10 years ago, I organised a Startup Weekend and it changed my life…
Musings on opportunities seized, ripple effects, and “passing the beaker”.
By Samantha Deakin
My mouth is completely dry. My heart feels like it’s grown three sizes and will shatter my chest at any moment. I’m convinced that everyone notices my hands are shaking. I keep them in the back pockets of my jeans as I force my trembling lips to smile and welcome the attendees one by one.
Name? Check. The intern working registration looks at me and nods. Good, another developer. “It’s just down the hall. There’s pizza and drinks and we’re due to start in about 20 minutes.” I fight to maintain control of my right hand as I release it from my jean pocket and hand over the welcome pack.
This is not my first rodeo, but it feels different. When I first saw the schedule, I pushed to be involved even though it meant working on a weekend. Rapid pitching, talking to customers, coaches, judges, prizes. This was not just another business event.
I smile at another student, not much younger than me (would I have attended something like this when I was studying? On my own? Probably not). She heads off down the hall and I admire her just for turning up.
It kills me not knowing what’s going on in the main room but I have to trust that this guy we met only yesterday, who’s flown all the way from Seattle to be here, and who – it feels – currently holds the success or failure of this event in his hands, knows what he’s doing.
About the Author
This has been a whirlwind of a process. We’re told that organisers typically give themselves three months to prepare for this one weekend. We only even heard of it just six weeks ago. In that time, we’ve found a guest speaker, six coaches, four judges, organised catering of seven meals altogether, and then the constant marketing to persuade people to attend. It’s been exhausting and I wonder how I’ll make it all the way to Sunday night. What’s more, organisers are usually previous attendees, volunteers, not university employees. Sara and Guy fought hard with the organisation to let us host one at The University of Sheffield. It has to be a success.
The trickle of attendees slows to nearly nothing. 20% no-shows. Not bad for a mostly free event. I glance at the clock and realise we’re running behind a little. Leaving our intern to greet any stragglers, I join Kav in the main room.
Pizza’s going down well. The students are filling their boots with free food. There’s a palpable nervousness… or is it excitement? The two feelings are so related and they switch depending on whose face I rest on. None of us really know what’s going to happen. We have no idea how much these next 54 hours will change the paths of some of our lives.
We have no idea how much these next 54 hours will change the paths of some of our lives.
I glance at our facilitator. Kav Latiolais. American. Used to work at Microsoft. The Microsoft, the one in Seattle. I’ve never known anyone who worked at such a big name company. And now he runs his own company. Kav’s not nervous. He looks completely at home, like he’s been here in this exact spot a thousand times. The attendees start to take their seats. Kav nods at me.
I use the buffet table to support myself before I force another smile and nod back.
Kav turns to the room, 57 attendees in all, mostly male, probably wondering if this will be worth spending their Friday night on, and says in a surprisingly laid back voice:
“Welcome to Startup Weekend Sheffield.”
8th May 2022, 5.30pm
It’s so good to see Paolo again. I figured he’d flown from Italy to be here but it turns out he and his wife have moved to the UK and are living in London. I try to remember when we met. Maybe seven (or eight?) years ago at a Startup Weekend organisers summit in Berlin, I think. Or was it Rio? My eyebrows knit together as I search my brain for the details. Suddenly, I realise my face probably looks angry, or even worse, bored, so I bring myself back to the present and remember to once again look around and smile. Chris and Harriet and James are here. The dream team. My comrades in arms for so many events. And fellow mischief makers at too many after parties to recall.
I note the venue. It’s amazing – a far cry from that first event all those years ago. We’re in the WANdisco offices at Kollider, Castle House and the space is perfect for a weekend of hacking, business modelling and pitching. I glance at Rose Tran who’s sitting next to me, on my right. Behind me are Simon Scott and Robert Bell. My fellow judges. Denislav has put together a good panel.
I try not to yawn. I’m exhausted again, but for different reasons than before. I’ve got two children at home and the youngest is what we’ll describe as ‘wakeful’. This is my second week back at work and my first evening out since she was born 10 months ago. I know it’ll be hard to concentrate, but I so wanted to be here. I couldn’t miss this one.
