Home Articles Challenge: Startup Weekend Valenciennes

Challenge: Startup Weekend Valenciennes

Let's talk about the Valencienne Startup Weekend 2019. This edition was dedicated to "Creative Tech", a rather abstract theme that gave way to many different projects. I always wanted to participate in a Startup Weekend, I had registered for last year's one, but unfortunately, being sick at that time, I couldn't go.

This year, it was different. Me and two of my best friends were prepared a year in advance, or rather, we had been planning for a year to register for the next edition. Once this year's theme was unveiled, we rushed to organize meetings among ourselves.

We certainly spent about twenty hours together, during several meetings, talking about the idea we would like to suggest on Friday evening, when we arrived at the startup weekend. Result? After talking about a dozen ideas, each more crazy than the next - because yes, making a startup weekend is knowing how to dream - we chose the very first idea we were hanging on to: an algorithm that would allow us to summarize all the books and documents we would send him.

The idea seemed really good, and it was out of the question for us to start working on it, we really wanted the people who would join us to work with us on this project and transform it in their own way to make it their own. This is essential for the good atmosphere in a team. We only did one thing, find a name: "Rocket"!

"Rocket" is a name that seemed natural to us, we didn't take the head on the fact that it was already taken by a company or not, we just thought that a rocket was really the very image of what we saw in our algorithm, it would allow us to go faster in our reading, and accelerate our learning.

So we had an idea, a name, and a team start. My friends were sceptical about the validation of the last one, because yes, an idea, if it does not receive enough votes, may not be selected. I was convinced that this idea would be chosen. That's what happened. But rather see here a form of carelessness and a certain strength of optimism that has never left me since I was a child, my friends were right, nothing was certain in advance, and we could very well not have passed the selection test.



The team is preparing to enter the Serre Numérique

The team is preparing to enter the Serre Numérique

So here we are: we were selected, it was Friday, 8pm, we were eating excellent pizza, and we had to find people who would like to join our team. Luckily, the interested people came to meet us themselves to introduce themselves and learn more about our idea.

For this edition, and also because we knew his strong desire to represent our project this year, we let Ugo represent our work. He was the one who presented our idea, so people came to see him, since they didn't know that there were three of us at the origin of the project. This choice was a common sense one, he is an incredible friend, with an oratorical ability that could make some hosts pale.

This blog I created forces me to be as transparent as possible: it was difficult for me. Accepting to see that people only had eyes for our friend, Ugo, was complicated to accept. I like social interactions, and I think a certain part of me had trouble seeing that now, for the moment, people had linked our "Rocket" project to Ugo. We literally no longer existed for these people. But it was an excellent exercise here, so I could see how he was doing, but more importantly, how people were behaving, what their body language was saying, since I couldn't hear them - yes yes, I was at the pizza stand eating margaritas. This allowed us to consult each other later on, and to eliminate some people.

Rocket (#8), selected number 1 by the participants

Rocket (#8), selected number 1 by the participants

Our final team was composed of 5 people: William, Ugo, Benjamin, Julien and myself. William and I were tech oriented (with a business supplement for my part), Ugo was also business oriented, Benjamin rather marketing oriented, and Julien graphic oriented. We had the perfect team to succeed, only the legal side was missing, and that's good: a coach available during the event to help us was specialized in the legal side of the projects.

Once we received our great workspace, and once installed, we started with a very simple exercise that I frankly recommend you to do: use post-it notes and ask everyone to write down, for 10 minutes, everything that comes to mind when they think about your project. Whether it's features, a sentence, an emotion, an object, it doesn't matter. Write down EVERYTHING! These notes are essential so that everyone can find their way back into your project, and that it is truly innovative. Sometimes the future of a startup is in a detail that you may not have thought of, but one of your team members just doesn't dare to say, either by gene or just because he doesn't find it that interesting. So that's what we did, we had about fifty post-its glued to the wall, and each one of us, in turn, went to present to everyone what we had written. See a second advantage here: you are sure to see what everyone thinks of your idea, but on top of that, you can involve everyone, and create a real start to team cohesion. This "ordeal" allowed me to see how comfortable our two new comrades were, and thus, to succeed in seeing how I could put them in confidence. I can never say it enough again, but the good understanding of your team must be your number one priority.

