Mike Bradshaw and I are on a 4000km expedition covering Central Eastern Europe. 12 meetups and 7 countries in a Land Rover Defender to cover and help startups everywhere, in collaboration with EIT ICT, AppCampus, HankenES and ArcticStartup as our media partner. It is part of our continuing efforts known as The Travelling Salesman project, which started with a massive 13000km tour of the Nordics. Our first week is behind us and we have just passed through the three Baltic States and into Poland.
One of the core elements of the startup scene in the Baltics is the prevalence of the 48 startup programmes, ie. Garage48 and Startup Weekend. The idea is you arrive on Friday with possibly an idea, or a desire to participate with an idea (as a coder, designer or marketer). You then form a team to execute on that idea — essentially a company — and on Sunday there will be demo day for you to show what you've achieved and to pitch the company.
Now as an educational exercise this is fantastic. In fact I would claim it is more valuable to go to a 48 hour startup hackathon than to spend time at business school, at least from a startup entrepreneurship point of view. It is supremely compressed learning. However, if you want to form a world-beating startup, the format is skewed. While there have been some nice companies coming out of the 48 hour crunch, it is a model which gears your mindset to doing something small. Something that can be accomplished within 48 hours. Many of the companies in the Baltics reflected that: they lacked that world-changing attitude. Setting up a startup is hugely risky, and as everyone knows, most of them fail. So why do it if the outcome, at best, is only going to be an acquihire by some much larger company? Why are you not doing it to become that large company that acquihires other?
The second problem with the 48 hour format is that companies are severely limiting the pool of talent available to them. Now you can find some amazing co-founders at one of these events, but the odds are stacked against you. Can you honestly, with hand on heart, claim to be looking for the best frontend developer, or the best designer in the world if your selection of people is 100 folks who happen to show up one weekend, and who haven't been pulled by one of the other teams?
Ok, so you can go in as an experiment, to test your idea. But are you then willing to break it to your team afterwards and say nope, you weren't the right people? You're getting the buy-in by having them believe in your idea, convincing them to join, and then immediately dropping them. That doesn't sound awfully fair either. I've seen it happen, and people are left rightfully pissed off.
I'm not saying these events don't serve a purpose. In fact I might fancy a go myself some time, just for the experience, and for the learning. But I think expectations need to be set right: it is a way to spend a fun weekend with new people, you can hack on some interesting project, and you can develop your skills. Just be aware that it is not the optimal way to create a company, and as much as you like your little app idea, it is probably not a VC-ready growth company. It is actually wrong that all of these organisations track metrics like how many companies are formed afterwards. That, for them, should not be interesting or important, as it's not the optimal format for it. It should be: have people had fun? Did they learn? Did it get people to think about setting up a startup or becoming an entrepreneur at some point? Did it have a positive impact on the community?
Garage48 and Startup Weekend should also be sharing the responsibility to explain why these many nifty small apps are not yet ready for world domination, and to best prepare people for what happens after the weekend. You can probably make money with a new mobile utility, but it often takes vision, drive and ambition to build something massive.
To be clear: I have utmost respect for what those organisations have been doing. They inspire people and train people on how startup entrepreneurship can work. It gets people thinking: perhaps I can do something more daring than my regular day job. That is important. Just don't forget to dream big once you go home on Sunday.