Back at work. My dream job really. Although I never thought I’d ever be lucky enough to get paid for the bits I’ve mostly been doing in my spare time this last decade. Naturally, I’m still in the startup scene, official title: Super Connector, which makes me and my colleagues, Ceri and Laura, joke that you can find us at any reputable electronics store. So I’m not just here as a judge, but as a TEAM SY rep too, especially as we’re sponsors.
Paolo is speaking and he easily brings me back into the room, as any experienced Startup Weekend facilitator will.
“We’ve been together since Friday night and I know you all won’t let me down now. So when I say ‘Startup’, I want you to say ‘Weekend’ but make sure you’re louder than me.”
To a room full of English natives, this could seem awkward or gimmicky, but this is an internationally diverse crowd. And as a SW facilitator myself, I know that Paolo’s job is to inject some energy back into the room. These attendees have been working hard. They’re nervous. And tired. Coming back to the moment, joining their voices together to shout the name of the event they’re at is the equivalent of a verbal power pose.
We’re all clapping and stamping together. Now we’re ready. Good job, Paolo.
It’s Sunday, the final presentation night for Startup Weekend Sheffield, May 2022. Two nights ago, these attendees swallowed their fear and pitched their ideas to the room. They formed teams with total strangers and then spent the weekend taking those ideas from concept to minimum viable product. They’ve had just 54 hours.
Somehow, they have to take everything they’ve done, all that they’ve learned and built, and condense it into a five minute presentation for a panel of judges, which includes their customer validation research, product demonstration and business model. It’s a borderline unreasonable ask. But they always manage it. In the 20 or so events I’ve been at, I can count on one hand the number of teams who have been unable to make it all the way through to final pitches.
I can’t wait to hear what they’ve come up with, but as Paolo hands the stage over to Phil Hornby, I realise I’ll have to. This isn’t just any Startup Weekend. It’s the 10th anniversary and a degree of reminiscing is entirely necessary.
8th May 2022, 9.15pm
I’m pleased with myself because I’ve remembered to put my car lights on to drive home. How long has it been since I’ve driven anywhere in the dark? Never mind. I can’t wait to get home. But I wish I could have stayed. A conflict that represents in a nutshell the complexity of being a working mother who loves her children while simultaneously yearning for the freedom to engage in her earlier passion of work. I settle, for the time being at least, for nostalgia.
Not for the first time, I think of how different my professional life might have been if I hadn’t pushed to run that first Startup Weekend back in 2012. If Sara hadn’t believed in me despite it not really being my job. If Kav hadn’t spent that event challenging everything I thought I knew about starting a tech business, teaching me so much that weekend about customer development, iterative design, and the value of experiential learning. And inspiring me to consume everything I could on lean startup. Less talk, more action.
“You sound like Kav,” said Chris Murray, overhearing me chatting to one of the teams at our second event eight months later. I beamed at the compliment.
Every event brought a different facilitator from a different country – Claire Topalian and Katie Chase from Seattle, Kathleen Fritzsche from Germany, Stina Liland Nysaether from Norway, and more. I soaked up everything I could from them during the event and at the regular organiser summits put on by UpGlobal, the non-profit that owned the Startup Weekend brand at the time.
The effects rippled out from Startup Weekend Sheffield to monthly startup meetups in the pub as attendees asked “how do we stay in touch?”. To a pre-start programme (we’d never heard of a pre-accelerator) as attendees asked “we have a team and an MVP but where do we go from here?”. It led to my own experience of being a critical friend as some of our Startup Weekenders continued with their ideas and raised seed investment, hired employees, started working on new ideas, succeeded, failed. It contributed to my promotion at University of Sheffield Enterprise to Startup Coach. And the co-design with my colleagues Darren and Janet, of a co-working space as yet more people asked “but where can we meet and work?”
The rollercoaster of emotions that is the experience of Startup Weekend set me up for what I’d feel when one of our biggest supporters, regular coaches, and now a good friend, Michael Howe, and I founded Campus Capital, and grew it, and were eventually forced to close it.
I take the 2nd exit and change gear.
Without that first event, I may never have taken any of the other steps in my career that have led to me being qualified to work for Capital Enterprise as part of TEAM SY, a project with the mission of developing South Yorkshire’s tech startup ecosystem through funding startup programmes which support entrepreneurs through each stage of their startup journey.
