by Pat Brans

Startup Weekend – What every UK CIO can learn

Nov 24, 20149 mins
CareersIT Strategy

Franck Nouyrigat began his professional life as many elite French engineers do: after completing a degree at a Grande École of engineering, he rounded off his skill set with a business degree from HEC.

After working for a few other companies, including PwC and Oracle, where he was a business consultant, Franck deviated from the traditional French career path. He got entrepreneur fever, and decided the best cure was to go the US, where he could start a few companies and maybe come back to France at some later point.

One thing led to another and Franck became so enamored with entrepreneurship that he got involved in founding Startup Weekend – or technically speaking, he got involved in founding the second version of Startup Weekend, and has since served on the board.

Franck hasn’t yet moved back to France, but he did return to launch Startup Weekend in Paris and other French cities. France was not the only country where the founders spread the news. They have held events in over 100 other countries.

The concept was so successful, that on December 28, 2012, the Startup Weekend leadership team and guests rang the NYSI Opening Bell to celebrate the creation of 100,000 entrepreneurs through Startup Weekend.

I got on to Franck through his friend Luc Bretones, EVP of Orange and director of Technocentre. Luc helped bring Startup Weekend into France. Luc also applies the ideas from Startup Weekend to his development organization – and it’s in large part thanks to those ideas that his organisation puts out over 200 new products and services a year. One of Luc’s favorite techniques is the one-minute or five-minute pitch. He insists that people on his teams pitch their ideas very concisely.

Having seen how Orange benefits from the ideas Startup Weekend, I decided to get in touch with Franck Nouyrigat to get him to share some ideas with CIO UK readers. Hopefully, you’ll find what Franck says useful to stimulate innovation within your own organisation.

Pat Brans: What drew you to Startup Weekend? Franck Nouyrigat: I wanted to help people go from an idea to a company. It all began for me in 2008-2009 in the United States when I ran into one of my co-founders, who was doing his first Startup Weekend. We became friends and I went back to France to organise a few events.

I came back to the United States and we decide we should work together. At that time it was two other co-founders and myself. We had complementary skills. We loved what we were doing and we knew we could help each other.

We didn’t create Startup Weekend; we acquired it from a guy named Andrew Hyde, who came up with the idea in 2007. The original Startup Weekend was different. It was around 100 people all working on the same idea.

We shifted the legal structure of Startup Weekend to not-for-profit. To us it was important to build a community; and we thought the only way to do that was through a non-profit structure.

Then we scaled it. Back in 2009 we had 25 events; it grew to 80 in 2010; and this year we should have more than 900 events.

The organisation we built is now in more countries than Starbucks. We have more volunteers than Facebook has employees. We have more than 6000 volunteers working in around 130 countries.

What’s interesting about Startup Weekend is that for the first time I can go somewhere and say that a company is going to be born here. I just don’t know which one. So it’s a unique place to study the dynamics of entrepreneurship

PB: Can you explain how startup weekend works? FN: We get a 100 people together. Among those 100 people, it usually turns out that about one third are designers, one third are developers, and one third are business people.

On Friday night, we ask people to present ideas in one minute. Usually 35 or 40 people volunteer to pitch their ideas. Then we allow time for people to naturally form teams. If you pitch an idea and people join your team, you go to work on it. If you pitch an idea and you can’t form a team, then you join another team. Through this weeding-out process we usually wind up with around 10 teams.

That’s Friday night. Then Saturday morning you start work with your team. We get a couple of mentors to come and help the teams throughout the weekend. On Saturday and Sunday the teams develop as much as they can of their products. The goal is to find the business model, develop the idea, and come up with the overall design. We also encourage people to have fun – fun is an important aspect of entrepreneurship.

On Sunday night the teams present what they’ve done to panels made up of entrepreneurs or investors from the community. The panel provides feedback.

Then Sunday night everybody goes to bed. They wake up Monday morning with their lives turned inside out because they realise what they can do.

