Startup Weekend Toronto recap

I’m sitting at a cheap table at 10am on Saturday morning. On a regular Saturday I would be sound asleep right now but this weekend I am covering Startup Weekend Toronto.

Startup Weekend is a 54 hour event where people are challenged to create a business (and product) within a single weekend. It starts at 6pm on Friday and ends at 8pm(ish) on Sunday. Many of the people attending don’t bother sleeping during the event. This year the event is going on at The Burroughs on Queen West.

As I sit here there are hundreds of people all around me. Coming up with cool feature ideas, programming, planning the next 24 hours and generally getting excited about their awesome start up ideas.

Though I won’t be joining any of the startups I can still feel the energy of these young entrepreneurs as they see their dreams take shape in a single weekend.

The point of this weekend is collaboration but as I observe all the groups around me I can see the flaws in the plan. Though lots of young entrepreneurs showed up, there is a severe lack of developers and designers. Every team is walking around asking anyone that looks even mildly geeky if they are a developer… I’ve been asked 3 times already. Programming experience makes you an asset here at the event.

Another flaw is in the organization. Though the event is heavily focused on making your business it also features speakers. The first night they had 4 separate speakers all present in a row with no breaks. This means that all us participants were packed in a small room for hours on end, sweating in the heat. I’ll go into more detail later…

Day One:

A buffet of food was available from the start on Friday. Being a fat man this means that I instantly liked Startup Weekend Toronto. It also helped solidify the idea that the plan was for you to stay in the building for the next 54 hours. They were going to feed you, keep you warm and help you accomplish something amazing.

The event started with people milling around, enjoying some food and networking. I was somewhat surprised how well the networking worked out. Most events I’ve been to have utterly failed at this portion but something about the small space we were all packed in made it easier.

Speeches started about an hour after that and this is where I got REALLY bored. Don’t get me wrong, the information for startups was golden, but they scheduled 4 presentations in a row with no breaks. Then they had over an hour of pitches to go through. Being that we were stuck in a smallish room on a hot sunny day and their were hundreds of us, a break would have been nice.

The speeches contained a lot of buzz words like starting a ‘lean’ business and ‘pivot.’ This was a bit disconcerting but the ideals behind them were good. Tips like ‘don’t focus on dividing up revenue or adding tons of features’ were helpful.

After the speeches it was time to hear business pitches. People were lined up on one side of the room and given 60 seconds to pitch their idea. The ideas would then be voted on.

It was pretty obvious from those 60 seconds which ideas would later develop. Either because the idea was solid or because the person presenting it had energy and style. Quick tip: swearing seems to help.

The ideas were all voted on that night and the top 20 business ideas were picked.

My favourite idea from the first night was a bag of hipster stuff that you would get quarterly. This idea needed to be fleshed out but it was obvious it would do well here in Toronto.

The night ended with more networking and the formation of the first teams. Some teams started work right away but most people were tired and went home so they could get an early start on the next day. The building was left open until 2am and would be on Saturday too.

Day Two:

Saturday started at 9am with a pretty intense breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, fruit and other boring stuff. When I arrived most of the groups were gathered around their tables going over plans for the day. By looking around you could tell that some of them hadn’t slept yet.

A camera crew was walking around all day filming the event. These guys had the big boom microphone and video cameras and SLR’s. They choose three groups and will be putting together a video telling the story of these groups. We’ll link to the video as soon as it’s released. I don’t know how any group could work with a camera in their face.

This day was heavily focused on development. Nothing was scheduled for the morning or afternoon so that teams could focus just on their business.

The teams ranged in size from the EpicRise table that had at least 20 people, to a 3 person team that later became a 2 person team. This really had no effect on the quality as I later found out during the final presentations. Some of the big groups had lower quality presentations while the some of the small groups had amazing ones. It should be noted that people tended to gravitate towards the best ideas.

Some well known participants included Matthew Corrin (founder of Freshii) and the founder of Rocketr.

The day ended with a few speeches. These contained more specific advice to companies about what to do after the weekend. After these the teams all went back to work. One team interviewed girls at clubs while another interviewed George Stroumboulopoulos, trying to validate their idea and assumptions.

Day Three:

The third day was crunch time. No more surveys, no more ideas, no more planning. On the third day you either created your product, fought with a line of code that simply refused to work or cried in the corner as you watched your start up dreams get crushed.

This was a much shorter day than the previous two. Presentations started at 3:30 in the afternoon. Giving you very little time to fix bugs. I found the energy and panic that surrounded me to be quite invigorating at first but it soon became draining.

Groups were given 4 minutes each to impress a panel of judges. The judges came from a wide variety of fields but each one, if impressed, could probably take your product to the next level. Each team was given a microphone and access to a projector. You had to plug your own laptop into the projector and hope for the best.

The wifi was spotty at best so most teams opted to host their projects locally and the few who trusted the wifi ended up with bugs and issues.

The presentations themselves were a mixed bag. Some groups knocked us out of the park while others were plagued with bugs and issues. I expected a lot of the teams to have working prototypes but some only had a power point presentation to show for all their work.

The groups that really impressed me were OneCal, Epicrise and I have a feeling we’ll be reporting on these names a lot more in the up coming weeks.

The winners were announced later in the evening at an after party. In third place was, a new and innovative way to build an online reputation. Second was BabySimplify, a web app that would help new mothers decide what baby items they need (based on a survey the mother would take) and finally the winner was, a cool new way to create a highly visual resume based on your LinkedIn account.

Congratulations to all the winners. I had a lot of fun over the weekend and can’t wait for next years event. For more coverage on where these new startups are heading follow the Twitter hashtag #swToronto.