This was followed by our first meeting with the coaches. Each of them had their own area of expertise: business, marketing, legal and graphic. I remember that they were very open, and quite enthusiastic about the idea of our project! Then we got a huge flat screen TV - we were lucky enough to have one, which wasn't the case for everyone - and we projected the document that would allow us to make our personas. It was 1:00 in the morning, almost everyone had left, and it was our turn. The first evening, we took the strategy of sleeping as much as possible to give the maximum over the end of the weekend! The next day, we had an appointment at 7:45 for breakfast, so we shouldn't stay too long!



The night was short, the excitement of the moment prevented me from sleeping before 2:30 in the morning. 4:30 of sleep later, here I am in my car, heading for the Serre Numérique, where the startup weekend is located. By the way, I had gone to take William and Benjamin to be able to arrive all together, Ugo and Julien having stayed directly on the spot to sleep.
After a very good breakfast and a pint of coffee (yes yes, a pint, you had to knock out the fatigue!), we arrived at our workspace. It was 10am and the day ahead promised to be full of emotions. At that time, I didn't know it yet, but I won't sleep for a long time!

First mission of the day: make personas. For those who don't know, a persona is a fictional representation of one of your potential clients. For example, a persona could very well be a person named Maguie, who eats fruits every day, who is still a student in business school, and who reads mainly books on personal development. You can develop these people as much as you like, they allow you to have a precise idea of the type of users you are addressing, and to build your service for their real needs.

To build these personas, we needed data. Asking people on the street for information would have been a good solution to have qualitative personas, but we had little time ahead of us. We therefore opted for an option that would allow us to have about ten different opinions in a few minutes: online forms. Neither one nor two, so we created our first form using Google Form, and we shared its link in many places. We even used our own network to spread it as widely as possible, once again we had little time. Finally, at the end of the day, we quickly reached 130 responses.

Of these 130 responses, one thing was obvious to us: the majority of people preferred to read schemas, rather than text. When I tell you that sometimes the success of a startup depends on one thing, we have here an example of this phenomenon! We had started with an algorithm that would allow us to summarize documents, but if it could also create summary schemas, its use would be incredibly more widespread around the world! Imagine a student using our service to automatically schematize his courses in a few seconds and have revision sheets? Having been a student, this idea seemed crazy to me! It was this enthusiasm that was our biggest enemy during that startup weekend, we had become blinded by our idea.

Debating the addition of schemas to our algorithm

Debating the addition of schemas to our algorithm

Now you think to yourself: what the hell is he talking about? You'll soon understand! Following our brilliant research, we therefore started with the idea of an algorithm that would schematize all the documents we give it (obviously, novels are another story). That day, a member of the jury, a graphic designer at Adobe (who will be nicknamed by the same name for the rest of the weekend), visited us. He wanted to discover our idea a little more deeply to help us. That was very kind of him. We therefore explained that our recent discoveries showed us that the majority of people preferred schemas over texts, and that consequently, we had oriented our algorithm to provide summaries in schema form rather than only in text form. And then I saw his face light up. He had two suggestions for us.

First of all, it would be much better if we forgot the schemas, in favour of visual sketching. This drawing technique consists in representing information in graphic form, with shapes and colours, a bit like the summaries that some women do in the classroom - gentlemen, it is not sexist to say this, we are less good than women at this kind of thing. 

Secondly, being in a startup weekend whose theme was creation thanks to technology, for him, the artificial intelligence used in our algorithm was in no way creative, since it was created by mental schemas by Man (I don't get lost in the details, none of this is very useful), and that therefore, we had to subcontract the creation of these visual sketching to freelance graphic designers by sending them the summary realized by our algorithm. This would also give us a good image and ethical values, since we would make the creative industry work. Here are his two arguments.

