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 grow a baby version of the character Uncle Jesse from the ’90s sitcom staple “Full House.”

Today, Leneway and Kesterson are co-founders of a startup called Giant Thinkwell, which recently garnered big press attention for its first full celebrity endorsed game, featuring hip hop legend Sir Mix-a-Lot. DeSantis is on board as a developer.

The freedom that Kesterson felt walking through that Startup Weekend is a good example of autonomy, the first psychological key. Because he had the autonomy to do whatever job he wanted, with any team he preferred, Kesterson was in control of his experience—something that’s powerfully motivating to the mind.

The same overall point actually applies to anyone attending the event—people can come with their skills for hire, with a loose product idea, or basically no agenda at all. “If you’ve got an idea that you’ve just been thinking about,” Gottesman says, “you get one minute to pitch an idea to 100 or 200 people, and see what they think.”

Leveling Up
Along with being an adviser to Startup Weekend, Eric Koester has been on teams that have won the competition three different times. That includes his latest venture, the crowd-based reverse-auction startup Zaarly, which has generated enthusiastic early reviews and investors like Ashton Kutcher and Lightbank.

What’s the secret to repeat success? Knowing what you’ll need to make it through the process obviously helps. As Koester explained to me earlier this year in recounting the early days of Zaarly, his previous trips through Startup Weekend taught him that finding the right talent was the first priority. A close second, he says, is winnowing down to a minimum viable product as soon as possible.

“The reality is that as a regular player of the Startup Weekend ‘game,’ I have a good sense how to build a team to do best on the weekend. So I’d say, from my end, that it is the purest form of gamification of company/prototype building,” Koester wrote recently. “And that’s why so many people become repeat attendees.”

That’s because once they go through the process, participants know the ropes and feel like they have a better idea of how to tackle the problem, giving them some motivation to return and try again. The game psychologists call this element competence.

Kesterson puts it this way: “When you get a bunch of repeat offenders together on the same team, they maximize their potential. They know how to much quicker whittle down the idea of what they’re going to accomplish and argue about the name of the company last.”

We’re In This Together
A feeling of community and importance, or relatedness, is a third key to why people enjoy multi-player games, according to Rigby and Ryan. For Startup Weekend, that feeling of a common bond explains why people also get involved in a deeper way—why Giant Thinkwell’s DeSantis wouldn’t just go back as a participant, but help put together a Startup Weekend in Oman, where maybe half the people even showed up with any sort of computer.

“It’s not only about the product. It’s also about the people and the relationships you build over the weekend. I would imagine any intense experience is like this,” Gottesman says. “There’s a bonding that happens. And I think, as much as anything, bonding through that intense experience is what really brings people back.”

Startup Weekend is aware of these threads of gamification that weave through the experience, and is looking for ways to play them up. In its recent annual report, the nonprofit said it’s looking for ways to structure its rewards, possibly adopt public leaderboards, and build a social networking component to keep people tied together.

Those seem like logical steps for the growing group. But some Startup Weekend veterans I talked to also think the organization should be wary of smacking people across the face with too many outright game elements.

Giant Thinkwell’s Leneway, for instance, says the biggest prize he ever saw for a Startup Weekend was about $10,000 (the events don’t always have cash prizes). That sort of money changed the dynamic, he says, definitely making it more cutthroat than the other times he’s participated.

“People there were more sensitive over the course of the weekend as far as who’s going to be on the team, and who owns what part of what. And I think at the end of the day, the prize didn’t affect the quality of the progress over the weekend, and it didn’t affect the long-term prospects of the individuals,” Leneway says. “I’m not saying that cash prizes are good or bad. But I don’t think they add much to the shit that actually matters.”

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

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