Startup Weekend CologneBeing invited to present Startup Weekend Cologne was a true privilege. My business, coLab, was born out of Startup Weekend Athens in 2009 and I know first hand what a life changing experience it can be. I suspect the same feelings are being felt by most participants in Cologne who met each other for the first time and together created so much.

Entering the Startup Weekend pressure cooker produces superb results. The mashup of experienced and not so experienced, the raw, the lightly baked, the spice of different cultures, folks from other cities and countries, all expecting something different while actually not knowing what to expect at all. It’s a melting pot of ideas and activity that produces a warm flavourful mix of creativity and innovation.

Being from Greece, I was especially apprehensive about going to Germany and playing the startup business “expert”. My fears were quickly put to rest upon entering betahaus and being greeted by its hostess Anu Beck (betahaus is beautiful). I immediately got the sense that this weekend would be truly special. Volunteers were buzzing around, getting final details ironed out. A nervous but determined energy prevailed. This was going to be amazing. Anu introduced me to Vidar Andersen, the lead organiser and the rest of the team. We got to work straight away. The event was starting in 2 hours. This was go go go time.

Fast forward to the event and all I can say is that the crowd were warm and receptive and by the end, the organising team and I had turned them all into screaming lunatics.

I was told later that some thought it “Charming” that a Greek was running the event. The slightly different flavour than the straight strict German business culture they were used to seeing was a welcome thing. Not sure how to take that remark but all I can say is that from the get-go, I was determined to give the event a little craziness, a sense of fringe, a sense of frontier. That is, after all, what entrepreneurship is about. You’re working on the fringe, on the cusp. New technologies, new teams, uncharted territory. Startup Weekend is exactly that. Actually, in Greece, it’s life.

Some volunteers approached, saying that some participants were nervously eager to learn about the pitching “Process” – I think that’s a German word. I introduced them to a Greek word: “Arakse!” It will be fine. We’re all friends here, we all want to see each other succeed.[See video from Stefanos Sitaras]

After playing a few networking games (I won’t reveal them here, you’ll have to come and experience the craziness yourselves) The crowd produced about 40, raw, 1 minute pitches. Some ideas were pretty amazing and it’s these that inevitably progressed to the next phase. The recruiting period straight afterward was insane! There was no German order here. None. This was a free for all talent orgy. Get what you can, and fast. Complementary skills and all that. No, absolutely no German order. That came after.

The organizing team kept up the fever. The Videographer[Ali Mokhtari] worked endlessly to get good quality content out there. We had a live blogger[Droid Boy] and a live photographer[Dawawas] adding pics as things happened. All this is engaging stuff and essential to delivering an outstanding event. Startup Weekend is the one event that can rally everyone in a local community around a common objective. This happened in Cologne too. I was very surprised to see so many similarities between the Athens scene and the Cologne scene. Both good and a few not so good. It’s all necessary. Startup ecosystems are just that. Living, breathing things. They are vibrant villages and Startup Weekend is their annual festival. What a privilege to be invited.

Execution is everything. Time for order. Immediately after getting teams together everyone got to the real task at hand. These guys know when to turn on the order and when to turn it off. After a well run braindump exercise, there was precise and surgical execution of their plans. The business model canvas was often extended and amplified. They took it apart and put it back together again with fine precision. Some teams had status meetings every couple of hours. All teams had an operational manager in place, keeping track of who was doing what. Everyone, focused. Flawless.

One team came to me immediately after seeing that a team member was not engaged enough and placing the plan at risk. We handled it elegantly – “Stick around dear friend, observe but please don’t interfere and interrupt.” They moved on.

Day 2 and Vidar had done the magic and had arranged for Andrew Hyde, Startup Weekend’s founding originator to pay us a visit. Hats off to you Vidar. You are on fire my friend! I had last seen Andrew in 2009. He witnessed the birth of coLab.

Andrew came in and spent the day with us, reminiscing the first days of SW and revering its global success, while also doing some ad-hoc mentoring to some teams and some of us organisers too. What an amazing guy. I put up a pic on facebook and tagged it #MyStartupHero. He is.

Vidar and the team had pulled together a top-notch group of mentors and all of them took to the task with enthusiasm. I think both mentors and mentees learned a lot from each other this weekend.

Teams continued building, surveying customers, iterating their ideas. Some had started apps – All were efficient and driven. We continued well into the night until it was time to turn off the order again.

Day 2 Phase 2 – Did I mention there was a beer sponsor? Well, give Germans a little beer an ipod and a microphone and all hell breaks loose. Till 6am. Task number 1 of Day 3 was to destroy all video evidence and develop a new SW protocol. Henceforth, all camera phones at Startup Weekend will be locked away when phase 2 of day 2 begins. This type of disorderliness cannot escape to the masses. It’s just too disruptive. Society just isn’t ready.

Day 3 is delivery time. 15 teams had worked through the weekend to build out their ideas. Judges had by now shown up and everyone was gearing up to see the final presentations. Vidar and the team had secured an amazing judging panel. Unlike something I have ever seen. I was definitely punching above my weight (That is how you improve right?)

It’s 5pm and we’re ready to begin the final festivities. Seeing what teams have achieved during the weekend. There is a cheery environment, a sense of achievement, of camaraderie. This has been a long distance journey. In my final talk, I liken it to running a marathon together. “You make best friends with your co-runner during a marathon.”

Teams get ready and I announce the first presenter ……

That was part 1 ….. Part 2 tomorrow!
[picture credit to DaWaWas]