Adobe's guy

Adobe's guy, Yohan Founs

For most of us, it was genius. He had just shown us a version of our product that could really have given us a nice image, while being fully in line with the startup weekend theme. William had warned us that his idea was not good, but unfortunately I must admit that we were totally blinded by what this man had just told us. With hindsight, everything could have changed if at that moment we had asked ourselves the right questions. I blamed myself. William has always been someone I admire for his "down-to-earth" side, which some would call pragmatic, but in which I see the key to the success of a project. He's a brilliant man. I'm not saying that because we're very friendly, he really is, and he showed it in this startup weekend.

Julien, working at our office

Julien, working at our office

As you can imagine, we were mostly won over, so we spent all Saturday thinking about the features, and how to make our service profitable. We had thought of a monthly subscription that would allow us to access our algorithm to summarize any document, unlimitedly, in text form. Then we would have offered our services in visual sketching for users wishing to have one, after which we would have contacted a partner graphic designer, and we would have asked him to do it for our user. Maybe some elements shock you when you read these words, but for us, it was the perfect idea, coupled with the perfect business model (a business model is a term used to talk about the means a company has put in place to earn money). We were wrong all along.



Happy, free, unstressed, we had finished most of our work, so we were on a rainbow of happiness, excited by our project. But here it was 1:30 in the morning, we were ready to go home, when suddenly a detail jumped out at me when I looked at the diagram of how our business model worked that I had drawn on a poster stuck on a wall: how would we succeed in being competitive if we wanted to offer a job subcontracted by a freelance graphic designer? We should have offered our "option" for... 200 euros! Would you pay 200 euros for a site to provide you with a schema with colors and pretty shapes? Of course, not at all. Once I told the rest of the team about it, everything changed completely. After a huge burst of collective laughter - the fatigue had passed there - we had nothing left, all our work had fallen into the water. And we had to finish it in less than 14 hours... Why had we not seen anything until then? Because we were blinded by the beauty of our project, everything seemed obvious to us.

It was now 2am, Ugo, who was going to pitch our project in front of the jury, had to go to sleep. This is my advice to you if you are participating in a Startup weekend: your presenter MUST sleep, if he is not in shape, you lose.

So Ugo had gone to sleep, just like Benjamin. So there were three of us, me, Julien and William. While Julien was finishing our flyers (even though our business model had fallen apart, we decided to keep our basic idea, namely to create summaries), William and I walked for a good half hour all around the Serre Numérique, looking for a new idea. The fatigue was really there, but if we didn't do anything, it was over for us.

Back from our night walk, there was no one left in the open space, except Julien who continued to work on the flyers. We were disappointed, we had no idea what we could do. This was followed by a long period of time during which we analysed each feedback received (we had more than 200 at that time). It must have been 3:00 in the morning, when I said to myself, "Okay, you're going to stand up in front of that poster and reinvent your business model. You don't move until it's over! ».

So I got up, and started from this reflection: "How to use our algorithm so that it serves the creation, without going through graphic designers? ». I had a point A, the summary generated by our algorithm, and a point B, the visual sketching that we offered to our users. So my problem was: "How to go from point A to point B, without going through an algorithm, which would put us off topic, and without going through the graphic designers, which would cost us too much? ». At that moment, an idea crossed my mind: why not use Uber's model? That we would transform it to apply it to the world of graphic creation? The idea was launched.

We then discussed together the implementation of such a system. Everything seemed finally settled! We were going to offer users who so wished, to pay 3 to 10 euros depending on the complexity of the visual sketching calculated by our algorithm, one of our partners having registered on our platform to perform it. We would take on this 25% commission purchase, to ensure the running costs of the service, and because we would have put our customers in contact with our partners. This would allow users to have their visual sketching in less than a day, compared to more than a week with a graphic designer if he is already on other missions, and on top of that, we would offer them a rate that beats all the competition, which would also allow young creators wishing to make money next to their design studies for example, to work in their field of passion, from home. This system would have made it possible to create a new economy on the creative market, and to bring in new artists. It would be a win-win situation for everyone. It was our new business model.

That night, we decided to stay up all night. It was around 4am, and we wanted to prepare everything so that Ugo could prepare his presentation with as much information as possible. So we worked to make the idea as clear as possible, so that he would understand at a glance what our research had given. Once finished, going to bed would have done more harm than good, so we started a little impromptu karaoke session. Finally, when I say karaoke, let's say there was no music, but that didn't stop us from having fun with the microphone. Because yes, fortunately, there was a microphone connected to a speaker right next to us.

