In Mid September 2014, I assisted in running Startup Weekend Kids. It is a morning long event during Startup Weekend Tucson to give kids a really great introduction into the world of the business startup company. I think it is also an introduction to some key business concepts in general.
It is an excellent program. Kids think of a business idea (usually an invention of some sort, but it could be any product or service) as soon as they arrive. They give a pitch to the group, and then work most of the time creating a poster presentation, in which they must think about things like what their prototype will look like, what materials they will need and setting a price. They also think of who their customers may be and are encouraged to interview potential customers. Often the interviewees are the adult Startup Weekend attendees, who find the mini-me’s just darn cute.
The kids’ business ideas are sometimes a rather ambitious pie-in-the-sky invention (my all time favorite was the jet pack), but sometimes they are quite possible, like this year’s basketball hoop laundry hamper, or the cat shelter yard sale donation web site. The kids are not given too much time to worry about the idea really. The effort comes later in experiencing the whole startup process.
The kids range in age from 5 to 15. Parents are highly encouraged to attend with the kids. Why? Because it’s a tough program! However, it is well worth the effort and rich in experiential rewards.
My son also participated. This was his second time through the workshop. I remember the first time through being a bit challenging for him, but fun in the end. The second time was the same way.
I am writing about Startup Weekend Kids because during the event I noticed how just about every kid had a little meltdown or hit a challenge-wall at some point. The energy in the room the whole time was super charged, made more electric by all of the excitement from the adults upstairs doing Startup Weekend Tucson. This energy made the room feel very optimistic yet made kids rather sensitive to these roadblocks. I think it came from the old belief that the idea is all that you need for a business to be successful. The challenging reality of the process, even on a 4 hour long micro scale, was a surprise to everyone and hit them at different points.
The following are common meltdown points I noticed. Now, adults, before you feel all superior and charmed by this list of children’s little meltdowns, let me explain that my reason for writing this is that I have seen adults have the EXACT same meltdowns either at previous work projects or during my experience at Startup Weekend Tucson. I’ve certainly experienced a few of these freak outs myself. Though, no, I did not have a tantrum you could hear or see.
Here they are:
1. The prototype. After a kid has just pitched his/her most awesome invention ever to the group and gotten applause, they realize they would like to draw or construct some sort of visual representation of the amazing gizmo, to realize they don’t really have a good idea what it will look like. After a few failed attempts with pen and paper or maybe just the THOUGHT of picking up pen and paper: Meltdown!
I think that some people need to draw or sculpt to understand their own idea in its entirety. That concrete reality is very helpful to them. I am this way. But I think others need to talk it out. Perhaps they are used to going through the world in more of an abstract way. I wonder if some of these meltdowns are caused by differences in the way we naturally interface with our world, visual or kinesthetic, verses aural. I also wonder if sometimes this is a developmental roadblock. Perhaps the child has not drawn a lot, but would be fine at it if they tried it, so they don’t know if it will be helpful or not. Oh, the anxiety of the new and untried! But, its the fun part if we embrace it I think.
All in all though, I saw this meltdown just a few times.
2. Define the Customer. After a kid has their idea well understood and defined, they think they are done. Then their accompanying adult or Startup Weekend Kids moderator mentions they need to define their customers. And the kid says, “The what now?” To tell the truth, I think this is where most of us as adults also freak out. Me included, during my startup experience! Our idea, our baby might enter the world and be judged by others. Will it be ripped apart? Will it be sued for some reason we could not have possibly foretold? Will someone say it is just dumb? Ahhhh! Customers???!!
In addition, potential customers are not always who we think they are. They could be just like us, but they could also be nothing at all like us, which is hard to understand because perhaps we just can’t fathom this type of customer. We flounder and freak out because maybe this idea is only good for a small number of people. Or maybe it could be used for unintended purposes by others. Oh, the anxiety of the unknown! But, I suppose it is a fun part as well…if we embrace it.
My son hit a wall at this point this year right here. In fact, he was ready to scream at me a few times. I had to talk him into taking a walk outside just to let some energy out and talk a bit. It was hard on both of us as I didn’t know the right things to say except that I understood that it was hard and that I thought he had a good idea and to encourage him to think outside of himself a little bit. However, I think this is something that cannot be cultivated with one talk. Looking back, I think the encouragement was all I could do. Perhaps next year at Startup Weekend Kids it will be easier for him. But there was only so much encouragement I could give. I could not live this lesson for him.
He did think of some possible customers in the end, grudgingly.
3. Writing the Survey. Then it is time to interview customers and do some good ol’ market research. They need to write a survey. This requires a kid to think about the problem that their business idea solves in addition to the customers they believe the idea is serving. These questions require a kid to realize that they do NOT know the answers. Everything that they were working on up until this point was based on a gut feeling, an intuition, that this is a good idea to them because of X, Y and Z. But none of that matters in a survey. You can’t convince people by presentation in a survey. You have to let the people speak for themselves.
Writing a survey requires some really intense critical thinking. And WOW! Does it ever. What are you really trying to find out? Maybe you will find out you were wrong all along, your idea is really is dumb to others. So I saw a lot of kids freaking out here too. It is a really tough turn. Talk about the anxiety of the unknown. But if we embrace it…
And of course, your idea will sound dumb to others. But so what? How many others? How many people love it? That will re-fuel your energy and excitement. But I digress.
I had to talk my son through this part. I don’t think he was ready to turn the corner on his own. I gave him a framework, suggested he ask his interviewees how old they are and what problems they have with cleaning up Legos (my son’s business idea was a maker bot that could make lost Legos). I really led him through it. It is a tough concept.
4. The last freak out point is often going out and taking the survey. Kids are shy. Adults are often the same way. I think it gets easier for everyone with practice but it is rare to a have a person that just leaps in front of a total stranger with strong confidence and says, “Can I ask you a few questions about my awesome business idea?” I’ve met one or two people like this, but really, it is rare.
It helped for the adults to go with the kids. However, I had to argue with my son a bit that he was going to be the one asking the questions. He did ask the questions though. We started with his friends to make it easier. In the end, he warmed up. But hey, there were a number of kids who would have rather hid behind their adult helpers than talk to a stranger.
So, by the end of those freak out points, kids had enough information to make a presentation on a foam board with what they learned. And they really learned some great concrete stuff. That concrete stuff was hard won! They were proud. Their adults were proud, and a little tired. But happy.
So in the end…
The poster presentations were a breeze in contrast to all of the other stuff. Almost all of the kids who were shy to make their original pitch were fine to make the final presentation. By then, they’d been through so much that morning that the presentations were really exciting, easy and fun.
The energy crackled. The kids got applause. They totally deserved it.
Can’t wait till next year, Startup Tucson!
Tucson DIY will be running Startup Tucson Kids next year as well. Check us out here!