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Startup Weekend Tampa Bay – A Newbie’s Experience

Last month, I had the opportunity to take part in Startup Weekend Tampa Bay as a mentor.  At first, I was extremely hesitant and a little gun shy to label myself as a “mentor,” but encouragement from fellow colleagues prompted me to volunteer despite my hesitancy.  Boy, was I glad I did.  Here are a few big surprises I experienced as a Startup Weekend mentor newbie:

1.     This is a competition, right?

Startup Weekend is a grueling, 52-hour weekend of blood, sweat, and bytes.  On this occasion, 80 local minds gathered on a Friday evening to pitch their next great idea, but only 12 would make it to the next round.  The individuals whose ideas did not make the cut were then placed on a team with one of the top 12 ideas.  Each team had four to six members. What truly shocked me was the fluidity at which the “losers” (though it is an injustice and inaccurate to call them that) adopted the cause of their newfound team and employed their talents to work to advance someone else’s original idea.  Where I expected to find resentment and bitterness, I found a truly inspiring sense of teamwork.  It amazed me to see how quickly these individuals were able to change gears from seeing each other as competition to embracing them as teammates.  Even more remarkably, the passion they had for their own ideas did not go to waste, as it was poured wholeheartedly into the idea of their new team.

2.     The new and improved mousetrap

In my naiveté, I expected to find a lineup full of rebooted, tweaked, and largely unoriginal ideas.  You know what I mean—those with explanations starting off something like, “We want to be the Uber of XYZ….”  To my surprise, each idea in the semifinal round was truly unique, ranging from a voter-education app to a service that solves the panic-inducing problem of overweight luggage at the airport check-in counter.  Let me assure you, these ideas were good— really good.

3.     The talent pool is deep

In a free moment during the middle of the bustle on Saturday afternoon, I had the chance to take a long look around the room. Within eyeshot, I could see coders frantically typing away at their cryptic languages, strategic thinkers debating the functionality and viability of their ideas, and mentors asking leading questions to steer team members back to their primary objective while spurring new thoughts.  What did I see? In a word:  talent.  It’s a wonder that corporate recruiters aren’t panting at the door waiting for a chance to speak to the first brilliant mind they can.  When it comes to innovation and passionate business minds, Startup Weekend is easily one of Tampa’s best-kept secrets.. 

4.     I’m supposed to mentor them?

I was told my role in Startup Weekend was to float around the room, offering advice and guidance where needed.  Though it may sound a bit cliché, I can honestly say I took more from the experience than I gave.  Though I enjoyed offering guidance to several teams about market viability and the value proposition of their ideas, I walked away from the interaction inspired by their passion, drive, and desire to change their environment for the better.  Whether they realized the impact they had on me during our exchange or not, I walked away all the richer nonetheless.

If you’ve never heard about Startup Weekend Tampa, ask the all-knowing Google what it’s about.  If you have heard of it and have an idea you’ve always wanted to take for a test drive, I encourage you to participate in the next event.  As for all of you reluctant mentors out there—volunteer.  If you don’t walk away from the weekend with more than you came in with, send me the bill for your time.

To learn more about Startup Week Tampa Bay visit: http://tampabay.startupweek.co/

Brayton Bolinger