How to start a new company in 50 hours or less

I was working this past weekend, but before you send me sympathies I should tell you that I was having tons of fun. I was one of the coaches at our local Startup Weekend here in St. Louis. And I had a blast.

Startup Weekend is an outfit that has been around for several years. They do this blitz unconference-meetup-hackathon event that starts Friday evening and some 50 hours later (with optional time off for sleep), ends Sunday night with a series of pitches from participants. In between random people, many who have never met each other, try to figure out how to work together and form a company on the basis of a few wild ideas. It is just crazy enough that it actually works: last year more than 2,000 new ventures were started in cities scattered around the world. Zaarly.com is one of the success stories that started about a year ago, and Foodspotting.com is another company that had its origins with one of the Startup Weekend.

This past weekend I could have attended Startup Weekends in Nice (France), San Jose, Minsk or Norway, but I figured I would take the easier route and just drive downtown to the local one. I am glad that I did. Over the weekend, I met with a half dozen of the 12 teams that were eventually working together, offering advice and pearls of wisdom, some of which was taken, some of which was ignored. That is part of the fun of the process: you aren’t making the decisions, just acting like a trusted advisor.

This whole notion of trust is an interesting one, something that I thought about last night when I finally got home from the festivities. I mean, these people are just sitting in a random conference room. They don’t know if the person across the table is a charlatan or the real deal. And the group has to select a team leader and figure out who is going to do what when and how. That is a lot of decisions to make in a very short time.

On top of this, there was a broad mix of skills and people that came together for the weekend than you would find at the typical tech conference. I was expected to see a lot of multiple-pierced 20-somethings; instead there were lots of minorities and women and people nearing my advanced age sitting around the tables with the Gen Y’ers. That was amazing: and what was more amazing is that everyone had something to contribute. Several of them came from other cities that don’t have their own weekends, they wanted to be part of this that badly.

Nevertheless, the people in St. Louis weekend seemed to be getting along just fine. The winner of the weekend was a group that didn’t even have the germ of an idea when they sat down together. By the end of the weekend, they had done some test marketing, grabbed gigabytes of data from the Internet, put together a very compelling pitch, and two of the members were trying to figure out how to quit their day jobs to devote time to the venture. That was exciting to watch.

Startup Weekend isn’t completely free: there is an entrance fee of around $100 to support its operations, and there are grants from a variety of corporate benefactors to keep it going.

The weekend kicked off a series of events for St. Louis entrepreneurs. Tomorrow, there is the initial meeting of the local chapter of Startup America that tries to foster relationships between entrepreneurs (startupmo.org). Then Thursday is an open house for the next group of five companies that will receive investments from Capital Innovators, a tech accelerator program that has been in operation for several months. And I am involved in another mentoring operation called VentureAdvisors.org that is trying to provide a broad selection of services for more mundane companies.

These events plus the Startup Weekend are being held at an old office building downtown that used to house the regional headquarters of Macy’s. I am glad to see St. Louis bring new life into its downtown, and bring so many people together who are interested in starting new ventures.

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