by Zach Johnson
This past Sunday I found myself in the very good company of a group of spirited entrepreneurs, hackers and designers. Startup Weekend Sunshine Coast 2016 brought together 13 teams over 54 hours and, for the fourth time, I got to experience the energy, enthusiasm and exhaustion of groups of strangers in a confined space under enormous (mostly fabricated) pressure. Their task was to take an idea pitched on Friday and demonstrate how they’ve gone through the necessary steps to explain how they are solving a specific problem and, ideally creating a viable business in the process. My role on the judging panel afforded me a necessarily critical view of these businesses and an opportunity to reflect on the process of problem solving.
Full disclosure: I’m not a massive fan of the Startup Weekend model — at least not as a place to start a business. The spectacle obfuscates the gravitas of the process and thrusts strangers together through a perverse combination of speed dating and self-promotion into an intimate dance that, for many, will end in disillusion. And while that may just be the point, billing of the event tends to focus on launching a startup in a weekend. But what it really offers is an opportunity to experience the process of some of the things it takes to launch a startup and, most specifically, how to figure out of you’re genuinely solving a problem or if you’ve just got a solution looking for a problem. This is a really important question to ask, and answer. The best teams I saw this weekend, spent time on this question and that time spent was reflected in their pitch.
For others, a massive opportunity was missed to demonstrate a reasonable grasp on the problem to be solved by understanding existing alternatives and especially the competitive landscape. Several teams pitched ideas that were already being addressed in a near-identical manner by established solutions. This is arguably forgivable on the Friday night pitch but to spend the next two days building a product that is not sufficiently differentiated from multiple competitors is unacceptable. Addressing this is probably a task for the Startup Weekend organisation to either: help set clearer expectations of participants to create rather than copy and/or; focus less on the outcome and more on the process. In other words, if your idea isn’t actually going solve a problem in a weekend you can absolutely start to learn the process of solving problems in a weekend.
After all, the best entrepreneurs are nothing if not exceptionally creative problem solvers.