Aaron Birkby

@ajbirkby

40+ Startup Weekends later, I need to retire…

January 14th 2018

I’ve facilitated over 40 Startup Weekends and hackathons since 2012, and now in 2018 it is time for me to retire that hat.

I don’t know the exact count of how many hackathon or Startup Weekend events I’ve facilitated, because I stopped counting when they all became a blur. But I recall in some periods over the last 5.5 years when I would often do 2 or 3 weekends in a row, followed by periods without any. So I have some confidence that the number is somewhere between 40 and 50 three-day events that I have facilitated (and that’s not counting all the other events I’ve been lucky enough to get to facilitate).

Startup Weekend Sunshine Coast

Where it all began

How I became a Startup Weekend facilitator was a bit of a ‘sliding doors’ moment. As part of Silicon Lakes on the Gold Coast, we had spun up the first Startup Weekend event for the city. We had arranged for an experienced approved facilitator to fly in to deliver the weekend. But on the Tuesday before the event, with only a tiny handful of registrations (less than 20) the facilitator told us to cancel the event and decided not to fly over.

We were screwed. Under the rules of Startup Weekend, without an approved facilitator we were not allowed to run the event.

But we were adamant that the show would go on, because we believed the event was too critical for our ecosystem’s development not to proceed. So with less than 3 days until the event was due to start, I had to quickly learn how to facilitate one. I dialled in Sheikh Shuvo —at the time he was the Asia Pacific Regional Manager for UP Global (since acquired by Techstars) — who I had seen facilitate a Startup Weekend in Melbourne just months prior. I got him to download every thought and nuance of his trade. Then I searched the internet for every piece of content on Startup Weekend, hackathons, and facilitation.

I barely slept for 3 days. Not just because of the prep work, but because of how nervous I was.

By the time we kicked off on the Friday afternoon, we had over 120 people in attendance (yes, Queenslanders are notoriously last-minute for event registrations). The event was incredible, and I became addicted to the endorphin rush the comes with doing something that is challenging, but also impactful and rewarding.

Engineering my extrovert persona

When I started out facilitating events I was naturally an introvert. So I had to work very hard to put myself into a state of mind to be comfortable standing in front of (and engaging and delivering value to) large audiences, for extended periods of time.

Over time I developed (and mostly copied from others) small routines and tools to help me achieve my “facilitator persona”. Many of these things we now teach to founders in our Peak Persona programs, including: listening to curated music “persona playlists”, heavy exercise, waking pre-dawn and using ‘morning-of’ routines, choice of clothing and grooming, presence and body language, use of language and mental triggers, drinking plenty of water, and much more.

All of these tools and routines would help me switch from my quiet introvert mode, to my facilitator mode (also known as my “dance like a funky chicken” extrovert persona).

Startup Weekend Creative Tech

It is one of the best jobs in the world

Facilitating a Startup Weekend event is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences. People always ask me “don’t you get exhausted after the weekend?”. But for me, I’ve always drawn energy from facilitating Startup Weekends — it’s an energy that can carry me for weeks after the event.

More importantly, at every event there is always at least one individual that comes up to me, almost in tears, describing how the weekend has changed their life — their perspective of what is possible, and their new-found permission to go and do something they’ve always wanted to, but never taken action on.

That’s the power of the deliberately-engineered emotional rollercoaster that is Startup Weekend. It was actually through facilitating Startup Weekends that I learnt how to construct emotional impact for people, and how to re-program their perception of reality.

That impact is what I love. It’s the same impact I love in my role with Startup Catalyst.

Startup Weekend has also led me to meet so many new and amazing people, from all around the world — incredible organising teams and volunteers, and an amazing global network of facilitators.

One of the highlights for me has been the global and regional facilitator and organiser summits, the best of which took place in downtown Vegas in 2014 with about 700 startup community leaders from around the world coming together for a week of peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. I still stay in touch with many of the people I met that week, and that group still shares knowledge and experiences to help each other improve their game.

The UP Summit in Las Vegas, bringing together 700 startup community leaders from around the world

Hanging up my Startup Weekend hat

Recently I realised that I wasn’t enjoying the Startup Weekend events as much as I originally did, and I wasn’t developing myself either.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Startup Weekends. I honestly believe it is one of the single most valuable event formats for startup entrepreneurship.

But recently I’m finding myself facilitating on auto-pilot — not consciously present in the moment, and not really gaining anything personally from the experience anymore. I know this is a failing of me, not the activity. I’ve just mentally moved on.

That, combined with a desire to focus on my edge (whatever exactly that proves to be) and a new decision making filter I’m using when assessing requests of my time (dubbed “hell yes” or “no”), I’ve finally decided to stop facilitating hackathons and Startup Weekend events. Well, at least most of them — I will still do the ones that excite or challenge me (FYI: those two words are almost synonyms in my head).

Startup Weekend Health Brisbane

Facilitators I recommend

Putting this retirement into practice, I was recently asked to facilitate a couple of upcoming Startup Weekend events in Queensland, which I declined. They asked me to recommend some other facilitators, so in the interest of helping others who may have the same question, here goes, in no particular order (these are all local for Australia):

  • Sam Birmingham — based in Perth, Sam is one of the original and best (plus just a pretty solid bloke that I love having a beer with, even if he does take me to some pretty random pubs when I’m in town).
  • Dwight Gunning —based in Amsterdam, but if you can tempt him to come back from Europe, ask him about his experiences facilitating events in the middle-east.
  • Marina Paronetto — based in Melbourne, Marina has travelled to wherever she is needed to facilitate a rockstar event, and is similarly passionate about female entrepreneurship.
  • Daniel Johnsen — normally in Kentucky USA, but currently in outback Queensland, Dan is a gun facilitator who brings a global perspective.
  • Baden U’ren —based on the Gold Coast, the only thing taller than Baden is his passion for helping entrepreneurs. He is a bloody good mate who would give almost anything to help someone.
  • Tim Anderson – based in Brisbane, this super-keen and talented machine has facilitated various hackathons, both for corporates and for social impact.
  • Philippe Ceulen — now based in Brisbane, Philippe has a tonne of experience facilitating Startup Weekend events around the world.
  • Marcus Eikeland — based on the Sunshine Coast for a while, but now back in Norway, Marcus is always looking for an excuse to get back down-under.
  • David Masefield and Joy Taylor — this husband and wife duo are based in Toowoomba, and have the claim to fame of being the only known couple to facilitate simultaneous Startup Weekend events in different cities.
  • Darren Rogan — based in Brisbane, and a true tech founder at heart, Darren is a straight-talking no-BS facilitator who delivers a tonne of value.
  • Damian Zammit — based in Cairns (well, currently Melbourne), Damian is stepping out of facilitation and into his agtech startup. But if you you know his triggers, you might just be able to tempt him.

I’m sure there are plenty more that I’m not aware of or have accidentally missed (I also deliberately left off a few names that I believe have also thrown in their towel and not facilitating any more). But please feel free to add more names in the comments.

PS: Don’t fuck the format

The last thing I want to add is this. Many people participate in a Startup Weekend event and worry about the low number of startups that progress post event (the last stat I heard was that 12.5% of startups from a Startup Weekend are still going 12 months later). As a result, they argue that the format of a Startup Weekend should be changed to increase the startup success rate.

But they fail to recognise that the purpose of Startup Weekend is actually not to build startups. It is to build startup founders and future startup employees. It is educational, focussed on experience based learning through providing a soft way for the general public to access entrepreneurship without risk.

So please don’t fuck with the format. If you want a different outcome, run a different event. But keep to the pure nature of a Startup Weekend if you want to impact humans and activate them into entrepreneurship.

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