Key Ingredients for a Successful Startup Sprint: What We’ve Learned
Spoiler alert: the resounding theme here is ‘Just Enough’
Last weekend, we hosted the fifth annual Next 36 Startup Sprint at NEXT HQ in Downtown Toronto. On Friday night, into the building trickled ten, twenty, forty and then eighty attendees hailing from Vancouver, to Regina, to Halifax — all equally eager to get their hands dirty bringing their ideas to life, and hopeful to win an advance spot to Next 36 National Selection Weekend 2019.
The premise of the weekend was a relatively simple one. Using a Lean Startup method, teams would form, pick a massive problem to solve, ideate through a solution, build a prototype, and pitch it. As with any ‘Startup Weekend’ or hackathon, this idea is deceptively simple in theory, and more complex in practice. As you may have guessed, the aim here was to introduce participants into a microcosm of entrepreneurship: where information is imperfect, time is limited, and critical decisions have to be made quickly to get ahead.
Setting the Stage: Idea to Impact
To help set the stage for what a roomful of wide-eyed participants were about to undertake, several alumni sat down for a Fireside Chat on ‘Going from Idea to Impact’.
Nadeem Nathoo (Co-founder, TKS; Next 36, 2012), Andrea Palmer (Founder & CEO, Awake Labs; Next 36, 2017), and Chenny Xia (Co-founder, Gotcare; Next 36 2014) kicked off the weekend with a candid discussion that touched on everything from how to choose a problem worth solving, to what will make or break your ability to solve it.
Three key takeaways:
- Like anything else, entrepreneurship is a mindset. If the Olympics didn’t exist, you wouldn’t see people training to be Olympic-level swimmers. This is the level you need to be thinking on to become a high-impact entrepreneur.
- What is the elephant in the room — the biggest assumption — that you’re ignoring about your business right now? Start there.
Tackle that first. Because if you can do that, you are insuring your future chances of having other problems to solve down the road that you otherwise might not get to. — Andrea
- Be laser-focused not only on the question, “What is the painful problem we are solving?”, but “For who?”.
You need to understand the end-users, the humans, you are building for. Be hyper-observant. Ask questions. Understand the gaps in the current service offering where there are opportunities. — Chenny
Just enough: Tooling
Following the panel, we were lucky to have Farwa Kazmi — Co-founder & CEO of ExploreUX, and Director of Product Design at Kira Systems — lead a prototyping workshop for the group.
After covering the journey that got her to where she is today — a key ingredient of which was curiosity — one piece of advice stood out among the rest. At the end of the day, “your prototype is a means, not an end”. Farwa elaborated on the importance of viewing your prototype as a tool to communicate the function and affordances of your solution, not the finished product.
My favourite example came from a Top 6 Team, Monolog, who pitched a voice-powered web design tool powered by Amazon Alexa. In their final pitch, the prototype was simply two teammates speaking to one another across the room along with incremental slide changes to simulate what the voice-powered user experience might be like.
Teams were not being judged on the fidelity or polish of their prototypes, but in how well they were able to communicate their solution to judges. When anyone can pick up a tool like Sketch, InVision, Balsamiq — even simple pen and paper — to quickly communicate and iterate on an existing idea, it frees up time to think more deeply about identifying the problem, the market, and how one might validate each.
Just enough: Time
In the short time frame of a Startup Sprint, execution equals validation. After hearing from our speakers, participants had just over 10 hours to form teams, land on an idea, conduct research, refine, and submit their final projects.
A few years ago, we made the decision to pivot away from the standard hackathon model into more of the “Startup Weekend” model popularized by Techstars. Then we made it even leaner. By removing the technical elements from the judging criteria, you are freeing teams to think about questions that affect the viability and feasibility of their project when it comes down to the business model. You’re also forcing them to confront their key assumptions early on, to ensure that they have interesting technical problems to solve down the road.
Teams sought to validate their idea using whichever creative tactics were available to them: whether it was surveying other participants, speaking with clientele of local shops, cold-calling experts, or polling their Facebook friends. In each case, the tight Sprint timeline employed a constraint that necessitated teams make decisions quickly based on the available data.
But, to speed up the process, they did also have access to some incredible mentors.
Just enough: Feedback
Mentors largely included Next 36 alumni, along with product managers, designers, and veteran entrepreneurs from the Toronto tech ecosystem. One thing we strove to create throughout the event — both with participants and mentors — was a culture of radical candor.
By Saturday morning, mentors arrived to see teams working away on their fledgling ideas, but already in a place where they were asking substantive questions.
One team in particular pitched their idea for a smart task-tracking and productivity tool for students to a mentor, who, upon hearing the pitch, immediately asked, “On a scale of 1–10, how direct would you like me to be with my feedback?” The two women on the team replied, “Ten.” He proceeded to give constructive advice that essentially encouraged them to start from scratch, as they had just pitched GSuite.
While the duo didn’t end up placing in the Top 6, he remarked to me after the demo judging round that he thought their team had made the most progress over the weekend, simply because of how they had taken feedback to heart and course-corrected early on.
Mentors were there to help teams understand whether they had a painkiller, or just a vitamin. And sometimes the best way to do that is with (lovingly) brutal honesty.
“It’s amazing to see what ambitious entrepreneurs can achieve in such a short amount of time when given guidance and support!” — Alex Barclay (Final Judge; Investment Manager, MaRS IAF)
Summary: Really good ideas can come from ‘Just Enough’
Over the weekend, we saw a myriad of big ideas crop up. From a total of 22 teams, 6 rose to the top:
1st place: Spotlight | An integrated annotation tool for avid podcast listeners
2nd place: Thred | A discovery and POS platform for interior design firms
3rd place: Araknet | A business intelligence tool for non-tech individuals
Top 6: Monolog | A no-code, voice-powered web design tool
Top 6: SurfaceX | A biodegradable bone implant for post-surgery monitoring
Top 6: Divergent | An IoT solution for public safety related to gun violence
Other bold ideas ranged from project management automation tools, to quirky toy robot companions, to a seaweed-based clothing subscription for the sustainability-minded.
A successful Sprint for us, meant high quality teams pitching big, bold ideas that had been validated. All in all, we learned that the key to a successful Startup Sprint lies in three ingredients:
- Maximize time to focus on problem identification & validation. This forces teams to confront assumptions early and build a solid foundation
- Be clear about outcomes & expectations. Allow teams to see prototypes as a communication tools and a means, rather than an end.
- Create a culture where honest feedback can be given. Teams need to hear constructive feedback early on to course-correct, and to determine whether they have a true painkiller, or just a vitamin.
A huge thanks to all of the mentors, judges, and volunteers who made the Next 36 Startup Sprint possible, including our friends at You’re Next Career Network. We couldn’t have done it without you!