I’ve been a facilitator for Startup Weekend (now owned by Techstars) for eight years now, which has taken me all over Europe meeting other organisers and experiencing the startup cultures of other cities. I owe a lot to Startup Weekend.
One of the ideals of Startup Weekend is to ‘pass the beaker’, referring to the original Startup Weekend logo, representing creation, cooking ideas, and experimentation. ‘Passing the beaker’ is about continuously generating new community leaders in a city, but it’s not always possible. It was hard to ‘pass the beaker’ in 2018 to new organisers, but I’m proud and glad that I did. First to Chrissie, Kisha, Giorgio and later Harry, Denislav and others that I’ve never even met. They’ve kept Startup Weekend Sheffield going and each new organising team has brought something new to the table.
I tsk at myself when I notice the speed camera I just passed and realise I’ve been doing 33 in a 30 zone. I slow down. I think about Denislav’s announcement, made just before we revealed the winning team. He’s retiring. This will be his last event as an organiser of Startup Weekend Sheffield. I’d like to think that he’s also bagged his dream job, although his journey is just beginning. He’s keeping busy as Marketing and Community Manager at Transform SY, a TEAM SY startup programme. It’s Denislav’s turn to ‘pass the beaker’.
Chris and I had to hold ourselves back from volunteering ourselves again, such is the addictive pull of the event. But as happens with Startup Weekend, some of tonight’s attendees were on their second or third trip. I wonder which of them will decide to try their hand at organising the next one. Which of them are up for having their lives changed?
Speaking of changing lives, I’m home. I creep into the house my children are sleeping in and locate my husband. He knows more than most what tonight meant to me. To start something, to build something, to have a legacy.
Thank you, Startup Weekend. For everything.
About the Author
To find out more about Startup Weekend Sheffield, visit the official Facebook Page.
In order of appearance
Sara – Sara Pates (https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarapates/)
Guy – Professor Guy Brown (https://www.linkedin.com/in/guy-brown-8505a0/)
Kav – Kavanaugh Latiolais (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kavlatiolais/)
Paolo – Paolo Lombardi (https://www.linkedin.com/in/paoloxlombardi/)
Chris – Chris Murray (https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrismurray0/)
Harriet – Harriet Holman (https://www.linkedin.com/in/harriet-holman-92284840/)
James – James Gregory-Monk (https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamgregory/)
Rose Tran – Rose Tran (https://www.linkedin.com/in/rose-tran-mba-b28b0062/)
Simon Scott – Simon Scott (https://www.linkedin.com/in/simonjs/)
Robert Bell – Robert Bell (https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-bell-251b6b17/)
Denislav – Denislav Ivanov (https://www.linkedin.com/in/denislav-ivanov-446bbb171/)
Ceri – Ceri Batchelder (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ceribatchelder/)
Laura – Laura Bennett (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauraihbennett/)
Phil Hornby – Phil Hornby (https://www.linkedin.com/in/philhornby/)
Claire Topalian – Claire Topalian (https://www.linkedin.com/in/clairetopalian/)
Katie Chase – Katie Chase (https://www.linkedin.com/in/katherinechase/)
Kathleen Fritzsche – Kathleen Fritzsche (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathleenfritzsche/)
Stina Liland – Stina Liland (https://www.linkedin.com/in/stinaliland/)
Darren – Darren Chouings (https://www.linkedin.com/in/darrenchouings/)
Janet – Janet Grant
Michael Howe – Michael Howe (https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelehowe/)
Chrissie – Chrissie Elliott (https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrissie-e-96775420/)
Kisha – Kisha Bradley (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lekishabradley/)
Giorgio – Giorgio Cassella (https://www.linkedin.com/in/gjcassella/)
Harry – Harry Liddell (https://www.linkedin.com/in/harryliddell/)
My husband – Adam Hill (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dradamjhill/)
Robin Hartley – serial attendee, winner, and now co-founder of FourJaw Manufacturing (https://www.linkedin.com/in/robin-hartley-5b65a6a6/)
Giles Moore – Airstoc (2013 winners who went on to raise investment) (https://www.linkedin.com/in/giles-moore-1440672b/)
Andre Ferreira – Airstoc (https://www.linkedin.com/in/andre-f/)
Manu Matute – Airstoc (https://www.linkedin.com/in/manumatute/)