Each year, the Maastricht Week of Entrepreneurship (MeWeek) brings together more than 200 students and entrepreneurs for a five-day programme of interactive workshops, presentations and lectures in Maastricht. This year’s event will take place on 14-18 May 2013.
In the following interview, MeWeek Team President Ana Mihail shares the highlights of this year’s programme and unveils some of MeWeek’s ambitious plans for the future.
This is the fifth year of the Maastricht Week of Entrepreneurship. How did it all start?
The MeWeek was organized for the first time in 2009 at the initiative of the Maastricht Centre for Entrepreneurship at Maastricht University (MC4E). It has become an annual event ever since.
Each year, with the help of a group of dedicated students, the MC4E invites over 30 successful entrepreneurs to share their stories and insights during a five-day long programme of workshops, panel discussions and entrepreneur talks.
The outcome is remarkable: MeWeek transforms into an inspiring collaborative platform where entrepreneurs big and small, connect, share experiences and tell each other the secrets of trade.
What are the goals of the Meweek?
MeWeek is one of the two large-scale entrepreneurship events we organize yearly, the other one being the Global Week of Entrepreneurship Conference in November. Each year about 200 participants get acquainted with the world of entrepreneurship and join MeWeek to learn from the best. As a result, some feel encouraged to try out more advanced projects, start a venture and become real entrepreneurs.
The goal of this type of event is to expose students and young graduates to entrepreneurship while they are still studying in Maastricht. Most students already have thought about starting a business at some point in their academic career but what some don’t know is that they already have all the necessary tools at their fingertips – all they need is the courage to start and the determination to overcome challenges.
MeWeek team, 2012
How did you choose this year’s theme: “Brand You”?
The theme “Brand You” came about after a meeting I had with the organizing team last summer. We were thinking of organizing an event focused on what distinguishes successful entrepreneurs from the rest. Considering that most startups fail, about nine out of 10 on average, it’s very interesting to see what makes the rare few so unique.
We agreed that the main driving force is the pursuit of excellence, both at professional and personal level. Successful entrepreneurs pursue their passions, work hard and let others know what they stand for. They build their own unique brand not only as a startup but also as an individual. Interestingly enough, most investors also believe that it is the entrepreneurs who make the business. This is just another way of saying “Ideas are a dime a dozen” and that the success of a startup lies in the ability of the founding team members to execute an idea to the best of their abilities and gain the attention and trust of both their customers and their supporters.
We chose the theme “Brand You” to encourage participants to think constructively about their passions in life, identify their competencies and the tools they need to start building their lifelong legacy.
How do you choose the speakers?
The opening and closing days being more ceremonial, they will feature half-day activities centered around networking gatherings and entrepreneur talks. The three main days of the programme will all follow the same structure: panel discussions in the morning, more advanced workshops in the afternoon and entrepreneur talks in the evening.
Each subtheme will dictate the speakers for the day. For the subtheme Nature vs Nurture, we wanted to see if entrepreneurs possess special features that make them more prone to take risks and that allow them to accept a higher chance of uncertainty in their professional life. The panel discussion, which we have entitled “Startup DNA”, will go even further and debate questions such as: “What are the characteristics of a successful startup, both at individual and at team level?” The panel speakers were chosen to showcase the entire entrepreneurial spectrum: innovation, with Owlin and Layergloss; investment, with Sanoma Ventures; intrapreneurship, with Philips Innovation; and consultancy, with New Team. This will definitely be an interesting panel!
We also want to bring some of the Silicon Valley and US entrepreneurial energy into the event. Each day we will set up a Skype call with a US based entrepreneur. Steve Blank, one of the fathers of entrepreneurship, has accepted to be one of the speakers. As the creator of the Customer Development methodology, eight time serial entrepreneur and Professor at Stanford, Berkeley and Columbia Universities, he is regarded as an icon in Silicon Valley. He also wrote “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” and “The Startup Owner’s Manual”, two books that I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to be a successful entrepreneur. His life story is unbelievable, from repairing fighter planes in Vietnam to being a successful serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and inspiring entrepreneurs all over the world. We are immensely happy to collaborate with him and hope to welcome him in Maastricht in our future editions.
Another highlight speaker is David Cohen who runs one of the most successful incubation programmes in the world, known as Techstars. Each year he invites 10 teams to Boulder, Colorado, to develop their startups. He is actively involved at the University of Colorado, serving as a member of the Board of Advisors at the Computer Science Department, the Entrepreneurial Advisory Board at Silicon Flatirons, and the Board of Advisors of the Deming Center Venture Fund. He will also be busy organizing a conference in Boulder at the same time so his talk will be really fun to watch, from one conference to the other.
