How Game Psychology Helped Startup Weekend Become a Global Phenomenon

8/3/11Follow @curtwoodward

A couple of years ago, three guys crammed together in a Seattle condo were trying to turn a 54-hour crash-innovation meetup called Startup Weekend into something much bigger. Today, their humble little nonprofit is a global phenomenon, attracting some 36,000 people to events in about 200 cities around the world.

Stocked with top mentors, touting some buzzworthy success stories, and backed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Startup Weekend now has nine full-time staffers and just expanded into bigger offices in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

The organization has also partnered with the Obama administration’s Startup America initiative, and plans to make a lasting dent in local entrepreneurship by branching out into the Startup Foundation, a sort of chamber of commerce that will connect innovators and early stage companies with resources in their communities.

It’s all built around a single event: A relatively low-cost, low-stakes entrepreneurship contest that puts people in largely ad hoc teams to come up with a working kernel of a business idea, plowing straight through from Friday to Sunday.

So what’s fueled such explosive growth? It turns out that Startup Weekend probably hits the same triggers in the brain that make competitive pursuits like multiplayer video games so satisfying. Without really setting out to, Startup Weekend has cooked up an event that keys on the experiences that make humans feel good, and keep coming back for more.

The effects are pretty plain if you talk to some of the enthusiastic veterans of Startup Weekend events. With so many thousands of participants, there are surely some people who came away disappointed. But the people who like Startup Weekend don’t merely have fun. They get addicted.

“If you love startups at the very earliest stage, honestly it’s like—a nicer way to say this is, it’s like catnip. But the other way to say it is, it’s like crack! It’s like crack for startup junkies” says Greg Gottesman, a managing director at Madrona Venture Group. “It’s really intense, and it’s amazing what you can do in a weekend.”

Psychologists Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan are among the leading people studying the psychology behind what makes video games so attractive to such a wide audience, a topic that’s drawing lots of interest as social and casual games have become big business.

Rigby and Ryan, co-founders of the consulting firm Immersyve, have pointed to three key components shared by games that keep people engaged and satisfied: Players have the autonomy to explore the world on their own, can improve their skills, and get a sense of relationship to other people involved.

The researchers call this “a blueprint for meaningful fun,” since hitting those three marks delivers more than just entertainment—it touches something deeper inside of us. And Startup Weekend has all three of those things down to a science of its own.

Go Your Own Way
When designer and illustrator Kyle Kesterson attended a Startup Weekend in Seattle last year, he was in high demand. While the events are typically loaded up with plenty of techies and entrepreneurs, they can be somewhat less stocked with creative types, who are outside the typical profile of a tech startup founder.

That meant that when confirmed Startup Weekend junkie Donald DeSantis finally dragged his friend Kesterson along—a whole day into the event—he essentially had his choice of several teams who were hungry for an artist and designer to help tackle a problem.

Kesterson settled on a seemingly unlikely partner: Kevin Leneway, a former Microsoftie who was basically alone at that point, working on a wild idea for a social game that would let users … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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