The main organizers of the startup weekend, Rémi and Benjamin, had even thought of providing us with a completely free pinball machine. I can assure you that playing pinball at 5:00 in the morning, while everyone is asleep, is a very special experience! At that point, we had managed to fight fatigue thanks to the excitement of our new business model, but also thanks to the peanuts from the previous day's aperitif (yes, I didn't tell you about it so as not to weigh down this post, but the Saturday meals were excellent!). Fortunately, and I am deeply sorry if the organizers read this passage, but the coffee machine was... broken! In fact, she always offered dozens of different coffees, but she no longer asked for money! So yes, in a way, we have easily managed to fight fatigue! We didn't abuse it, maybe we had a total of 5 coffees between me and William, but then the machine turned off and we couldn't have our coffee for free. I don't know where this bug came from, but I find it quite amusing to think that it was a help sent by some superhuman force to reward us for our efforts! Of course, it was just a coincidence.

Sunday breakfast

Sunday breakfast

So it was 7:30 am, Ugo had just joined us, he quickly understood the idea and could therefore quickly start thinking about his presentation. On our side, we had taken a break. We couldn't make any further progress on the PowerPoint presentation anyway, since we needed to know how Ugo wanted to present his speech, to create slides to support his point. So we had breakfast, and we started working on as much as we could until we could see what Ugo intended to say, namely, the graphic aspect of the PowerPoint, and an animation that we wanted to integrate during the presentation.

Our first element of disagreement had come: I wanted to finish the PowerPoint, or at least make a first version of it, for the presentation training session that took place at 12:00 in front of the coaches. For the majority of the group, this presentation was not that important at the moment. I tried to contain myself, but what I feared happened: we had no proper presentation during the presentation to the coaches. Fortunately, it was a training, but what is the point of a training if we can't even get feedback on our PowerPoint? Moreover, this catastrophic presentation we made in front of them marked the point of no return for me. Our pitch had been horrible, and we only had a few words about some slides, sometimes even empty slides with just one title. It was pathetic. At the time, I realized several things.

First, we had too many "leaders" in our team. There were 3 of us, out of the team of 5, who wanted to decide on the direction to take. I was trying to get everyone talking, to make decisions that were - I am still sure of that today - in the right direction for the project. Namely: focus on PowerPoint to get feedback from coaches and correct what we don't see. It was our number one priority, we had the chance to have a presentation in front of the coaches, we shouldn't waste it. So I realized at that point that I should have been less flexible with my team, that's my mistake.

Secondly, I realized that participating in a startup weekend while being in the same group with your friends was a bad idea. I mean, only if you haven't designated a "leader", and everyone does what they want. Why was that a bad idea? Because I couldn't get to the bottom of my thoughts and really say what was wrong with my team, for fear that our friendships would deteriorate. After 30 hours without sleep, believe me, anything can turn on the gunpowder, and destroy friendships, however strong they may be. The presentation led by our presenter, did not make sense. Ugo, if you're reading these lines, know that you've outdone yourself, and that I know how hard it is to have the weight of your team's ambition on your back. But we should have talked to each other to make this presentation one of the best in the history of startup weekend, all editions combined.

We had the keys, I am extremely comfortable speaking, and I have read and practiced dozens of techniques related to public speaking. I have already given presentations to hundreds of people, I have already been a teacher in a class, and I have already spoken and organized meetings in front of very important people. But I saw my friend happy and having fun, and that was all that mattered. That's when I realized that it was harmful, unless you leave with the mind that everything must be said, to team up with your friends. I could see that he was learning his text, that he was having trouble finding his words, but we should have trained together. In the end, it is the most important element of all your work: your presentation and the ease of your presenter is the only thing that will be judged by the jury. Obviously, the idea has to hold up a little bit, but a very good speaker will easily get any message across and convince his audience that he is offering an extraordinary service. The speaker is your asset. The key to success in a startup weekend. We had a good speaker, but we could have made it even better. Something I didn't dare tell him.