PB: Why did you choose 54 hours as the amount of time for Startup Weekend? FN: It’s the maximum amount of time we can get somebody who has a job. It’s from early Friday evening through late Sunday evening. We could do it over 100 days, but we wanted to get a wider group of people.

PB: What is the profile of the people who go there. FN: It depends on the country, but I think overall the average age is around 35 with a standard deviation of around seven or eight years. We get a pretty good spread of age.

We have 70% male and 30% female, but sometimes we reverse that by running Startup Weekend for women.

PB: What are some of the more exotic countries. Are you doing work in Africa? FN: Oh yeah. We’re doing work in the Ivory Coast, and I was at one in Algeria last year. We had a very inspiring Startup Weekend in Iraq. We had a Startup Weekend in Egypt doing the revolution. We had a Startup Weekend in Israel that we had to stop for a couple of hours because of missile attacks.

People risk their lives to go to Startup Weekends.

My long-term dream is to have one in Antarctica. This is just to remind everybody that age is no excuse, location is no excuse, and these ideas work across cultures and across religions.

PB: During Startup Weekend, do you suggest any project management techniques, like scrum. FN: I’m going to speak for myself. It’s up to the organiser and the local mentors. I personally encourage neutrality, which means I expose people to methodologies, but then I let them decide on their own. There is no formula for creating a successful startup.

We do try to expose them to ideas. We have coaches help them, but then we let them decide within the team. In the end, all startups should be driven by what the customer needs or wants.

A methodology doesn’t tell you how to interview people or how to find out what product is needed. However, a methodology gives you a vocabulary, so you can speak a common language within your company. That’s the real value of a methodology.

PB: How often do people take what they’ve come up with during Startup Weekend and develop a company? FN: What I’ve observed is that a lot of people pursue an idea right after the experience, but the teams are very unstable because they are so young and they just met. Within the first two weeks following an event, around 50% of the people give up on the idea.

A year after a Startup Weekend, more than 12% of the people are still working on their original idea. Then there are the people who don’t stick with the original idea, but a year later they are working on a different idea with somebody they met at Startup Weekend.

You also have people who go back to work for a company. But this is usually a positive outcome too, because they go back with a new understanding of innovation.

And if somebody decides not to create a business, because he realizes he doesn’t want to, that’s also great. He could waste a lot of money and time to come to that conclusion. Startup Weekend helps him come to that decision easier.

It’s nice to know that so much happens just because of Startup Weekend. But on the other hand it’s hard to track the exact impact, because there are so many indirect effects.

PB: What are some things UK CIOs can get from the Startup Weekend concept? FN: A lot. One thing that came out of Startup Weekend was Startup Weekend corporate. We worked with organisations like Coca Cola, Microsoft, The Word Bank, and UNESCO.

Companies need to find out who their entrepreneurs are. If you ask a CEO or an HR director who the entrepreneurs are in their companies, they have no clue. They know they are there, but they don’t know who they are.

Startup Weekend is a unique chance to gather these people and maximise serendipity. That’s one thing. Then the other thing is to maximise the knowledge that comes into the enterprise from the startup world. Enterprises could learn this through a workshop where people learn about customer discovery. Instead of being driven by market data, people can be driven by individual customers and they can learn a lot about that.

The second one is people learn how much they can achieve in three days. I think it’s helpful for management to have a look what people can achieve – to see how many smart people they have in their company. Companies come to the realization that some things need to change.

What I’ve observed is that as soon as you do one within an organisation, suddenly every single department wants to do one.

That’s the positive aspect of it. The negative aspect is the same thing you see with other internal accelerators and incubators. You have a good bottom up source of ideas, but if the ideas are not strategic, then they’re useless. How do you bridge the gap between the bottom-up and top management? That’s another question I’m working on now.

I highly encourage people who work for a company to attend the Startup Weekend in their communities. There are two levels of connections we want people to make: you want to connect entrepreneurs to their management team within a corporation. You also want to connect large corporations to the local ecosystem of entrepreneurs.

It’s a fascinating time. There are a lot of things happening in our field.