Taking the leap from a more structured environment to the freedom and responsibility of entrepreneurship isn’t easy. When I think back to the day I made the decision to quit my job and start a business, I see that one of the things I most desperately wanted was a way to test the waters.
If you’re in the same state of mind, don’t worry. Today, there is a bevy of “startup intensives” that can give you the chance to try out the startup grind for a day, a weekend, or a week at a time. These events, held frequently throughout the year, can help you decide if starting up is right for you.
1. If You’re Just Getting Started, Try Startup Weekend
If you simply want to dip your entrepreneurial toe in the water, consider attending a Startup Weekend event. These events, held every week in cities around the world, are easy to find and gain access to. Be prepared to pitch an idea for a company and work on someone else’s idea, in case yours isn’t selected by the group voting process as a top team.
Over the weekend, you’ll work with a group of strangers to create a new company and plan for its growth. By the time Sunday night pitches roll around, you’ll have a good understanding of some of the traits it takes to be a successful entrepreneur — e.g., the ability to work under pressure, lead a team, and wear many hats.
2. If You Have a Business but You’re Struggling to Gain Customers, Try Lean Startup Machine
If you’ve tried a few Startup Weekends and are looking to further build your entrepreneurial skills, or if you’re running a startup company that is in its early stages, try attending a Lean Startup Machine event near you. This weekend is geared specifically toward those who are trying to identify and build customer-driven products and organizations. Lean Startup Machine events operate in the framework established by Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup and the work of Steve Blank.
You may not like hearing customer feedback — especially if those customers don’t value your product or service — but by finding out what customers think now rather than later, you can begin to understand the problems your customers do have and avoid wasting your time and money building things that no one wants to buy. While this event is also relatively easy to access, a thick skin and a willingness to talk to strangers are necessary to get the full benefit.
3. If You Have Technical Skills, Try a Hackathon
Whether you’re a student or a professional developer, hackathons can provide you the time, support, and freedom to build what you’ve always wanted to build. While hackathons vary in length, intensity, and focus, you can find a good collection of student-targeted events at Major League Hacking. If you’re in my neck of the woods (the Midwest), Hack Midwest is the banner event of the year. There are even distributed hackathons, open to anyone in the country, like the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge. It’s also worth mentioning that these events often have pretty attractive cash prizes (and bragging rights) at stake.
4. If You’re a Maker, Inventor, or Hardware Hacker, Try Make48
If using Arduinos to create your own home security system isn’t cutting it for you anymore, you might want to try a weekend-long event like Make48. While this particular competition is based here in Kansas City, there are similar robotics builds, invention challenges, and other makeathons around the country. If you get more pleasure out of creating physical solutions to problems than coding software, maker events like this offer a hands-on equivalent to a hackathon.
5. If You’re Just a Little Unbalanced, Try StartupBus
Are you a regular ultra-marathoner? Does a Tough Mudder sound like fun to you? You just might want to try your hand at being a “buspreneur.” StartupBus is a four-to-five day startup intensive created by a team of entrepreneurs who had attended Startup Weekends and asked themselves, “Could we do that on a moving bus?”
If you’re invited to become a buspreneur (yes, the program is invite-only and requires that you be connected enough to find former buspreneurs and secure an invitation from them), you will find yourself facing all the challenges one might imagine the act of trying to build a company on a moving vehicle would entail — e.g., spotty and/or insufficient Internet access, limited resources, motion sickness, ice storm, etc.
But successful buspreneurs find a way to thrive in this environment, securing paying customers, raising seed money, and garnering national media coverage for a barely-hatched idea. It’s a crucible, but if startup life doesn’t seem daunting enough for you on its own, you may want to consider trying a trip on the StartupBus.
Regardless of how you learn about the startup lifestyle, getting a chance to try it out before jumping in with both feet can be helpful in many ways. You can make friends and begin to build a network of support to lean on when times get tough. You can start to understand the structure and process of testing and iterating quickly. Even if you should decide that startup life isn’t the right fit for you, your time spent dabbling in the startup world won’t be wasted. You can apply you new understanding of how to make big things happen with few resources to any aspect of your career.
Melissa Roberts is the president of Free State Strategy Group, an integral public affairs firm the helps clients develop and execute grassroots advocacy strategies to build engaged and receptive communities both online and offline. Melissa is a proud Kansas City startup community “feeder,” serving on the Board of the Kansas City Startup Foundation/Kansas City Startup Village, working with the Enterprise Center in Johnson County and the Mid-America Angels investment network, and advising a handful of local startups in strategic communications and digital marketing efforts.