Startups, product development agency, Insights

How Startup Weekend Schools Us in Product Development

"It’s amazing!"

"You‘ll love it."

"Inspiring."

There was an abundance of superlatives and excitement when my colleagues at Around25 talked about Startup Weekend. This is all it took to get me pretty hyped, so I had to check it out for myself. And so did 20 other Around25-ers.

Truth be told, they were right. It was all of the above, only they forgot to mention the nerves, stress and adrenaline involved.

For those of you unfamiliar with Startup Weekend, the concept is straightforward. You have an idea on Friday and - hopefully - a product by Sunday. Or as Ioana put it, you get into ‘a purgatory where your startup idea gets heavily roasted by heavily qualified mentors only to arise stronger and more fitted to the real world.’


We are a few weeks later now and emotions have settled.

And since there's never too much reflection to be had, I used David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle to shape up what me and my colleagues learned about product development.

Experiential learning stands for everything we "learn through discovery and experience" and Kolb's model reveals how we undergo these 4 phases whenever we learn from experiences:

  1. Concrete Experience
  2. Reflective Observation
  3. Abstract Conceptualization
  4. Active Experimentation

What I did in this article is I took each one of these stages and linked it to:

a) our personal takeaways from Startup Weekend;

b) a distinct phase in product development.

To follow everything more easily, I elaborated point b) at the bottom of each chapter.

Let's dive into it!

Step#1 - Concrete experience

What it means: ‘Having a new experience that creates an opportunity for learning’

Whatever you learn needs a trigger, triggers emerge from opportunities, and opportunities arise from exposing yourself to new experiences.

This is exactly why we sign up for Startup Weekend each year (this year more than ever).

Is Startup Weekend different from what we do day in, day out in the office? In essence, not really. Developing products is what we do at Around25. Mostly those of our clients, sometimes our own.


However, there’s a twist - and here's where the 'concrete experience' bit can be seen.

We don’t usually have our QA people do the design for an app. Or have our devs decide on the go-to-market strategy. What about a manager sitting on the sideline whilst an intern is pitching?

But at Startup Weekend, we can do all of these. People take on different roles than they usually do. They agree to undergo a different experience, a concrete one, out of their comfort zone. Some seem to be born for these different roles, others struggle a bit more.  However you look at it, the foundation for learning has been set during these 56 hours.

So how do we translated this concrete experience into actual product development knowledge? We finally got through Product Development Phase 1:

Exposing your product idea. You have had an idea for weeks, maybe even months. Startup Weekend provides you with a platform to finally share it with the world. First you pitch it on Friday, then mentors will challenge it, knock it down and help it back on its feet - ready for another final pitch on Sunday. So you get to talk a lot about your idea. It might get uncomfortable at times, seeing others tweak your brainchild, but most importantly, the idea is finally being put to work.


Step #2 - Reflective observation

What it means: ‘Reflect on the experience and review what has been done’


Because Startup Weekend is a rollercoaster, this stage of the learning process is vital.

Startup Weekend starts rolling on Friday night, only comes to a stop on Sunday evening and everything in between can feel like a blur. You have a hundred and one things to do, must shift your focus several times, go from "my idea is gonna change the world" to "what on earth are we doing?" and back.

But in the midst of this chaotic environment, you learn to do reflective observation about your product and update it on the spot. In our case, this was most visible with the Startup Weekend newcomers who took new roles within a team. Here's where I was able to see the reflective observation phase at work and its results i.e. inputs like these:

‘YOU
NEED
A
BUSINESS PLAN’ - Ioana
‘Make sure to have a plan ready, before starting to run around like a headless chicken’ - Cristi
‘Design and wireframing were a first for me. Loved it. And nailed it.’ - Ale
‘Validation, validation & validation. Don’t even think about developing an idea without validating it’ - Novi

So now that we know how to reflect about our product, we're equipped for another stage of product development.

Product Development Phase 2: Understanding the impact of idea validation.

