THATCamp ranks as my favorite conference experience, mostly because it blows apart the passivity and formality of a traditional conference to get to the essence, bringing people together to share ideas. After attending Startup Weekend Houston a few weeks ago, I now have another event to add to my list of favorite conferencey experiences. Just as THATCamp challenges attendees to set and steer the agenda, Startup Weekend leaves a lot up to the participants, who have 54 hours to pitch a product idea (typically tech-related), form teams, validate their idea, develop a business model, and put together a demo and a longer pitch.
Like THATCamps, Startup Weekends are low-cost ($99 or less), community-driven events that take place around the world and are run primarily by volunteers, who receive help from the Startup Weekend’s central office in staging the event. Startup Weekend provides the key challenge, overarching structure, and access to many of the resources you need to build your project, such as excellent mentors, tools that help you to flesh out your ideas, coffee, good food (including a nirvana-inducing chocolate malt cupcake from Houston’s fabulous Kitchen Incubator), and meeting space.
Some might wonder what entrepreneurship training has to do with the digital humanities (DH), but I believe that the two communities have much in common and can learn from each other. As startup guru Steve Blank suggests, startups exist to “search for a repeatable and scalable business model,” which itself is “how your company creates, delivers and captures value.” While DH projects typically don’t form companies and don’t aim to make a profit, most do need to consider how to define their value, find users and sustain themselves. To get off the ground, DH projects go through a process similar to a start-up: identifying a need and potential solution, drafting project plans, putting together a team, building a prototype, iterating on that prototype, and disseminating the product (whether a tool, collection, model, publication, or large-scale research). Both the DH and lean startup communities have embraced similar principles, such as agile development, user-focused design, open source software, and iteration. In a broader sense, I believe that DH brings the spirit of entrepreneurship–taking risks, experimenting, building something that serves a need, innovating, tolerating failure–to the humanities. We can see this spirit manifested in the NEH’s Digital Humanities Start-Up grants, the many digital humanities “Labs” (a term also used frequently by startups and tech companies), and One Week One Tool, which was inspired by “crash ‘startup’ or ‘blitz weekends’.” In a sense, many DH centers serve as startup incubators, providing the know-how and support to help get an idea off the ground.
Events like Startup Weekend could address a need in the DH community for more training in successfully launching projects. Often graduate training in the humanities does not prepare people for the complexities of getting a major DH project started and keeping it going. Such training is now being offered at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (taught by Lynne Siemens, a professor in U Victoria’s school of public administration who does research in entrepreneurship and academic team development), at THATCamp workshops (such as Sharon Leon’s Introduction to Project Management in Digital Humanities), as part of DH educational programs such as UVA’s Praxis Program, and in publications such as Sharon Leon’s Project Management for Humanists:Preparing Future Primary Investigators. I think StartUp Weekend offers another compelling model for providing training in a fast, fun and experiential way.
Here some ideas from Startup Weekend that I think have relevance for the DH community:
- challenge & competition: At Startup Weekend, your team competes against others to persuade a panel of expert judges that your product is the best. Competition adds energy and intensity to the weekend (and a little stress).
- criteria: In evaluating projects, judges assess customer validation, business model, and execution, as well as overall effectiveness. These criteria help to structure the challenge and give teams concrete elements on which to spend their limited time. If you look at grant guidelines, different terms are used, but the criteria are similar. Have you conducted needs analysis to determine whether there is an audience for your project? Have you validated whether your ideas will meet those needs? Do you have a model for sustaining the project?
- collaboration: Like many DH projects, Startup Weekend requires collaboration among a range of people, including developers, designers, and business development specialists. Not only do you create a better product, but you also learn from each other–and have more fun in the process.
- mentors: Startup Weekend Houston recruited a great group of mentors who gave up part or all of their weekend to work with project teams. Mentors asked tough questions, suggested ways to approach problems, connected us with people who could help us test or advance our ideas, and provided feedback on startup ideas and business plans. The DH community also offers mentors, such as through the ACH mentoring program.
- communication: As you try to explain your project to a range of people, from a provost to your next-door neighbor, it helps to know how to pitch an idea succinctly and persuasively. At Startup Weekend, the first big event (following noshing and networking) is the pitch, where you have one minute to describe your project idea and persuade others to join your team. Startup Weekend culminates in a pitch contest, where teams make four-minute pitches to convince the judges that their project is the best. Mentors can help you to develop an effective pitch, and you learn by doing.
- tools: The startup community has created some handy templates that help teams crystallize the core elements of their startup idea, particularly the Lean Canvas or Business Model Canvas. Developing such a model forces you to think through key questions and gives you a handy reference as you share your ideas with others.
Startup Weekend has recently begun sponsoring events focused on education, as documented by Audrey Watters’ great series of posts on gatherings in DC, Seattle and San Francisco. Why not Startup Weekend Digital Humanities? Of course, the digital humanities community already offers some events that serve a similar purpose. For example, at this year’s MLA Convention the DH Commons is hosting a workshop in which veteran digital humanists will share tips on succeeding in the digital humanities and lead small group sessions on topics such as project management, community building, and topic modeling. Although the workshop is now full, DH Commons is also sponsoring a project mixer where people can learn about DH projects that they can help out with. If you have a DH project and want to recruit volunteers or spread the word about it at the mixer, please sign up. (I’m a member of the DH Commons team and would be happy to answer any questions.) In a broader sense, I believe that entrepreneurial thinking can help higher education tackle some thorny challenges, such as improving learning, reducing costs while maintaining quality, and reforming scholarly communication. Thus I’m exploring how to bring entrepreneurial thinking to the liberal arts community through my work at NITLE.