Hacking Education - Bringing Startup Weekend Back to Boston


Back in July, I was invited to co-organize an event call Startup Weekend. Created by Andrew Hyde in Colorado, and subsequently acquired by a non-profit called Up Global - Startup Weekend is a 3-day hackathon happening in over 150 countries around the world. It's mission...is to inspire entrepreneurship. And I, prior to July, have never attended one. It turns out that the last Startup Weekend held in Boston was about two year ago. 

I was quite intrigued about the idea of hosting an event this year, and was introduced to Vicky Guo. Vicky has been organizing and facilitating various Startup Weekends for some time now. We immediately clicked on the vision of organizing an Education focused event as a way to relaunching Startup Weekend in Boston. Known for it's 'brainpower', Boston/Cambridge are home to some of the world's leading universities and research centers. Yet, NYC is the center for EdTech. We thought it was time for a change... We were quickly joined by Alex HugonJared Cosulich, and two amazing volunteers, Julie Zhou and Mike Flynn.  For the next three and half months, we worked on securing sponsors, partners and all the bits and pieces needed to put on a 3-day event that would be Boston Startup Weekend Education or SWEdu. 

So, what goes on during a Startup Weekend? For starters, it's mega intense! Our event kicked off on Friday, November 21st, at General Assembly-WeWork, in the FortPoints area of Boston. With over 90 registered attendees, ready to pitch their ideas on reshaping education - Vicky and our team facilitated the evening's rapid-fire 1-minute pitches. Basically, anyone with an idea on solving a problem had one-minute to pitch and convince everyone that their vision and solution are the most viable, and for people to join their team for the weekend. 

The professional educators in the room would then validate the proposed ideas by voting. After the educator voting, then everyone else had a chance to vote on their favorite idea(s). By the end of the night, we boiled it down to the top 11 ideas. Teams began to assemble, and work began throughout the night. 

With an early morning start on Saturday, the teams were treated to amazing bootcamp event. The Firehose Project hosted a web-dev workshop while a Lean Startup workshop happened in the adjacent room. By noon, coaches/mentor volunteers from Boston's startup scene came in to help the teams develop their products, business model and carry out some initial market research and validation. 

By Sunday morning teams were getting a marketing crash-course by one of the instructors at Startup Institute, followed by demo-presentation/pitching pointers from our Sunday coaching crew. The evening's demo would host five of Boston's EdTech experts as our panel of judges. Each team had 5-minutes to pitch their startup, followed by the judges Q&A. The Sunday demo event was live-streamed over the interwebs and the twitter stream joined the conversations of other Startup Weekend demos happening all over the country.   

By this point you are probably wondering, how much can teams really get done in a weekend? Well...the Sunday demos showed off some very cool solutions including initial prototyped mobile apps, web platforms and landing pages, along with a few interactive wire-framed web apps. I was honestly blown away by the amount of work accomplished and energy over the weekend.  Our winning teams were:

#1. NewHall - a LinkedIn for high school students allowing universities to checkout student profiles, work accomplished and hobbies.

#2. Parent Primer - a web app that will help parents help their children with their school work. Curated content by master teachers making it easier for parents to assist their kids in learning.

#3. Lean Gap - an intensive summer programs for high school students to create, launch and fund their startup ideas. 

Honorable Mention: Future Vision - a mobile app helping parents motivate/reward their kids for their academic and extracurricular achievements. 

Helping setup the infrastructure and support network for all of this to happen was an amazing experience as an organizer. Thanks to an awesome team of organizers and volunteers, we pulled it off. And the most rewarding thing of all, is seeing the energy and commitment from the teams to continue on validating and testing their product/solution. 

 I'd recommend going out and experiencing a Startup Weekend event, especially if you've been tinkering with ideas or developing your own prototypes. Remember, there is no market for ideas. Events like SW are helping people test out their own ideas and solutions. You'll learn a lot over the course of a weekend, and by Monday morning, you just may be embarking on an adventure of a lifetime.




Teaching Entrepreneurship Begins with Good Mentoring

Great founders are constantly pushing their startup forward, where doing more and faster means finding yourself sometimes making decisions without enough knowledge or experience. With the constant challenges you face daily when building and driving your startup the best advice anyone could offer is that entrepreneurs need to surround themselves with good mentors.

I recall early on on my experience as a co-founder of Libboo meeting with our first angel investor and mentor. One of the reasons we got that early support was being open and expressing that 'we didn't know what we don't know'.  Mentors help you avoid those mistakes that could otherwise slow you down. 

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As a founder you're constantly collecting, synthesizing and analyzing information, and you just don't have the luxury of waiting and it helps to have mentors who have that experience to help you move faster through those decisions.

So, what advice is there for founders looking for good mentors? There are various articles out there on what to look for in a good mentor. There are no hard rules here. But, I've put together of few suggestions:

  • Look for Experience - A good mentor has the expertise, experience and skill you (and your team) don't have at this stage. Be honest and self-aware about the skills or areas you are lacking. Founding teams are like 'swiss cheese' knowledge- and experience-wise. Find someone who has gone through the actual experience and done the hard work to succeed.
  • Look for Success - Success can be defined in many ways. Looking for someone you respect and who is living proof of what you'd like to achieve is so important, especially if you will be acting on their advice. They say that 'Like attracts Like'. Consider that there should be significant overlap in your vision for the future.
  • Direct and Supportive - You may have heard of 'Fail Fast' - a good mentor will be direct and proactive in giving you advice, yet supportive in the way it's delivered. A good mentor recognizes that it's ultimately your company and he/she will never say "You need to or must do..." However, a sign of a great mentor is in the way they teach. They'll be socratic in the way they offer help and deliberate when time is of the essence or even when the message is not good. A good mentor is patient, yet is action-oriented. 

I would suggest taking the time in getting to know the people you choose as mentors. Sometime going for the big titles and mega pedigree ultimately may not be as helpful. I think that looking for other entrepreneurs, who have done it and are 'doing it - just like you, make the best mentors. But ultimately a great mentor want to- and enjoys paying it forward. 

I'm sure there are many great suggestions out there on choosing the right mentor. I'd encourage you to read more on this subject, and ask other entrepreneurs how they choose their mentors.