Idea validation is where product development and reflection meet. You exposed your idea to a new environment in phase 1. Mentors had their say and you worked on validation through other channels. Now is the moment to pause for a while. Reflect and decide which ones of all the inputs thrown at you in the past hours, are worth carrying forward.


Step #3 - Abstract conceptualization

What it means: ‘Develop theories to explain the experience, giving rise to new ideas or changing a preexisting concept’

This is where Kolb’s experiential learning model can get complicated, so I have been free to interpret it to my convenience. Put in my own simple words, it’s about searching for connections between your recent experience, the observations you just formulated about it, and stuff you already know.


None of us sat down for an afternoon to reflect on Startup Weekend and come up with theories about their experience. As noted in the previous lines, it happened unconsciously. It happened when we all got back to the office on Monday and during the work we did in the weeks after.  


Take one of our devs, Novi, who worked on the business side for the entire weekend. Rather than coding his life away for the client, he became the client, asking the devs in his team to deliver the code. Having stood on the other side, he now had ‘a better idea of the stages startups go through, allowing me to understand the needs of a client better’. Cliché? Perhaps. Valuable for his work? Without a doubt.

So now we got to Product Development Phase 3: When you get past idea validation, it's time to put it in a business model.

Business model. The fusion between old and new. I bet, I hope, you were convinced that your original idea was ready to make a change before coming to Startup weekend. I also bet, that it got modified quite a bit during its hours spent at the event. Time to merge your original idea with the new input you deemed valuable in phase 2. At long last, start turning your idea into a product.


Step #4 - Active experimentation

What it means: ‘Apply what you learned to solve problems & make decisions’


What’s the point of learning without applying? That’s exactly what Andrei was thinking. A dev on last year’s winning team, he came back this year for the big unknown. Being the driving force behind a team, he was there to ‘test my idea, improve my skills of any kind and apply what I learned last year’.

This learning experience is also carried into the office. I could go on and state 'that we now know all there is to know about working with startups' and 'that we feel more qualified and ready than ever to apply what we learned', but that would just be cheesy marketing talk.

There's no such thing as perfecting your craft in a weekend. However, participating fits in a broader range of activities at Around25. Hackathons, blog series, Fullstack Cluj events, giving talks, and Startup Weekend - these are all things beyond a strict job description. They give us the chance to gather bits and pieces of knowledge and bring them into the office to apply them. Consider these initiatives a validation of our company culture.

So since we have these going on, it was easy for us to use what happened at Startup Weekend for broadening our knowledge about the product development phases. Time for Product Development Phase 4: With the business model defined, start developing an MVP to get your product out there.

MVP launch. Again, what's the point of learning without applying? You've had 56 hours to work on your idea, learn from mentors and assemble a final product. You might have won, you might have not. A first big step was to expose your idea and bring it to Startup weekend. The next big step is to launch the MVP resulting from your idea turned product. Employ your acquired skills from the past weekend to make things work to the best of your abilities.


5. On a final note

Getting at this point with my article, I think it's time I wrap everything up and point out - if this hasn't been obvious so far - why Startup Weekend is such a great place to 'learn through discovery and experience' (i.e. what Kolb's Experiential Learning Model is all about):

  • You get the concrete experience to expose your product idea and trigger the product learning cycle.
  • You get all the tools for reflective observation in the form of idea validation.
  • You get through an abstract conceptualization phase that helps you define your business model.
  • You get ready to cap it all up in the active experimentation phase and start planning for the MVP launch.

Basically, after attending a Startup Weekend, you learn to navigate this:

All this learning is obviously great, but isn’t Startup Weekend a competition? You bet it is. Trust me, the only thing you want to hear on Sunday evening is your name in the top three. Winning matters, big time.

But it’s not the sole purpose of participating. ‘A place to test your idea’ as Andrei called it, to which I would like to add ‘where winning is what you strive for, but failing is tolerated’ . Well, seems like I do have my cheesy talk in the end.


More thoughts about past editions of Startup Weekend:

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by Loïc Mignon

BA & marketing intern, currently studying in Belgium

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