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Wanna make a billion bucks?

MelodyThe hyper-entrepreneurial Melbourne IT ‘Start-Up Weekend’ event and similar ‘rapid development’ initiatives could revolutionise the way in which ideas are developed across all industries and sectors, writes Melody Ayres-Griffiths.

15 May 2011

Psst… wanna make a billion bucks?

For IT mega-entrepreneurs, this isn’t just a dream, it’s seen as an achievable goal.

The Melbourne Start-Up Weekend, held over the weekend of 7 May, was just one of many such events held in recent weeks, and the calendar into the future looks quite busy, with 70 events being scheduled from Charlotte, North Carolina to Jakarta, Indonesia.

From Friday night to Sunday evenings, attendees are encouraged to work with each other to realise tech-related ideas and concepts into firm, marketable products using so-called ‘LEAN’ start-up methodologies, which include rapid ‘iterations’ or version development of the idea and implementation of the idea using existing free ‘off-the-shelf’ open-source software.

In principle, it all sounds very exciting – dozens of participants, both with IT and marketing backgrounds, seeking to excel and reach that goal of achieving a ‘minimum viable product’ – but in practice, at least in the case of the event I attended, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Why not?

Let’s examine the event in a bit more detail. Arriving at the venue on Friday night, my partner and I were greeted with some much-appreciated drinks. Some meeting-and-greeting took place where ideas were initially floated between participants.

It quickly became obvious that there was some confusion regarding the nature of the proposals the participants brought to the event – some had brought long-standing ideas that they had been working on for months, while others, ourselves included, had been given the impression we were meant to think up an idea roughly on the spot – that forming part of the ‘spirit’ of the event.

This confusion was never adequately resolved.

After all of the attendees had been registered, the pitches began. The idea, it turned out, was that we were to all put forward our propositions not to a panel of judges who would assess them on their merits (as I had initially thought), but to each other. Then, we would each have three votes to give to those proposals we appreciated most. It all seemed a bit contradictory.

Most entrepreneurs are generally blind to trends. Sometimes, this is out of fear of learning that their precious ideas have already been pursued already; other times there is a ‘delusion of desirability’ and a bit too much unearned optimism. Sadly, although there are millions of so-called entrepreneurial ‘experts’ out there who repeat a mantra of positive thinking to the point of sounding like a bunch of chanting pixies, the truth is any business venture must be approached with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Having the same people who desperately want their ideas to succeed vote on the projects that they think will succeed is a pointless and counterproductive exercise simply because they will not stray from their own narrow viewpoints.

In this case, none of the ideas my partner and I felt were fresh and potentially lucrative made it into the ‘top 8’ projects elected to proceed. None of them. Ironically, virtually all of the ideas we rejected straight-away due to being too focused on saturated markets (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing), lack of profitability, or similarity to previously failed ventures succeeded in finding traction amongst the attendees.

There was a common theme of selling an individual product to either a small business or a consumer, typically promotion, or a sales channel, funded by either fees or advertising. No ‘Facebook’s or ‘Twitter’s here – there was a service that would broker print advertising in magazines to small businesses based on some measure of relevance, and another service that would reverse-auction product requests from consumers to suppliers, for example.

These attracted much greater interest than those concepts that were more likely to innovate – perhaps out of fear that attempts at innovation succeed far less often than ‘low-hanging fruit’ commercial ventures, but disappointing nonetheless.

Some consideration ought to be given to the benefit of having the same judges who assess the value of a property at the end of the weekend choose the projects at the start of it.

It was quite plain to me that by putting the onus on the attendees to select the ‘most viable’ projects, the organisers inadvertently stifled potentially groundbreaking innovation – and even worse, some attendees with real talent, particularly developers, chose not to participate any further.

I imagine other Start-Up Weekends have different demographic make-ups, but the participants in this event were also a bit light on the technical side, and this likely further influenced the outcome of the voting, but my point remains the same.

On the bright side

There was a bright side. Although most of the projects were quite uninspiring, what was made of them over the subsequent 48 hours held a few surprises. The winner of the contest, a Chinese-language teaching game, developed a native-tongue neutral method of teaching Chinese through symbology and pictorial representations of Chinese symbols. The game itself was boring as sludge, but that concept of a one-size-fits-all method of teaching languages has some real potential to break out into a franchise.

Beyond the projects themselves, there was mentoring and networking. Some of the mentors were great, but they were mostly focused on entrepreneurship and marketing, not technical areas – hopefully, future events will be able to book some high-level IT professionals in addition, since this particular event is IT-centric. The event was a good opportunity to meet a number of local entrepreneurs, but not serious software developers – perhaps, in Australia, these sorts are not likely to have much entrepreneurial spirit, but once again, if they were brought in as speakers and mentors I imagine the participants would have progressed much further in improving the viability and definition of their projects.

Despite these flaws, would I attend again? Absolutely. There were a few nuggets of gold buried in amongst the coal, I met a few really interesting people, and we did produce the foundation for a potentially lucrative start-up ourselves – lucrative enough that we chose not to present our concept to the judges, since by doing so we would have potentially soured our business model, especially as the organisers thought it a great idea to film all of the final presentations (another bone of contention.)

In 48 hours we took an idea, stripped it down to the bone, and realised that buried within that idea was something truly innovative – that wouldn’t have happened had we not attended. Would we have liked our concept to have been initially popular? Of course we would have. Would we have been happier had the attendees chosen at least one of the projects we liked? Yes we would’ve.

Better luck next time.

Oh, and ‘just one more thing’ (thank you Mister Jobs) – there was one further, and I think very crucial, realisation that stemmed from all of this.

What if we were to apply the Start-Up Weekend model to other professions and industries? For example, what if a number of budding television producers, writers and directors participated in a similar scenario?

In that industry, pitches for programs tend to be developed by one or two people – and most fail. If a half-dozen people worked on a pitch over two days and refined it to a really polished proposal with the aim of winning the commissioning of their project, I think we’d be seeing much better programming than the television equivalent of low-hanging fruit such as ‘The Biggest Loser’.

Take a number of aspiring chefs, pick six of their dishes, and have the collective spend the next 48 hours refining each of those recipes with the winning dish served in one of the world’s finest restaurants – and the author gaining the potential to become the next celebrity chef.

Fiction writers pitching mystery novels. Architects pitching skyscrapers. The possibilities are truly endless.

To conclude: to me, the model itself, its flaws and its failings – but also its beauty and potential – formed the real substance of what I came away with from the Melbourne Start-Up Weekend event. By setting a short timeframe not to produce a complicated (un)finished product from scratch (such as the 48 Hour Film Project) but to simply to refine, or produce a viable concept for one, combined with a serious competitive element, there seems to me an opportunity to create a new paradigm in product development that could stretch across all industries.

Perhaps, 30 or 40 years from now, these sorts of events will be commonplace, forming an important part of both education and business activities in all manner of creative and technical sectors. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Flaws aside, I feel the Start-Up Weekend concept was itself the true winner of Melbourne Start-Up Weekend. Congratulations.

Melody Ayres-Griffiths is an associate editor at The Scavenger.


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