We just finished the inaugural Denver Startup Week, where more than 3500 people took part in over 70 events focused around startups and entrepreneurship. These events covered the spectrum of purely educational to purely social, and ranged from sizes of 35 to 700.
The energy of the week and sheer volume of participants took everyone by surprise. But the most surprising thing? Six months ago Denver Startup Week did not exist.
Denver has some particular strengths that helped make Startup Week a success, but the template can be applied to any startup community. Here are 10 steps to build your own Startup Week in six months.
1. Get buy-in for an initial plan
Denver has had a number of successful startups – and there have always been a lot of events – but until recently it lacked the cohesive startup community that our neighbor to the north, Boulder, is famous for (or that other cities like Austin or Chicago were becoming known for).
We knew that Denver had the potential to have a great startup community – it just needed the right catalyst. The first step was making some noise with the Denver Startup Bash. The next step was bring together a diverse group of startup community leaders to talk about how to truly get the ball rolling.
We all agreed: Denver needed a big community-wide event.
We liked what Boulder did with Boulder Startup Week and wanted to do something similar in Denver, but take advantage of Denver’s distinct character. One of the group showed us what Philly Tech Week was doing, and we thought that combining pieces of the two could be a great fit for the Mile-High City.
There was a consensus that creating a centrally-organized-but-bottom-up-executed event was the way to go. With that buy-in, the idea was taken to the next step.
Come up with a basic idea and get the buy-in from the startup community leaders.
2. Build your engine
Initial plan in hand, we put the team that would drive this event together. There were three key traits that were required:
- Be passionate about the Denver startup community
- Be able to execute like a mofo
- Have a network that you can work like a pimp
These traits are probably not going to be as important in the future, because the success of Denver Startup Week now speaks for itself, but when “Denver Startup Week” didn’t even exist it was absolutely vital that there was a core team that just got shit done.
Because of that, the engine was built with leaders of the startup community – which is vital to having the event accepted by the entrepreneurs, developers, and builders (as Brad Feld notes in Startup Communities).
You know your startup community. Identify the pieces of your engine.
3. Find your champions
We wanted Denver Startup Week to bring together the entire spectrum of contributors to the entrepreneurial ecosphere, including established tech, government, and those that enable startups.
To get these groups involved we needed to engage champions to be part of the entire process. Our big wins were the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), the Colorado Technology Association (CTA), and Galvanize – the new Denver startup center focused on capital, community, and curriculum. All of these groups saw the potential in the event and believed that we could pull it off.
These champions brought access to a ton of great contacts in government and established tech companies that we would not have had otherwise. And because all three also held key leadership posts on the Denver Startup Week organizing committee, they were completely committed to the event’s success.
Find your champions and get them involved.
4. Create framed white space
Our goal was to create a week-long event filled with small and large events throughout the schedule. But we knew we couldn’t organize and run that many events ourselves – nor did we want to. The short time frame and our day jobs precluded that.
How to get around it? Create a framework with whitespace and then let the community fill in the colors. Denver Startup Week decided on three guiding principles:
- Build a sense of community amongst Denver startups
- Highlight Denver as a entrepreneurial center
- Provide education, support, and networking opportunities
Then we identified four tracks that we wanted to focus the events on:
- Social Entrepreneurship
We decided that we would organize and execute a large anchor event each day, and then put it out to the community to volunteer to host the other events. The events just had to meet the three principles and fall under one of the tracks.
Denver Startup Week offered event organizers support in finding venues, registration, and limited funding, but everything else was up to the event organizer themselves.
Though it took a bit to really get the ball rolling, we eventually ended up with over 70 events…of which the Denver Startup Week committee really only executed seven.
Make your event paint by numbers…and let the kids go wild.
5. Get one big win
Everyone knows it’s easier to get customers when you have a big name customer success story to point to. It’s exactly the same with event sponsorship.
We developed a budget and a sponsorship plan that supported that budget. A few small sponsorships had already come in, but we needed some of the major sponsorships to close or else Denver Startup Week would not have a chance to become the event we thought it could be.
Then came our big win.
SendGrid is a great startup success story out of Boulder who had been very involved in the tech community there. They were about to open an office in Denver, and saw potential in the plans for Denver Startup Week. Next thing we knew, we had our first title sponsor.
Once the community became aware of SendGrid’s commitment and our champions’ support of Denver Startup Week, the other sponsors rolled in.
Figure out your big win targets and close them immediately.
Now that we had the infrastructure in place, we needed to get the word out. We’ll tell you more about how we built buzz around Denver Startup Week in Part 2…
In the meantime, what community wide events have happened where you live? We’d love to hear any learning points or recommendations you have.