“The Double Edged Sword of Start-Up Weekends” by Mika Reyes ’17

PCSE Peer Advisor Mika Reyes ’17 was one of several Wesleyan students who attended Startup Weekend Hartford: Education last month. She shared her reflections on Huffington Post’s “The Blog.” It is re-posted below, and you can read the original here.

“The Double Edged Sword of Start-Up Weekends” by Mika Reyes ’17

Mika Reyes '17 participated in Startup Weekend Hartford in September

Mika Reyes ’17 participated in Startup Weekend Hartford in September

After recently joining my first Start-Up weekend, I realized how the “start a company in 54-hours” format wasn’t as appealing to me as I thought it would be.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of great things have been born out of these fast-paced weekends. These environments equip those with budding ideas with the right atmosphere to move forward, when they otherwise wouldn’t have the resources or motivation to. A team that believes in the idea is formed and more minds come together to brainstorm. If the cultivated business plan passes through the watchful eye of the judges, prizes await for the further development of these products or for the growth of the team members. Whether you take that win or not, you receive bragging rights, a bigger network, guidance and mentoring, a great learning experience and a basket full of free goodies!

The biggest reason why I initially found this set-up attractive was because of the short timeframe that pushed participants to hustle. Quick iteration and cheap, lo-fi prototypes achieve results in the most efficient way. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, calls this the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), the least amount of effort needed to run an experiment and get ample feedback.

I do not mean to diminish Start-Up weekend’s positive outcomes in any way because my overall experience was great. I was surrounded by passionate minds and by an even more passionate leader. Thanks to an amazing team, we won the People’s Choice Award and got some investors on board with our idea. We’re currently moving forward with our project, which we hope will create a sustainable impact on the youth.

However, what concerned me about the concept was the lack of the user factor, the human core that should be guiding these innovations. This especially applied to ventures geared towards a social cause.

We separate the market from the user. The market is there to pay the big bucks. That’s what most of these start-up companies cater to so they can gain points from the judges and potential investors they’ll be pitching to. The users are the ones who use these products for their benefit. For example, you create an application that underprivileged students use to increase specific skills, but you market these to the teachers and schools that provide for them. In these weekends, we’re forced to create our models for our market, but sometimes we forget about the real needs of the user.

Participants, coaches, and mentors at Startup Weekend Hartford, September 2014

Participants, coaches, and mentors at Startup Weekend Hartford, September 2014

These environments may have avenues for you to send out surveys, call significant people or visit a community. But, these are most often geared towards your marketing needs: statistics and records that you can put in your PowerPoint. The opportunities don’t allow you to empathize enough with the people you’re creating the product for. While this model makes sense in terms of practicality, the current format doesn’t sit well for me.

I suppose I’m biased towards the concept of human-centered design (HCD). In this design process, the end users are given extensive attention through all stages. The first step always requires the designers to empathize with the user, in several such ways that go beyond mere surveys and interviews.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and author of “Change by Design” writes, “We build these bridges of insight through empathy, the effort to see the world through the eyes of others, understand the world through their experiences and feel the world through their emotions.”

For example, instead of asking people in a hospital how their experiences as patients are like, try pretending to be a patient yourself. Instead of getting a survey out about how people use a device, observe them in their natural habitat. Find ways to step into their shoes without disrupting their behavior to get genuine results. Several such methods can be found in the Stanford d.school Bootleg and other relevant sources.

As George Kembel of the Stanford d.school says, “Make the human element as important as the technical and business elements.” Sustainability in business models should still be factored in but the humans behind the design should also be focused on extensively. Otherwise, if you continue to create without the user’s best interests in mind, the product may go unused and innovation may be for naught.

If the users were more involved in the process of innovation for a product designed for their needs, if these weekends catered less to the “market-business-make a profit model,” or if human-centered design were more a part of the process, then start-up weekends might have more of a potential to do the good that it hopes to achieve.