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Startup Weekend's Marc Nager on redefining entrepreneurship and success

Startup Weekend chief executive Marc Nager talks innovation, bootstrapping and community-building.

Auckland and Wellington have already gotten in on the game, and next month it'll be Christchurch's turn. Christchurch Startup Weekend runs from February 24-26, the city's first event of the kind. And thanks to tireless campaigning by local Startup Weekend facilitator Jason Armishaw, Startup Weekend chief executive himself Marc Nager will be in attendance.

Marc NagerWhen do you head down to Christchurch?

We leave February 6th and will probably get there on the 9th – we'll be in Queenstown backpacking around, go up to Abel Tasman, go hiking around the Mt Cook area before heading to Christchurch. It'll be my first real vacation in two years.

How closely are you involved with individual Startup Weekends?

This year we’ll be in probably 250 cities and my involvement will be with 7-8 this year– those with more of a vested interest, first time events or events trying to do something a bit more special from a strategic perspective. Obviously I’ll gladly turn that into a workcation! I don’t get to as many as I used to – I used to go out to all of them for the first year and a half. Through Startup Weekend I’ve been to more than 60 events.

How many startups have you been personally involved in?

This really is startup number three. I had one that I spun out from a company that went under back in 2008 … Startup Weekend, and another project. Then Startup Weekend started taking off…

What was your first job?

Out of college I went to Switzerland and lived over there for a year. I started working in an auto shop with my uncle who didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t speak a word of German. Then onto a small ski town where my family’s from; I helped build a bar and restaurant … then moved back and got a job as an engineer at a Southern California pipeline, essentially working for a construction company. From there I got a job in the tech service department in a company in the construction development side of things but doing design and modeling stuff for integrating projects across the company.

This Harvard definition has been getting traction recently thanks to Inc magazine. It goes: Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled. How would you define entrepreneurship? 

Essentially, anybody able and willing to take a risk, to try and do something that hasn’t been done before. I hate getting into the whole existential argument over ‘what does it mean’. I think it’s kind of a term that’s been overused a little bit and lost a little bit of meaning.

According to your website 36 percent of Startup Weekend startups are still going strong after three months. Do you have any stats on how many have gone on make money, or go full-time on the business?

A little under 10 percent. 9.5, 9.6 percent was the last I saw. That’s self reported through the surveys that we’re able to conduct. We classify that as at least one full-time job, indicating they got into some accelerator programme, took funding or are generating enough revenue that they can be bootstrapping it.

What’s the biggest Startup Weekend success story to date?

Probably Zaarly (a buyer-powered market based on proximity and location).

Success for Startup Weekend isn’t the startups coming out of the weekend – it’s education and building a community. Our mission is that 30, 60, 90 days after Startup Weekend that people who come and go through the programme make some kind of difference or change in their life as a result of some influential factor during Startup Weekend itself.

Startup Weekend is a great way for people to come and build teams and learn how to be good cofounders and those first steps you need to take. And there’s some correlation to companies coming out of it.

Are there any weaknesses in the model?

I’d like to say that we’ve minimised those weaknesses. One is always ensuring and providing the resources for the different skill sets after the weekend. That’s something we actively try to pursue. We don’t just want to be a weekend event that comes and goes. We really pursue integrating all the stakeholders within the community; the top CEOs and investors to be mentors and coaches to teams on the weekend, some of the media outlets as well economic development folks, universities and the startup crowd all the way down to potentially college students…

While we don’t have the infrastructure and ability to scale that around the world we create the demand and make sure there are people in the room that can help support that after the weekend.

How would you like it to evolve?

What I’d love to see in terms of quantity, is I want to make sure it’s happening in a sustainable and regular way in every major city around the world. Right now we’re looking at pursuing the education market, taking the traditional entrepreneurial Startup Weekend crowd and starting to team up with some of these real industry problems and domain experts who can help us figure out the problems and unleash that talent on them…

On the quality front, what are the resources we can give even if it is such a short amount of time. One thing we’ve been able to test and validate heavily is pre-weekend events – education and training – that allow people to be more effective when they do have an idea.

What does the Google partnership mean for Startup Weekend?

With Google doing these pre- Startup Weekend events, they have their Google tech user groups help provide the educational platform, and get them set up with the right tools. If they’re making an Android app for example, utilising the app engine to give them those skill sets so that then they walk into Startup Weekend and be much more effective.

Any other companies you would like to team up with?

We’re working a lot with Microsoft to figure out how that might work.

Talking corporates, how can they engender innovation?

This is something I’m really passionate about. You can help foster the community and those early stage entrepreneurs by coming to speak for five minutes, rolling up your sleeves and working with them and answering questions – being hands on. You don’t need to throw millions of dollars at the problem.

What are two trends getting you fired up right now?

One of the ones I’m really excited about is government – a lot of these open data things taking place around the world. They’re working on ways to open source the info they have access to or have created, integrating the community and helping communities innovate from private partnerships with the public sector. The democratisation of entrepreneurship, that’s another big trend that I’d point to.

What's the ideal Startup Weekender?

People being open and free with their ideas and really being able to define and articulate what problem they are trying to solve. Often nobody knows better than the person who experiences it everyday. That gives startups the ability to help others understand the problem u want to solve and get excited about being on your team. The biggest success is seeing a lot of great teams come out regardless of products.

Is finding funding really a problem?

At the early stages funding is not really an issue. Money already exists, the thing it lacks more than anything is the education to help those people that have the money learn what the whole startup landscape is about.

Detroit has always been known as being a great US auto manufacturer; a lot of people there made their money in the auto industry and now they want to get involved in startups. But talking to a lot of VCs and angel investors, compared to investing even five years ago the landscape has drastically changed…

It takes a whole education process … having them be a part of that early as possible. It drives that social investment as well as the capital.