Stirring Up the Startup World

A Conversation with Marc Nager
Director, Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend is a nonprofit organization based out of Seattle, Washington, which hosts fifty-four-hour events that educate aspiring entrepreneurs by immersing them in the process of moving an idea to market. Startup Weekend has helped educate more than 30,000 entrepreneurs at some 475 events worldwide, facilitating the launch of more than 650 new startup ventures around the globe. With events in more than 124 cities and thirty-plus countries, Startup Weekend is a signature event during Global Entrepreneurship Week, a Kauffman Foundation initiative that annually introduces millions of young people around the world to entrepreneurship.

Marc Nager jumped full-time into Startup Weekend in 2009. He serves as director along with Clint Nelsen and Franck Nouyrigat. A bootstrapping startup itself, Startup Weekend operates with a small core team based in Seattle and key program facilitators in cities around the world. With a background in international business, technical services, and business processes, Nager travels the world building communities and advising startups. In the following interview, Nager describes what happens at these events that are inspiring startups worldwide and how the Startup Weekend phenomenon has struck a chord that resonates with entrepreneurs everywhere.

What is Startup Weekend?

Startup Weekend recruits a highly motivated group of developers, business managers, startup enthusiasts, marketing gurus, and graphic artists to come together in a meaningful way in order to transform ideas into reality. Startup Weekend doesn't teach entrepreneurship in a classroom setting. We follow a fun, interactive, and results-driven model. As a result, we have become one of the leading catalysts for startup creation, co-founder dating, and entrepreneurship education in startup ecosystems around the world.

Can you describe what happens at an event?

The aspiring entrepreneurs have sixty to ninety seconds to present ideas for new startup ventures. Teams then form around the best ideas. These teams are composed of four to ten people, and usually are balanced in terms of technical and non-technical backgrounds and expertise. Entrepreneurs then spend the entire weekend getting advice from professional mentors and building a proof of concept, demo, or sometimes even a finished product.

All that happens in just a few days?

We really want to stay focused on actually starting new businesses. Our motto is, "No talk. All action."

We're not just here to talk; we're here to empower people to start businesses.

We have facilitators who are passionate about getting involved in startup communities around the world. We put expectations in place at Startup Weekend, and we don't waste time. We bring everybody together and give them deadlines, but the key to our success is that we also provide tools to help them meet those deadlines. We're not just here to talk; we're here to empower people to start businesses. Because everybody in the room considers themselves to be entrepreneurs, they begin coming up with novel approaches to the problems they're facing. We encourage them to start tackling these problems right away.

Is there any apprehension about sharing ideas openly with the group?

Oftentimes the question is, well, I don't want to share my idea with the world. What happens if somebody takes it and runs with it? But what we find and what we are able to share with the rest of the world is that ideas need to be shared in order to be refined. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's the execution that matters.

So the idea gains momentum and gains strength along the way.

Exactly. In many cases, your initial pitch looks nothing like your final product. As a team, you begin to reiterate, reform, and shape it into something better. You know Facebook or Google didn't begin looking anything like what they've become today.

How does Startup Weekend fit with the other resources communities are offering to help entrepreneurs? 

The more aligned our visions and our efforts are, the more the communities win and the more value we can bring to entrepreneurs. Global Entrepreneurship Week, for instance, is a chance to realize that you're not alone in this movement, and it is an opportunity to actively take part in the experience. It is a great time to take what can be learned through more traditional programs and other events during GEW and test them out using real-life scenarios and solving everyday problems. Together we create that culture, that ecosystem that supports startups and entrepreneurs.

Can you feed off the energy in the room of a Startup Weekend?

We're lucky at Startup Weekend to get to work with passionate entrepreneurs around the world. We see that everybody has ideas and is very interested in solving problems. It's a theme that is common no matter where you are.

It may sound like a cliché, but sometimes it's a little bit scary trying to be an entrepreneur. We need to help people come together and move beyond that feeling. All you need are the right people and the right resources to begin creating solutions.

The philosophy of Startup Weekend is something that strikes a soft spot with every entrepreneur out there. It's all about working together to build the newest, greatest, and most innovative thing imaginable.

This essay is an excerpt from the Kauffman Thoughtbook 2011.