10 Reasons Why a Virtual Startup Weekend is Better Than In-Person (and 3 reasons why it’s not)

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Not enough time in the world to explain everything in this photo.

On the weekend of October 3, I co-facilitated a Startup Weekend for the Blackstone Launchpad powered by Techstars for the University of Texas Austin and Dallas communities. The experience was my first time doing a completely online version. It got me wondering…

What if this is actually better?

1. You can literally conduct it anywhere

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This is obvious but worth reiterating. I worked on one involving UT students, but many of them were scattered across the country, earning their degrees from the inconvenience of their homes. I knew going into the event that these students were hungry for a high-engagement experience, so I had to bring it.

That will remain a trade secret, but let’s say it involved a lot of BTS.

2. Easier people management (Zoom Pro)

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There’s a joke among organizers and facilitators that Startup Weekend is a lot like herding cats. Each individual attendee will have their own agenda, and in a room full of strangers, the difficulty of getting everyone focused increases. Add the element of doing all of this in a virtual space, and there’s a chance of low retention, which would be the greatest tragedy of all.

With Zoom Pro (and a decent event limit — I think this can be done well for events up to 100 if staffed well), you can make breakout rooms that are centrally managed by the Zoom host. The host in turn serves as a sort of “operator” that transfers attendees to their proper room.

I’d recommend that operator host working in shifts, as it can get monotonous, but it’s always good to have someone holding down the fort to transfer people between rooms.

3. Mass non-audio communication (Slack)

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Zoom does a great job for syncing with attendees, but everyone needs a messaging tool to use in a way that doesn’t distract from the facilitator’s communications and lets teams converse discreetly.

Slack is a familiar enough tool for this purpose. It has robust enough functionality to create groups for teams and announce news in a timely manner to multiple timezones.

One helpful rule we established: facilitators must be in all of the Slack channels for the teams. Facilitators should not mettle in the affairs of each team, but they should have the ability to communicate instantly and even offer feedback when prudent.

I’d recommend creating a private channel for your organizers and volunteers — this became vital for tactical decisions during the event.

4. Half-Baked IS very possible (Zoom Pro + Google Forms + Word Randomizer)

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Source: https://www.facebook.com/SWMaldives/

Every Startup Weekend has a proper ice-breaker, and no game is better than Half-Baked, which is much like a Startup Weekend hyper-compressed into a 30-minute format. The major differences with doing this in-person:

  • Zoom Pro’s Breakout Rooms to sort attendees into random teams
  • A Google Form to collect random words (one adjective, one noun)
  • A word randomizer to assign two words per team (don’t overcomplicate it)
  • Sharing screens instead of presenting on easel paper-and-marker

The one big energy saver is wrangling everyone to do this task, and somehow an online version of Half-Baked ran quite smoothly. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the rush of everyone’s laughter after getting their ideas submitted.

5. Idea pitch management (Google Forms + Zapier)

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I never realized how cumbersome pitch collection in person can be. A facilitator needs two people to write down via dry erase marker on large presentation pads their idea while someone keeps time and another hangs up each idea on the wall. Overall, a five-person operation.

All of that vanishes by creating the following.

  1. A Google Form with specific fields (name, idea title, problem, solution, and community) to collect all of the ideas
  2. A Google Doc to organize the ideas according to the order received so that they are easily pasted into the Zoom chat
  3. A second Google Doc to organize the ideas into a simpler list (order, name, and ideal title) for a later part of the process.

To handle Steps 2 and 3 (which can save a LOT of time and stress), I recommend making a zap or two in Zapier that organizes the data from Google Form Sheet to Google Docs.

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However, if you want the best results, you have to upgrade your plan so that Zapier pings your Google Form at least every two minutes instead of 15, but … that can come with a price (that’s cheaper than the paper alternative).

Otherwise, this is a good task to coordinate with at least two volunteers.

6. Faster pitch voting (Google Forms)

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With that aforementioned second Google Doc containing a list of all the pitches, it’s a simple copy & paste into a new Google Form. There’s no need to data wrangle too much. Forms will generate a bar graph that should identify the top teams easily.

I recommend requesting each voter choose exactly three teams. This forces the voter to consider other options rather than stack their votes onto a single team (most likely their own).

7. Efficient team formations (PollAndMatch)

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Now that the top teams have all been chosen, the most stressful part of Startup Weekend commences. Team formation is always messy, but we found a tool that makes the whole experience much neater.

Using PollAndMatch, we can avoid the chaos of floor negotiations and human resources headaches. The process is intricate but also simple, too.

  1. The organizers copy the data from the second Google Doc used in voting.
  2. Participants so a sorting vote, allowing participants to rank their teams by personal preference
  3. Once all the data is in, PollAndMatch will request the maximum size of each team. I would round up to the most balanced number here.
  4. Once entered PollAndMatch instantly churns out team assignments, indicating the highest team they could possibly match.
  5. The final data can be copied into a new Google Sheet for viewing.

Done properly, this can all take just a few minutes instead of the hours that team formation often takes. If discretion is needed, it is possible even to email each person their team assignments, too.

Naturally, teams will still have their growing pains in the first evening, so we still need facilitators to handle the changes. Still, it’s a great start.

8. Faster judging deliberation (Google Forms)

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For most of the day, Zoom Pro can handle presentations, lectures, workshops, and even mentoring sessions (by assigned breakout rooms and office hours). By the final day, things get logistically interesting again.

In my experience, judging deliberation can take forever. It’s especially worse when there’s no accounting system in place. In a virtual event, however, one must be set up beforehand, and if designed right, it will go by very quickly.

  1. Design. Make a Google Form with all of the three criteria (Validation, Execution & Design, Business Model). Add a field at the top for judges names and section them by team names. We went with a thorough one to decrease the likelihood of a tie, but there’s a small risk of making the data too robust in case the Form gets lost.
  2. Facilitate. During the final pitches, judges should be filling out their forms during the Q&A. This will make the transition process go by even faster.
  3. Calculate. Create a second Google Sheet tab and copy the Form Responses into them. I recommend populating the tab with quick adding algorithms so that you’ll know the top scores instantly.

There are a lot of moving parts, but we finished deliberation in less than 5 minutes with this system. I was beyond the moon, and our event finished early because of that efficiency.

9. Cutting costs across the board

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There’s a lot of waste that comes with events, and this is no exception.

Startup Weekends vary in cost, and most of it goes into food, swag, and supplies. Those resources may still be distributed, but they’re largely nice-to-have in a virtual scenario. To participate, you need a computer. To organize … pretty much that, too.

The people of Launchpad were gracious enough to send me a nice snack box, but I was already happy with the environmental impact of not going through so much waste. With these costs abated, imagine the possibilities.

A zero waste Startup Weekend is possible, however.

What do I miss about in-person Startup Weekends

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Sitting with some other community leaders at FounderCon 2015

All things considered, I still can’t help but miss the following

  • Good food and swag — I know, I know. I JUST said otherwise, but having up to seven meals with your new friends while iterating on a fresh concept is just … nice. Bond-building. Fun.
  • Hugs and high-fives — This could be a general thing, but I loved the visceral contact the experience. We won’t get that in a virtual environment.
  • The collective energy — Our event had two facilitators and an army of support in their volunteers, but being in a room together to harmonize over a shared passion… someday, someday.

What do you think?

Is Virtual Startup Weekend the future of this beloved entrepreneurial competition? Should we find ways to keep it in-person? Discuss!

— Lee

Write with intention. Think with compassion.

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