Startup Weekend Brussels – An Inside Perspective

OR,  How many arm chair commentators does it take to completely and utterly miss the point?

A common response to a lot of high profile contemporary art is, “My eight year old kid could have done that.” or “I’ve got a camera, if I had the time I could take better pictures than that.”

Yeah. But you didn’t.

But I would encourage you to give it a go. You might find you’ve got a real talent. Or, you might find it’s harder than you think. Either way, you’ll discover something new.

I’ve heard similar things said about the projects that came out of Startup Weekend Brussels II.  They’re no good, they won’t go anywhere, there’s nothing innovative there.

This isn’t a defence of the outcomes, it’s a clarification of what we can realistically expect from such a weekend.

From my perspective, Startup Weekend isn’t about creating highly polished, robust businesses that can be launched the following week. It’s about the process, not the outcome. It’s about working with others, listening, learning and rapidly making decisions to get to the Sunday night pitch. It’s about getting the damn idea out of your head and onto the table where it can grow, change and become more plausible thanks to the input of the other people that have also been crazy enough to turn up and spend 54 hours with you.

This is my second Startup Weekend Brussels. The first time I just helped out a bit, trying to hone the pitches of anyone that needed some help on the Sunday afternoon. This time I was a co-organiser.

If there was one marked difference between the February and the October events, it was how much people have taken on board that you have to start speaking to your potential customers as soon as possible so that you can actually figure out what they want. This may have been due to the fact that we had Lean Startup advocate, Ash Maurya here with us all weekend, but I think it’s also due to the fact more and more entrepreneurs are adopting Lean practices and not building their products in isolation.

Yes, there were a lot of surveys created in the February edition to find out who the customer really is, but look at how many more people really “got out of the building” this time. One team conducted video interviews in the street, another went to Brussels airport to conduct questionnaires. Others found potential customers in their local Saturday morning market,while another team actually set up a dedicated call centre in a separate office making outbound calls to do market research. So we are developing best practices here. These are lessons and skills that people can use in the future businesses they develop or take back with them to their existing jobs.

There are plenty of incubators and more structured programmes such as Founder Institute and MIC Boostcamp that will take you through the painstaking details of setting up your company and validating your business model in 3-4 months. SWBRU is a sandbox where everyone is welcome, everyone has a role and everyone had damn well better make their mistakes in a safe environment before committing thousands of euros and time into setting up a business selling stuff nobody wants. It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes in the real world. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re doing something wrong. But it does mean your chances of survival are much higher.

So here are my big three takes from the weekend:

  1. people came after a full week in 9 to 5 officeville and worked their asses off all weekend. 99% of the time I saw nothing but smiles and enthusiasm the whole weekend. When I didn’t it was usually a look of complete frustration. Not because they wanted to leave, but because the participant was struggling with a business problem for which they so wanted to find a solution. They were being challenged, but they were stepping up.
  2. people learned and “got out of the building”
  3. the Judges surprised us, but that’s why we use them. They have insight. They’ve built successful businesses many times before and can spot the holes in a business pitch immediately.

And finally, if you’re still reading this, here are some of my favourite pictures from the weekend. Enjoy.

Pictures by fellow co-organiser,  Leo Exter of Westartup and Natalie Hill, official photographer



14 comments on “Startup Weekend Brussels – An Inside Perspective

  1. Hi Gilbert,

    I fully agree with you. The process is usually more important than the result. To achieve success (i.e. great results) one needs to continually improve one’s process.

    [warning: extremely obvious statement ;-)]
    It’s by doing and failing and doing again you actually learn to do.

    This whole continual improvement idea seems to be beyond most people. Sad.

  2. Thanks for sharing this great opinion. I think you’re totally right and it is how I lived the Startup Weekend: Creativity + Smile + Enthusiasm + Challenge + I-Want-To-Learn = Startup Weekend Brussels.

    As you write, it’s a sandbox and they are a lot of great teachers around, i.e. the mentors and organizers. You learn by doing something that you can’t learn in the book. You learn to dare as you can do when you play a game.

  3. Totally agree, it’s the process that is the most interesting/valuable part of the Startup Weekend.

    I was only there to watch the final presentations, so I will only give you my ‘observer of the finals’ opinion.

    Even though the weekend is all about the process, the judges took their decisions, with a fresh look, on the final presentations. But then, what I thought was a shame was that they left even though some tried to cram in a little feedback from them on their way out.

    Each member of the jury are interesting people and have an interesting background, with loads of valuable experience, and it would have been really good if they took some time afterwards, or as part of the deliberation, to tell us their opinion and insight about each project, as well as their final judgement. Just saying…

  4. Agree 100% I went with a vague idea of what I was going to get out of it but got something completely different and still 5 days later am trying to process it all. This is really one of those times where its not the winning or losing, its the taking part that counts.
    And on top of it all I met loads of great people. Can we do it all again this weekend please?! 🙂

  5. Gilbert,

    Great article. I remember telling the journalist that even if my team wouldn’t have been successful or made it to the finish line, the networking experience and the learning in Startup Weekend are invaluable and worthy on their own.

    I myself can testimony that going to SW had a much bigger impact on me, and learned me a lot more than all the books on startups I’ve read so far (Eric Ries, Ash Maurya, Steve Blank, Patrick and Brant, Jessica Livingstone, you name them), or the Lean Startup Circle group which I actively participate in.

    I was really happy to see that people got out of the building too, being a lean startup enthusiast.

    I also think that the judges (and some people in the event themselves) had a way too critical view on the projects, and instead of seeing them as ideas taking shape, judged them as actual ventures, which is something they will only become in at least 3 month’s work.

    I would love to see in the jury panel not VCs or angels, but startup accelerators like Rockstart, seedcamp, HackFwd, that are more used to dealing with seed stage ventures.

  6. I couldn’t agree more on what you and Jennifers said.

    I also believe that negative feedback with a good argumentation is a key to have a successfull project.

    As a member of iTrusMyDriver team I would love to get the feedback from the judges (I’m even more interested in negative ones)

    Thank you.

  7. A startup weekend is an event where the philosopher meets the plumber meets the artist meets the pitbull and together they create something beautiful and new. And that’s how it all started …
    Good job folks. Congrtaz for all teams and thumbs up for the organizers.

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