Sunday was therefore a source of tension, we did not agree on how to present our project, both orally and in PowerPoint. But for a moment, I finally got angry. I won't say names because we get along very well and I know how much fatigue and pressure can sometimes make you say anything. Suddenly, one of our team members started saying, "Well, we have a lot to do, so we concentrate, and if we finish last, the most important thing is to be proud of ourselves. ». And by the way, two team members started to nod and laugh, as if everything was lost anyway.

That's all it took. The majority of my team was really saying that they no longer had any ambitions? That they had given up? That we had spent an all-nighter working for nothing? With these words, and with these reactions, I shut down my computer, and went to another room. Among these three people were the other two "leaders" of the team. What do you want to do in such a situation? Fatigue would have increased the violence of the accusations by 10 times. The real leader, in this situation, retreats, and prepares his return with clear evidence that what he says is the right direction to follow, and takes everyone on his boat to paddle as quickly as possible. That's what I tried to do.

That same evening, we had a PowerPoint that held up well, even if some elements such as the animation we had created should not have been present, because for example here, it split the dynamism of the presentation in two. With a video in the middle that played very loud music with a lot of bass, to cut clean and get back to the rhythm of the presentation. The presentation led by Ugo was much better than the one made at noon, it wasn't perfect, and I would have brought the storytelling differently, but it was a very nice evolution, congratulations Ugo!

Jury. From left to right: Mélissa Bourgeois, Guillaume Coudriau, Thomas Longuemart

Jury. From left to right: Mélissa Bourgeois, Guillaume Coudriau, Thomas Longuemart

Once our presentation was finished around 7pm in front of the jury (we were the last ones), we were really satisfied with the evolution compared to what we had proposed 5 hours earlier. I honestly thought we'd be on the podium. The idea was really good, the PowerPoint was not perfect but already better than in the morning, and Ugo had improved significantly. But that wasn't enough. According to the jury's feedback, officially, the problem came from the fact that in the end we only offered reading sheets, which is not innovative. Obviously, that is not the purpose of our project, and it is likely that they misunderstood what our service was for. Unofficially, there was a fear: that of destroying the book industry. Since we only offered summaries for books that the user must already have in his possession - and therefore have already bought - we did not understand this feedback. Especially since we allow documents and courses to be summarized and mapped, which has no impact on the book industry.

As you will have understood, we had a hard time dealing with these feedback, it is true that our presentation and PowerPoint were not perfect, but the fact that they are out of touch with the objective of our service is a sign that our presentation was not effective. We should have had another pitch, another story to tell, better slides, a template, to explain to them what our project was for. In the end, a startup weekend is all about that, and first place, only for the people who are the most successful at making people dream, and playing on their emotions. We have made the mistake of thinking too much "like a VC" (a venture capitalist, an investor in startups), and not like a startup weekend. The ones who succeed in this kind of adventure are startups who sell emotion. You have to be able to sell emotion, to touch your jury. If you succeed, even if your idea is not brilliant and you have no business model, you will win.

Once again, we were not selling emotions in our pitch, and although our service and business model were solid, we were too focused on "presentation to investors" rather than "presentation to normal people". I don't know how to describe it, but I think you have grasped the meaning of my thought. Our project was really very interesting, but we sold it badly, it's our fault.

This adventure has taught me a lot, both personally and entrepreneurially. For me as a very human being, I regret that I may have been a little too involved in the competition, and that I didn't go as much to see others as I would have liked to. The organizers and coaches were really exceptional, and I recommend that anyone who wants to do a startup weekend participate in the Valenciennes startup weekend. We ate to our satisfaction (and even far too much), we had quality coaches and a jury, and we also had all the resources we wanted at our disposal: printer, coaches, post-it and coffee (and that's very important, you can believe me).

Rémi and Benjamin are certainly among the best startup weekend organizers in France, I was amazed by their attention and I had an extraordinary experience. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, I can only advise you to visit it next year. I have finally achieved this objective. It is up to you to do it now.

The organizing team, without them nothing would have been possible

The organizing team, without them nothing would have been possible

Nov 21, 2019