How to Win

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

I spent the weekend as a keynote speaker, mentor, and jurist at Startup Weekend Amsterdam. This was an amazing event with 175 participants giving 75 pitches and forming 24 startups. After a 54 hour hackathon, we awarded prizes in 5 categories.

Expect to see more than 5 companies come out of this, as the whole field was full of great teams building interesting products. Picking winners was an agonizing process, easily as agonizing as being an Apple Design Award judge.

If you did the weekend right, you should have taken home lots of experience, even if you failed to walk away with a trophy, or even launch. Prizes are nice, and winning is nice, but they are fleeting pleasures. Knowledge is priceless.

The panel at Startup Weekend is looking for the same things any set of investors is looking for. Pitching to the jury after days without sleep is as close to the Valley experience as you’re going to get, minus the penalty for failure.

I’d like to share some of the insights I myself brought home.

The number one rule of venture capital is invest in the team. Product ideas and business plans are great, but pretty easy to come by. A great team that enjoys working together is a genuine treasure.

When you start a company, you need to be aware of every other company that has ever tried to solve the same problem. You need to study them, and you need to figure out how to differentiate yourself. You need something other than braggadocio to show that you’re better.

You might think companies that have gone out of business are no threat to you, but if you’re trying to get funding, they are your biggest threat. The only thing worse than an unproven model is a disproven model. You need to know exactly why they failed, and prove that you are different.

You know that hot space you keep hearing about? Forget about it. Investors are looking for tomorrow’s big thing, not yesterday’s. You see an open niche, but investors see a crowded space. Besides, it’s way more fun to invent the future.

When you’re pitching on stage, don’t bother giving a bio. You need that time to show off your products. Plan for failure. That means being ready to present without slides or notes. No live demos. especially ones that rely on WiFi. If this can trip up Steve Jobs, what chance do you have? Make a movie.

If you can do this in a weekend, so can anyone else. Disabuse yourself of the notion that you are particularly talented. Don’t think you’re shipping this thing on Monday. You’re only just beginning the long, hard road to creating and launching a viable product.

One thing I kept trying to drive home to the people who asked me for advice was that there’s a world of difference between Sunday night and Monday morning. Sunday night is all about giving a good demo. Monday morning is about getting down to business.

In my keynote, I talked about taking lessons from negative experiences. Here’s one such lesson: don’t be a dick. Don’t stand around after the show badmouthing the team that beat you. It doesn’t reflect well on you.

Our community is small, and word of bad behavior travels far and wide. Getting caught up in the moment and losing sight of the bigger picture can damage your most precious asset—your reputation. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.

Talk is cheap—smacktalk doubly so. Instead, take the loss as that rarest of opportunities to return to your lair and meaningfully say, “Fools! I’ll show them all!” If you think you should have won, prove it. The best revenge is a successful launch.

For those of you working on apps—and what startup these days doesn’t have an app—you’re in the best possible place. As the capital of the Appsterdam movement, Amsterdam has the world’s most advanced infrastructure for developing your technology.

Come work with mentors and colleagues at an Appsterdam Approved Hangout. Take in a Weekly Wednesday Lunchtime Lecture. Stop by after work for Meeten en Drinken. Join an Appsterdam Family Weekend. We’re here to help you succeed.