One thing I’ve learned about building a great company, or even a great product, is that it happens in fits and starts. You can’t just shut yourself in a room with a pot of coffee and a pad of paper and emerge 56 hours later with the designs for the flying car. If anything, you’ll stumble out with something influenced by sleep-deprived insanity and single-mindedness of purpose. It will be complex, feature-rich, and above all, useless.

The new Blackberry OS comes to mind.

A misconception of something like a Triangle Startup Weekend or a Hackathon or even a proper three-day drinking binge is that all parties come into it with a blank sheet of paper, ideation produces sliced bread, a well-rounded and chemically-balanced team comes together, and a mix of brainstorming, truck food, beer, and hashtags combine to produce a fundable and customer-ready company that already has Valley buzz building about it.

This isn’t the case, and there are over 270 people who, if they participated in anything more than the food truck and beer part of this past weekend’s Triangle Startup Weekend, will agree with me.

Take Elliott Hauser, for example, who brought his idea for Coursefork to Triangle Startup Weekend EDU back in March and walked out with the shell of a full-fledged company, but one who still had a lot of work to do.

“Startup weekend can be anything from a first step on the entrepreneurial journey to the extra boost that gives you escape velocity into launching your own venture,” he says. “Every step in this process is valuable, and a healthy startup ecosystem has participants at all of these stages, supporting each other. That’s exactly what Startup Weekend brings us together to experience.”

The Reawakening of Triangle Startup Weekend

Three years ago, Triangle Startup Weekend was all but forgotten. It’s been revived thanks to a very dedicated and energetic group of volunteers who have brought it from an afterthought to an extremely well-supported and well-attended event.

Mital Patel is responsible for most of that progress. He’s tripled the team of organizers since TSW-EDU in March, and has plans for 10 Startup Weekends across the Triangle in 2014.

272 people registered for this year’s event, with about 125 of them actually participating in building over the three days. American Underground provided some splash by hosting at their new site on Main Street, and a combination of donations and discounts allowed for plenty of food, beer, and prizes.

The new partnership between Startup Weekend and Startup America really hasn’t shown an impact in time for this iteration of TSW, but it stands there in the background waiting to be taken advantage of.

One thing that has become clear though, is the expectations of the participants as they come in. TSW is no longer seen as a lark, with the winner hell-bent on a path to VC riches while everyone else goes back to their day jobs. People come into TSW now with the future in mind. It isn’t just about winning, it’s about creating something sustainable.

There’s Winning and There’s Winning

This TSW saw 10 ideas chosen by the attendees with another four who ignored the vote and recruited a team anyway. Mentors were made up of entrepreneurs and others involved in the startup community here in the Triangle, and the presentations were, without a doubt, the most advanced of any TSW to date.

The People’s Choice Award went to Find Me Space, a platform to connect meeting groups with space vendors in a particular location.

The judges then selected the top three, and it was a panel that included First Talent’s F. Scott Moody, Groundwork Labs’ John Austin, advisor and angel Mark Easley, Sustainable Industrial Solutions’ Jason Massey, and advisor Eric Teague.

Third place went to Vouch, an effort to put humans back into the matchmaking process.

Second place went to In Touch, an app that sets reminders for you to reach out to people in your digital network, in order to maintain a relationship.

The winner was SnapBuddy, allowing travelers an easy way to find a photographer.

Were any of these my pick to win the day? Honestly? No. But that it isn’t important. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you win or lose a Triangle Startup Weekend, because winners are made in the weeks and months that follow.

The only way to truly come out of a Startup Weekend a winner is to build an actual, viable startup. This is a concept which is being hammered home by the event itself, so much so that during the proceedings TSW announced an upcoming program called NEXT.

NEXT will take place in September and will be dedicated to the validation of the idea and the runway out of something like a Startup Weekend. It will be organized by TSW’s lead organizer Mital Patel and headed up by Groundwork’s John Austin (although there is no other connection to Groundwork Labs). There will be a program involving mentors talking customer acquisition plans. More to follow.

But in my mind, here’s what you need to really win a startup weekend, and it all takes place after the after party (which was at Motorco and rocked):

Appoint a Leader

Choose one person to run point on the next steps, and this is likely the person that will become your CEO. It should be the person who came into the group with the initial idea. If you were successful, that person was also indispensible to the execution of the initial idea.

If this is not that person, you’ll need to work out some kind of deal immediately in order to make sure that toes don’t get stepped on, bridges don’t get burned, and said idea person doesn’t come back to the table in battle mode once a whole bunch of hard work has gone into those crucial next steps being achieved.

Act Like a Startup

This will force you to move forward. Set yourself goals, milestones, and deadlines. Open continuing lines of communication with mentors, coaches, and judges from TSW.

Another great example: Coursefork’s Hauser found the input from TSW EDU judge Brian Marks so great, he hired him.

Join ExitEvent and go to the Startup Socials to interact with your peers (the next one is on Tuesday). Slap a profile up on AngelList, Build your presence out on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, even Facebook. Incorporate.

Make it real.

Go. Get. Customers.

The bad news is that you’re not ready for customers yet. You’re not. You might think you are, but you’re not. “But wait,” you say, “We’re already starting to – -“

You’re not.

The good news is that if you do this one right, you can move forward in a much more sane and potentially risk-free way. One of the first idea-gutchecks I use when I get ready to seriously start thinking about creating a company is “Can I get 1000 people using this in three months?”

The answer is rarely ever yes, but when I think I’m close, I can map out a customer acquisition plan that puts a business plan to shame. It’s also far easier to follow.

Get Your Applications Ready

If your idea isn’t customer-ready yet, especially if it’s game changing, the road to funding doesn’t necessarily start at the VC or Angel – especially when you’re pre-revenue. However, there couldn’t be more idea-stage opportunities for you here in the Triangle. Here are just a few:

• The NC IDEA grant and corresponding Idea Pitch sessions.
• The aforementioned Groundwork Labs
• Well-funded and nationally known accelerator Triangle Startup Factory
• Southeast Venture Conference in the Spring
• CED Venture Conference in the Fall

Think Ahead

A lot of idea stage startups never make it out of the brain, let alone the first few hurdles. The fact that you got people to come together to spend a valuable weekend working on something you came up with is the spark of proof of viability.

This should not be taken lightly. Start thinking ahead to where this startup should be a year from now, then three years from now, and start planning for that. Idea-to-reality is the hardest part, and reality-to-revenue is the second hardest, but each step in the process needs your focus, and if you can map out a plan for the next three years, you’ll be that much farther ahead when you knock out each successive step.

Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at