and agree with your observations about the jury 🙂 Glasgow has some beautiful architecture, and thought the dialect is strong the people are friendly. Next time, do make sure you have time to walk around and see the city properly.

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