Startup Weekend Zagreb [Summer 2013]

My First Startup Weekend: Zagreb, Croatia – Summer 2013

About a year ago during a backpacking trip I found myself reading Hacker News, stumbling over to a blog, and somehow ending up on the Startup Weekend page. Out of curiosity, I searched for a nearby event. Lo’ and behold: Zagreb, Croatia.

I had always wanted to try one of these Startup Weekends, foreign country or not, and figured I’d give it a go. I was in the neighborhood, the timing was right – time for some “Geek Tourism.”

What is Startup Weekend?

In a nutshell; devs, designers, and budding entrepreneurs join forces for two days to “launch a startup.” The first evening starts with pitches, where attendees with ideas convince others to join their teams. Votes are cast, and a handful of teams form. From this point on, what needs to be done .  .  .  gets done. The event culminates with a pitch or demo to a group of judges / VC’s, who, in their infinite wisdom, select the winners.

Team “7 of 9”

Being a n00b without an idea, I thought it best to join a team. A wide range of ideas were rapidly pitched; a board game and the eventual winner called “Tok-a-do,” an app to help organize roommate finances, a social chat application, even a Saffron farming operation. Upon hearing the elevator pitches, I decided to base my vote on two criteria:

  • A team where I could learn the most.
  • A team where I could be useful.

Ultimately, I joined a young woman, Petra, who runs a non-profit animal fostering association, Udruga za zaštitu životinja Sedma od Devet, (Animal Protection Association Seven of Nine.) I could gain exposure to the issues surrounding non-profits, while her desire to have a website realistically matched what I could build in a day; namely, a simple Rails-based website. Most importantly, her passion and dedication won me over. If there was someone who deserved my time, it was Petra.

Udruga za zaštitu životinja Sedma od Devet

The Idea

The two of us attended presentations, and worked with mentors to refine the business idea: an online dog-fostering platform, that tied-in pet accessory sales from animal-friendly businesses. You can foster a cute dog today, but don’t forget that dog food bowl – buy it here! Sustainable businesses would receive a new revenue stream, commissions would help fund “Seven of Nine,” all while saving dogs and creating a positive social impact. What VC wouldn’t put that in their portfolio?

When in Zagreb

Having spent much of the first day refining the idea, Petra and I divided our skills; she would work on her pitch and deck, I would build a super-basic demo website. I had about 24 hours to slap together something, and ran into several frustrations:

Terrible wi-fi. I had to unplug a public terminal on an empty floor and steal an ethernet connection to get passable internet. This isolated me from the rest of the Startup Weekend groups, which I found to be unforunate.

Working Hours. I came with the mis-placed expectation everyone stayed up the entire night, but the facility closed relatively early (~ 9-10pm.) I ended up working into the wee night on my own, but absent was the late night “group hacking” I had thought synonymous with these events.

.   .   .   And the Winner goes to

In the end, I slapped together a simple website on Heroku that didn’t do much of anything – Seven of Nine, version 1.0. It was likely a non-factor in the competition, but with Petra’s passionate presentation and excellent responses to the judges’ follow-up questions, we ended up winning 3rd-place! I’m happy to see her non-profit continues to this day. Please visit the Facebook page of Udruga za zaštitu životinja Sedma od Devet, (Animal Protection Association Seven of Nine) to learn more about animal fostering and protection in Croatia, and to support a great non-profit.

Tips, Tricks, and Lessons for a Startup Weekend (in a Foreign Land)

  • Startup Weekend seems more like a business plan competition. Use your time at Startup Weekend to engage mentors, refine the pitch, and build a deck. It simply is not the place to build anything from the ground up; so come with a product already built, or ignore building completely. Startup Weekends are not hackathons, and expectations should be tailored accordingly.

  • Growth and Positioning. Several slick/sexy ideas that I thought might be contenders did not address their growth strategies – how does the app get users? The absence of a detailed growth strategem aside from “putting it on the app store, and watch the hockey-stick grow” seemed to doom several of the teams.

  • Language Barriers. All the sessions were in English, but many of the final presentations were in Croatian, which I don’t speak. And while the people were incredibly friendly and open – everyone spoke a modicum of English – one does lose out on the small talk and “people experiences” that amplifies the Startup Weekend experience. It is what it is, but something to keep in mind when participating in a foreign country.

  • Bureaucracy and Fees. Pay your fees immediately. The organizers were very considerate about letting me figure out how to pay, but there is no best way other than visiting a local bank, giving them the cash, and having them wire it over. The fees to transfer money from a US bank account to an IBAN/SWIFT account cost more than the event itself (how’s that for a startup idea?) and with all the hub-bub, I eventually forgot to pay. I did return to Zagreb a few months later, and the first thing I did was go to a bank and pay, but it was a guilty headache. If any of the organizers happen to stumble across this post, I do humbly apologize. :\