Startup Weekend in Tehran. Time to move on.

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The 31st of December has not the same symbolic meaning for everyone on this earth. The great thing about that is that you learn to put things more in perspective. I have lost that sense of belonging quite some time ago, creating a more open mind towards new things. When my friend AmirReza asked me and some others if I was free to facilitate Startup Weekend Fashion and Tech I was very enthusiast, and said yes in a blink. I was together with him in Zanjan in March ’16 where he organised a Global Startup Week. I dare to say we became friends since then and I have huge respect for this young man (younger than my oldest son). He is a startup enthusiast in a context that doesn’t really support it as much as in the Western world. The startup world in Iran is very small and he is by far the most known and appreciated. As an organiser he relays first on himself, eye for detail, emphatic and stubborn. You need to be. Otherwise nothing moves forward. He is also just as naive as myself. Always striving for the bigger goals but confronted with a reality that is mostly not even close to understanding. The “why you do it?” never gets a factual answer as most people organising or facilitating a Startup Weekend just love doing it. Or a hackathon or any other initiative that aims at creating a better world. As I said, we are naive people. But I am also convinced that you need our kind to create change and self exploration.

Traveling to Iran till now only had one disadvantage and that is flying at night and thus skipping a normal night rest. I don’t mind but my body does every year more. After a delay of 6 hours at Ataturk due to fog in Tehran I arrived and was very happy to undergo the CIP treatment. A taxi brought me to the hotel and from there to the venue. Very impressive as it was one of the best malls in Tehran and we were at the top floor in a very big room. I finished the deck just in time to get started. In the meantime I got to know quite some people in Tehran, also because after Zanjan, I came back to Tehran for 5 days, and it was great to meet and greet again. Two pages in the deck impressed me the most, the number of mentors and the number of sponsors (barter!). Massive. After the speeches, a bit too long, we kicked off. To my surprise we had over 40 people with an idea to pitch! My god that line was long but thanks to Moojan, from Tehran but working and living in Paris, the pitches went very smooth. I am used to organise and facilitate myself, so it was kind of a luxury position to only do the show part. Enjoyed it a lot. As we had over 100 people ready to work through the weekend we ended up with fairly large teams but the mood was good and the venue really served its purpose. At 10pm teams went back home, no sleeping over, and they came back at 8am. Let me spell this out again, eight o’clock in the morning. It was a thrill to see the enthusiasm. Things changed after the mentors. As they were too many, and some too stubborn to understand what was expected from them, the teams got stuck at ideation/validation. Some mentors came already in the morning, and that was... Let’s call it a little setback. After warning some mentors that the teams need to work now, I called for a shock therapy meeting, late afternoon. We all gathered in the middle and while pointing out that after 9 hours we were still at ideation/validation, we would have no pitch ready with an MVP. It worked. I asked them to ignore any mentor and just start working towards a result. Some mentors gave me the bad eye. Too bad for them. It was great that the organisation supported all the action and continued the great work.

The last day was there, not a Sunday as we are used too, but a Friday. Mentors helped in evaluating the pitches. I am not in favour of this when I cannot assist, as mentors always continue to question business model etc. but all went well. After technical test we were at the sacred moment. The Pitches, but not before explaining the jury how we would proceed and what are the criteria. I didn’t do the exact count but I guess there were over 200 people in the room. Very impressed. In Turkiye I am happy with 50 people at the end. After the Mexican wave we kicked off. Again Moojan made sure all went smooth and also assuring the audience was quiet. She has her ways to get them aligned, what you need with so many people. We had a winning team, big rounds of applause, happy faces and a lot of appreciation. Too many thank you’s for the energy and the learnings. Business cards were shared and the number of new social media friends increased drastically. So far Startup Weekend like we know and like it. Fashion and Technology is for sure very challenging and we need more of these with inspirational examples to get also more innovative ideas. Startup Weekend is about fun and learning and that goal was met by far. Big thanks to the organisation!

What kept coming back in my head though, was more the short talk I had with AmirReza on Thursday night in the car. We discussed how to organise and how to get the sponsors onboard. How to cover money expenses etc. Challenges we all have as an organiser although different for each continent. I don’t know for the States, but I know for Europe, Balkan and Middle East. In Turkiye SW is free for participants, if paid they even don’t show up, and money sponsoring is close to impossible in most cases. When I look at the result of SW I feel that in Europe, Amsterdam has a money budget of 16.000 euro’s as an example, is a cool event for cool people, with very high standards for venue, speakers, food, drinks, prizes. In Balkan, I have Timisoara as an example, sponsoring is not easy, but people pay to participate and the impact is big. Young people go out with a learning they appreciate. In Middle East we have the “from America” burden to start, a facilitator deck that is still not “regionalised” and even if paid, we cannot use Paypal. On the other hand Startup Weekend has a huge impact as the participants learn about Lean Startup, Business Canvas, Mentors etc. These things are a given for the Western World but not here. What we take for granted in the West is a first here, thus the impact and necessity are higher in my opinion. After being acquired by Techstars I was expecting a more professional approach. They have the money and experience, let’s be honest here. So I raised this already before, why is there no local sponsor deal with big companies or investor groups? Why is an organiser not awarded although creating value to the Boulder organisation? For the last 4 years I work like an NGO in Turkiye helping out the startup world that accelerators and investors talk so highly about, but why is it so hard to also give practical help? SW is part of one of the biggest organisations. It’s time to move on and get professional. It will not kill the spirit I am sure, on the contrary. Every organisation has to align with the market situation. We talk about product/market fit and pivoting. Time to practise what we preach.

Cannot wait to go back to Iran and keep helping the local community to get aligned with the rest of the world. In Turkiye I will continue the same work as organiser and facilitator. The format is great and the feedbacks always amazing. Everybody should get a fair chance to be part of this. AmirReza, always in my heart!

Previous post covering SW Zanjan ‘16: https://medium.com/iran-startups/iran-has-startup-ambitions-watch-out-2c49df4fdcf3#.1qdtckjea

Stage-Co on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stagecoplatform/

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Stage-Co, Urla Coworking and Now Sprint! Accelerator co-founder, CoderDojo Turkiye co-founder, Facilitator, Accelerator Program Manager and Mentor

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