Startup Weekend Toulouse 2015

Awesome, amazing, extraordinary, eye-opening, life-changing… Those are just words. Metaphors are cooler. I went to the Startup Weekend to dip my toes in the pond of Toulouse’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Instead, I got the full bathing and back-scrubbing treatment. Let’s put it another way: I felt like a goldfish having managed to dive out of his large comfy fishbowl. Let me tell you how hard it was to breathe.

The Startup Weekend is a periodic event gathering around one hundred young entrepreneurs & entrepreneur-wannabes (like me). It lasts for a full weekend of intense work. It starts with the participants going on stage to sell an idea to the audience. They have no more than one minute to do so (no Powerpoint - Outch!). Then everybody votes for the best idea. A few of them are selected, and teams are then formed around the project owners. Then the real work begins, until the deadline: Sunday afternoon, for the final presentation of the project. Whatever the teams decide to do (there’s no particular rule), their objective is to convince a jury of entrepreneurs that their project is the best and most promising of all.

I had heard great things about the Startup Weekend, but I did not realize I would learn so much from it. My main objective was to extend my network. Meet talented people, talk about my ideas, see how people would respond to them, give away some business cards, etc.. I certainly did not expect to turn into an entrepreneur overnight.

Don’t get me wrong: I did prepare a fancy one-minute pitch for Friday night. I even memorized it and made sure it would actually fit in one minute. Here it is (translated to English):

Hi, I’m Eric Leibenguth, and I’m an engineer at the Future Projects Office of Airbus. Today I propose you to turn around the world of Education with the “Reverse Academy”.

The principle of the Reverse Academy is to reverse the classical process of education that all of you knows: A teacher designs a course to touch the greatest possible number of students. Only much, much later, these students will be actually confronted to real problems, and unfortunately they’ll have forgotten 80% of what they’ve learnt in school.

This approach is totally non-Lean. The teacher has no way of knowing if what he teaches will ever be of any use. So how do we make education Lean? Two ideas:

One - Education must be driven by a need: Students come to us with a problem they want to solve, and all the knowledge we teach them has the final goal of solving this problem.

Two - We leverage the huge amount of content available online. Our added-value is to know how and where to find it and how to structure this information.

Join me if you are a passionate entrepreneur and you are interested in the Reverse Academy. Thanks!

Sounds good or what?

Well, I did my best but I didn’t really hope for more. I guess I thought I would have blended quietly into a more successful group. I just did not think I actually stand a chance against all the other participants.

To my surprise, I managed to get enough votes (8 for the record) to be selected as one of the projects that would go to finals. “Oh shit, this is happening…” I thought then. And that’s when a truck-load of stress and responsibilities started crushing my stomach. I felt my blood boiling under the pressure and my heart pounding at the thought of what was coming next. The good old saying “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it” started making a lot of sense to me. I could hardly eat anything from then on (those who know me understand how incredible this part is).

The next step was to recruit a team. This happened rather informally. I just tried to talk to as many people as possible about the “Reverse Academy” (which I wrote about here). Although I got the attention of quite a few of them, I had trouble getting firm commitments. I am not sure why, but if I had to guess I would say that it is because I am not good at selling ideas. Having a background in engineering and science, I was never trained to convince people. Instead of making the idea sound sexy and bankable, I made it sound abstract and theoretical. Hey, don’t blame me, it’s what I do for a living! Somehow, this flaw turned in my favor because, instead of recruiting a large team of inexperienced people, I formed a small team of bright and experienced people (I guess they understood the cool idea behind the poor speech). There were four of us: Arnaud, Joran, Gwendoline and myself.

The Reverse-Academy Dream Team

The Reverse-Academy Dream Team

We had about two nights and two days of work ahead of us. I only had a vague intuition of what we should be doing during this time. Fortunately, the rest of team knew exactly what to do.

First, we made ourselves visible: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gmail, you name it. What makes an idea look good to a jury is not how clever or sophisticated it is. What matters is how many people you can and will touch. Plain and simple. So, yes, I now have a Twitter account, as crazy as it sounds!

We also created a “landing page”. Here again, the idea is to get visibility. We exist, because we have a dot-com website name. url ergo sum. What we put on this page was extremely simple. Fancy pictures, your-life-will-change slogans, and above all: a big “Register” button.

Thanks to Gwendoline’s twitting skills, we managed to get an interview with a famous French entrepreneur in the domain of online education: Mathieu Nebra, founder of OpenClassrooms. The interview was very fruitful: it confirmed the existence of the market and the relevance of the idea.

We also sent around a large questionnaire to our friends and relatives. We asked all sorts of questions. What would you expect from a mentor? What features should our site offer? etc… We managed to get a lot of useful answers and comments in a matter of hours.

