Running as many Startup Weekends as I have, I’d like to share a few observations that’ll hopefully help organizers elevate their participants’ (and to some extent, their own) experience at their event.
Space: Open, with a lot of power outlets and good lighting
I’ve both participated and organized in venues that range between the following extremes: a university’s grand activity hall that can fit more than 100 people and cargo bins-turned-rooms that can seat 15 people at a time.
Startup Weekend is all about collaboration, energy and a little bit of pressure so the best kind of space that I’ve found that emanates this spirit is an open work space.
Why? Participants can see and hear the other teams surrounding them, sharing in that energy. They are listening to the same background music, feeling each other’s reactions to announcements and sharing in the room’s mood of confusion, stress, focus and relief. In short, an open work space allows them to truly experience the event together.
The work space has to have tables and chairs that participants can work in, naturally, and power outlets available for each table. Seems easy enough, but so many times have I entered an event venue with tables and chairs — but no power outlets! Organizers then have to scramble on the day of the event to either buy or borrow extension wires and then secure them, else, people will start tripping over them. So add it to your check list — power outlets!
And lastly, good lighting. Not only is it good for social media but it also helps set the mood for productivity. I found that having a combination of white and yellow light for most of the day (even though some daylight is bleeding into the room) helps the participants stay more awake and engaged throughout the day. Trust me, you don’t want to be stuck in a room full of just fluorescent lights for three days straight.
- A separate hall where everyone convenes for the opening and closing nights. It adds to the drama and excitement (or fear) that participants might feel going back to “the other room” to pitch to esteemed judges.
- A private nook where people can retreat to and recharge if the energy of the group becomes too much for them. If this isn’t available, providing an isolated table somewhere would be a great alternative.
- A “war room” of sorts that organizers can store their bags, tarps and other logistics so that the venue is clutter-free. It can also be a place where tired organizers or mentors can take a nap.
Music: Energetic but not too loud; mellow but not too sleepy
I like to have playlists downloaded so that they aren’t reliant on the internet. In my experience, there’s nothing more immersion-breaking than choppy music or music with ads.
In my observations in running Startup Weekend events, having a smooth flow of moderately loud and energetic music in the afternoons and mellow pop music in the morning and evenings playing throughout the venue syncs well with what participants are feeling and keeps them rooted in their work through the event.
My two favorite playlists are this and this, curated by other community leaders in the Techstars Startup Weekend network. I’m still working on two other playlists so that music just doesn’t fall into a loop throughout the day but most of the time people don’t care for as long as they can hear a slight beat in the background.
It’s really important to let music fill the silence, but feel free to keep the introvert’s nook and war room as quiet spaces that people can retreat to.
Reminder: Speaking of music and sounds, please make it a point to be aware of the room’s acoustics. Meaning, if some of the mentors or guests or even the participants are making noise as someone else is on stage and especially if their voice echoes around the room, please remind them to keep their voices low.
Time: Be punctual and, sometimes, strict about it
I like how Startup Weekend is a no-frills event but because of this, sometimes participants get the impression that the vent isn’t very “serious” and, in my mind, that doesn’t simulate the “simulation of starting a startup” concept very well if they perceive this on the first day so what I like to do to keep things professional and add a sense of urgency to things is to be strict with time.
Dedicating a volunteer to just focus on making sure things are on time by giving them the program flow, a timer and placards with “10 minutes left” written on it really helps keep the program going and the speakers in check.
Starting on time regardless of the number of participants present is also something that took courage and time for me to really commit to. I found that you really can’t please everybody and so you’re going to have to choose whose time you’ll respect more; the time of those who came on time or of those who are still on their way.
Mentors as well should get this treatment. Organizing events in the Philippines, I’ve made it a practice to inform mentors from the very beginning that mentorship sessions will start with or without them on the outset so they know what to expect.
Program Flexibility: Be okay with things not going your way
Things go wrong. The more we accept that fact, the better we are at preparing contingency plans. If we want to run an effective program, we have to stick to our guns, improvise and deliver. Below is my list of “10 things that can go wrong when organizing a Startup Weekend” by order of “most likely to happen” to “rarely happens but worth preparing for” from my years of organizing / facilitating Startup Weekends.
- Only 10% of registered participants arrive on time.
- The internet is dodgy at the venue.
- The speaker / sponsor representative is late on Opening or Closing Night.
- The food arrives late on Opening Night.
- The sound system doesn’t work (well).
- A surprise “important person” demands for a slot to speak on short notice.
- The facilitator hasn’t arrived yet to open the program in any of the days.
- The venue is still closed.
- One (or two) participants make a scene for whatever reason.
- Power goes out at any point in the weekend.
Documentation: Pictures or it didn’t happen
One of the most important outputs you have to have after a Startup Weekend event (aside from doing accounting, filing for reimbursements and other Techstars protocols) is the event album and the Post-Event Report.
The event album has to be available for all to see, shareable and, most importantly, published before the next weekend after the event else the hype and appreciation for the beautiful pictures your volunteer took at the event will be wasted.
Note: Just like the timer volunteer, it would be most effective if the official photographer volunteer was dedicated to that one task of taking good photos.
Note #2: The official photographer volunteer is different from the social media volunteer. If you can, have two separate people taking these roles. The photographer focuses on producing work to be shown after the event, while the social media volunteer focuses on producing work to be shown during the event.
These photos aren’t just for marketing value, it’s also to elevate your participants’ experience, helps them relive the highs and lows of the event and, indirectly, encourage them to act on their learnings over the weekend. Don’t ever take for granted the power of a good photo.
For the speakers, sponsors and mentors, a Post-Event Report would be the most valuable for them. It outlines who was the audience of their message, what ideas and teams came out of the event and how much of an impact their contribution made to the event overall. No partner has ever requested this from me but learning from a few mentors about the importance of maintaining relationships and how communication plays a key part in sustaining them, thoughtful documents like these will go a long way.
You can also customize your reports depending on what your partner assisted you with. For example, this partner sponsored tickets to students who would not have been able to afford them so we created this presentation for them to get to know the kids they sponsored.
Small things that make a big difference:
- Give your participants an open work space where they can see, hear and feel each other’s mood collectively.
- The work space has to have work tables and chairs that each have dedicated power outlets and it has a good mix of white light, yellow light and daylight to keep participants awake and engaged.
- If available, provide an introvert’s nook, a separate plenary hall for the opening and closing nights and a war room for organizers.
- Download your music so you don’t break your participant’s immersion with choppy music or ads.
- Make sure the space is filled with the right amount of background music to set the tone; play high-energy music in the afternoon and mellow pop music in the mornings and evenings.
- Time is sacred. Hold everyone accountable and never waste it. Assign one of the volunteers to specifically be the event’s time keeper.
- Things can go wrong. I shared a list of 10 things that can go wrong at a Startup Weekend.
- Get a talented volunteer photographer or hire one. Everyone loves good photos. It helps with marketing and it helps people relive the event better after it happens.
Hopefully if you’re a first-time organizer, I just saved you a lot of heartache for your event. If you’re a seasoned organizer, are there any more tips you would like to share or any points I made you would like to agree with? Contact me or comment below!