On startup weekends and getting things done

It’s monday morning and I’m waking up with a hangover sensation, not from partying in the streets of Lille as one could think at the beginning of the week, but from the last intense 48 hours. I took part in the so-called “creathon” organized by the Switch up challenge and MakeSense. The special touch on this event was the social impact the projects were meant to have. The result could even not be a company but a non-profit organization.

I’m going to generalize my thoughts as much as possible, but to give a concrete view of what is going on, I’m going to use the example of Quare, the project we worked on. It is a device quantifying your stress and the quality of your current working environment thanks to different sensors and individually adjusted algorithms.

Building a company from the ground up: just let me finish this

Creating the whole concept for a scalable, repeatable and profitable business based on an issue you want to tackle takes time, focus and creativity. The goal is not to come up with the most spectacular way to solve the problem and build your product, but to find the simplest way allowing your business to grow without limits. You’re not building the Empire State, you’re planting an acorn to grow an oak.

Stop organizing everything, mess is a bless

People coming from a business and management background tend to think of activities in terms of processes, so a structured way in which things are handled and operated. When designing the concept for a startup, just don’t. The reason is, your team is going through several critical phases where any constraint in the reasoning would hinder the ability to rephrase the problem you’re focused on, or come up with a radical new way to address it. Just let the mess happen and collectively feel when it is time to move on to a next step. If a team member feels like you missed something, simply let them gather their thoughts and arguments, then try to build on them and see how they change the concept. However, not everything must be kept if you don’t want an over-generalized problem.

Focus is key to deliver

This part is a bit tricky and you won’t find any silver bullet, even less in this blog post. By focused, understand both being focus as state-of-mind and keeping your business idea focused on what matters the most to the issue you address: this is about making real choices which will never please everyone. Keeping focused and moving fast during the week-end has two effects. If you play well, you’ll deliver a lot more by the time of the final pitch, and that’s an awesome point if you have some of the following objectives:

  • Convince and impress specific people in the room: potential partners, investors, accelerators
  • Check how comfortable team members are with each other, if you align on your ambition, your definition and perception of the problem, the way you work and react under pressure

To relate things to our situation this weekend, we were an initial team of two engineers working for a middle-stage startup and two designers at ease with both product and graphical design. A highly motivated business school student joined the team a bit later in the weekend. We had both a creative and chaotic enthusiasm to explore the problems related to stress and lack of focus at work (the issue we decided to tackle) and some ability to focus and to move fast based on our diverse experiences and skills.

We addressed the issue of focus at work which is our direct concern while working in an open-space and dealing with creative work requiring long, uninterrupted sessions to make the best out of a day. Even though we spent a great deal of time defining the scope of the problem and primary targets, we all had this get things done attitude and were eager to start realizing something concrete from the beginning. So not only did we all have a strong link to the problem, we also had a common view on it, it allowed the team to have a sharp vision and homogeneous of work and focus.

But there are also several not-so-good reasons to move fast during a startup weekend:

  • Validate technical choices (Should my device communicate through Wifi or Bluetooth? What information do we need to store from our clients? Any back-end related question)
  • Precise quantitative estimates are pointless. Yup, business plans don’t have their place at a startup weekend, if they have a place at all for early stage of uncertain and radically new businesses. Try to simply get some rough ideas about the size of the problem, how much would the device cost in production.

Again, to relate this to our situation, we could make a pretty good estimate of the Bill of Materials based on the sensors we wanted to use and on our experience with Equisense (what components were needed, the type of micro-controller, etc…). We could come out with different shapes for the device and test it thanks to different people giving feedback which allowed us to iterate, but that was is. We did not go any further on the economic projections, nor did we try to build the whole product in two days. Okay maybe we prototyped the product with an Arduino and the appropriate sensors. That was clearly unnecessary for the weekend, but still fun to play around with hardware and show what anyone can do with a board, two sensors and some cables.

Nonetheless, one of the team’s designers bought an Arduino kit right after the weekend, a business student decided to go further with one of his personal projects after seeing how much we had got done after two days. Even if we don’t build the next unicorn, discovering each other’s fields and building a common culture in so little time was in itself a success and a learning experience.

Mathieu Besançon
Mathieu Besançon
Researcher in mathematical optimization

Mathematical optimization, scientific programming and related.