We talked to a number of coaches that were visiting each team. Each time we would pitch them our idea, and ask them their opinion with regards to their specific skills (law, finance, marketing, etc.). It was incredible to see that they all had completely different reactions and points of view. If they liked it, they liked it for different reasons. If they hated it, they hated it for different reasons too. We also noticed how sensitive is the perception of an idea: Change one little thing in the description, and you might get a completely different reaction.

But, by far the most time-consuming activity was the preparation of the final four-minute speech that we would give at the end of the weekend. Everything we did had to come down to the nice story we would tell to win the game. This was by far the most challenging part for me.

I am not usually scared of an audience. I’m completely used to presenting my work, which I do all the time, including to important people. I have also had plenty of teaching experience in universities in the last years.

But this was another ballgame. The speech was timed to exactly four minutes. We could not exceed these four minutes. They would not ask us kindly to shut-up. Instead, they would play some loud music so that no-one could hear us speak. The audience was not a bored class of students, or a team of skilled engineers listening only to technical facts. The audience were “real people”, who expected nothing from us. Either we would convince them, or we would be irrevocably forgotten. But, above all, we were presenting a project which could actually turn out to become our lives. We were not only playing for the award. We were playing for the approval of very smart people of our actual life project.

How often do you do that?

The speech had to be per-fect, A-ok, millimetrically-timed and flawless. This time we could use a Powerpoint presentation, but it was merely a colorful background for the speech. Coming up with the speech was a very revealing exercise for me. As an engineer, my instinct always made me come up with engineer-sounding sentences: cold, complex, abstract, dull and serious. Fortunately my team turned that around. Instead of making the subject abstract, we made it extremely concrete and down-to-earth: We actually created a character (“Jean-Luc”), and made up a complete story around him. This method allowed us to illustrate the problem we were addressing, but also to explain our solution unambiguously, in a warm and convincing manner.

We rehearsed the speech over and over again. At my work, I was used to improvising around detailed, sophisticated slides. Here, I had to memorize the complete structure and each point of the speech. I honestly doubted my capacity to do this. I pictured myself fainting on stage or freezing, turning white, or “rebooting”.

It turned out that I did not do too bad. I watched the replay on Youtube (2:19:00) and of course I could see all the little wrong things. But it wasn’t horribly wrong. The main message was delivered, and I also managed to answer the questions of the Jury well enough.

We did not win though. The Loliplop team got the first prize. I must say that their application had gotten my “coup de coeur” vote, because of my personal interest in the subject of teaching programming to kids (read my article: Serious Scratch). But, in our defense, they were starting the weekend with their business already running (they already had an app, and first customers), while we only started from an idea.

But what came next was also very interesting: hearing the plain honest feedback from the members of the jury.

  • Reinventing education is not original, we hear that all the time: It is not obvious that the current means of education are bad.
  • Where will you find your mentors? It doesn’t sound like your project can scale.
  • Why is making education more personal so important? I don’t care for a mentor, I’m an autodidact.
  • You refer to OpenClassrooms as a reference, but I don’t know about them. That makes your point hollow.

Feedback is so valuable. People rarely dare to give honest feedback, because they are scared that it could hurt. The Jury members (and the coaches) at the Startup Weekends know the value of feedback, so they give it as clearly and honestly as they can. These points above are all valid. That doesn’t mean the project is bad. That means we have to do whatever is necessary to answer to these questions properly.

In my experience at Airbus, I rarely got this kind of feedback. When someone would do something wrong, the usual behavior of his colleagues and managers would be to say nothing at all. Of course, people would chat about it at the coffee break. Only never directly with the one who screwed up! I have to assume that this is because we, engineers, are socially-awkward and are terrified by the idea of having an honest and frank conversation with a pair. I can’t imagine how incredibly efficient large companies could become if people gave honest feedback to each other.

Challenging someone’s ideas is the best favor one can do to him. I have seen people holding up to their ideas for years unchallenged. Ideas that are obviously bad and which result in huge wastes of money, time and energy! People don’t dare to challenge other people, because that potentially means hurting their feelings. When I asked people why they wouldn’t give any feedback, they would just say “Oh, who am I to judge?”. Of course, that’s not true: they are judging. They just don’t want to commit.

This Startup Weekend has been a lot of things to me. First it was the most intensive entrepreneurial training I could ever get. It was intense because of the short time, but also because of the extreme commitment of everybody I met there. The engagement of my team was unbelievable. On Saturday, we must have worked a good 16 hours straight, stopping only for lunch breaks. We exposed ourselves on the stage and on the Internet (more than 30 people in my family filled up our questionnaire). You rarely see that kind of passion anywhere. I recommend this experience to anyone, including to fellow engineers!