Finally, I would like to mention Ronald Mannak. After originally starting his entrepreneurial journey in the Netherlands, Ronald moved to Silicon Valley and successfully launched some of the best music apps out there. At MeWeek, he will describe the differences in the relationship with entrepreneurs that he noticed between the Netherlands and Silicon Valley.
We have also invited very successful young entrepreneurs who have already established their companies. Their stories are so inspiring and we are so happy to welcome them in Maastricht! The positive responses we received are truly overwhelming. Each year, speakers and participants stay in touch with us, come up with suggestions for new speakers and help us make the event grow even further. It’s a very rewarding process for us and we hope that this feeling is shared by all.
Who should come to the Meweek?
We usually organize the event for students but each year we make progress towards involving more local entrepreneurs and business people. Last year 220 people signed up, 80 percent of whom were students. This year we want to organize an evening for up to 500 people and we have also planned more advanced sessions for established entrepreneurs.
Our long-term goal is to grow ten times as much to create a week-long event where the city of Maastricht itself will be engaged in events and activities with 5000 entrepreneurs from all over Europe roaming its cobblestoned streets. Our plan is to hold the main keynote speeches in a large conference hall and to feature 20 to 30 separate events throughout the city.
We see this development as a great way to preserve the familiarity of a small scale event while involving a increasingly larger number of entrepreneurs and organizations from all over Europe.
Does the event have a special connection with the city of Maastricht?
The event is meant to be a source of inspiration for students and entrepreneurs living in and around Maastricht. The MC4E aims to help as many student entrepreneurs as possible to develop their businesses during their study time in Maastricht. Of course, many choose to move away, some to Amsterdam, others to Berlin or even Silicon Valley but we do strive to increase the number of people who stay in Maastricht in order to strengthen our entrepreneurial community.
Thanks to such events and additional activities, the community has grown in the past few years and we are very happy with the results. We are also planning to launch our Incubator programme in the near future and hope to be even more able to help and assist young teams on their road to success.
What are the challenges in organizing such an event?
Each year, a group of student volunteers organizes the event in collaboration with the MC4E. There are many challenges, just like in any project, but it’s very easy to follow through when the whole team is motivated and each week we are able to bring in new ideas and make progress. We also try to keep a good documentation for the following years so that new organizing teams don’t need to start all over again from scratch.
Has the event evolved over the years?
Yes, and we are happy to say that we are becoming more established. Fadi Bishara, the founder of the Blackbox, mentioned for example that he had heard great things about the MeWeek and was happy to be our keynote speaker for the opening day. This is a great progress that was achieved within only four years of existence. We are also known in Berlin and in Amsterdam mostly because we bring a lot of speakers from these cities but also because many UM alumni who have move there are now active in entrepreneurship. We feel very proud to hear that the news is spreading about MeWeek.
After five years, how do you measure the impact of the event?
The impact can mainly be seen in the collaborations that are established between our participants. Speakers in general are very willing to give advice and stay in touch with participants after the event. We also create online communities where people can ask questions and keep up with what everybody else is doing.
Some participants later choose to attend more advanced entrepreneurial events, enroll in bootcamps or start developing their own startup. In our view, getting to know the local community is what counts most at this stage. This is why we give local actors plenty of opportunities to network and connect.
Nevertheless, it’s really up to the participants to decide how far they want to go. Our role is to inspire and encourage them. A few choose to work through and create success stories. Take the example of Finido, a team of two students from SBE and FHML who took part in our 3-Day Startup event last year. They went on to win the Local Heroes Business Plan Competition and are now close to launching their app. It’s great to see how within a year students can move from inspiration to creation and launch. We are very proud of them!
How do participants experience the event?
We see a lot of raised eyebrows during our promotional activities. Many students don’t really understand the benefit of joining an entrepreneurship week. They are mainly used to recruiting events, so they are looking for big company names, company dinners and job opportunities. What they don’t see is that our speakers are not here to recruit, but to share their life stories, to inspire and encourage others. The companies we bring in to the event mostly join to talk about the latest trends in innovation and intrapreneurship and their incubator programmes. This year, we will welcome Paul Campbell, the Senior Vice President of Innovation at Philips, and a representative from Google will give a workshop on business tools for startups.
The atmosphere during the week itself is overwhelming. Most participants instantly catch the energy of the event, start collaborating, sharing ideas, making things happen. We always receive the same feedback from the participants: they love the programme and want to help spread the word about the MeWeek, get more people involved and ask more students to join in.
Can you single out some highlights of this year’s event?
We are so happy with the programme that I can’t even pick one item that I would prefer over the other. All of our speakers have amazing stories to tell. We chose them because we believe that they are visionaries. These are people who made things happen in their field and who will be here to inspire us to do the same. If I were you, I would just take the whole week off!
One last note: we would really love to mention our loyal supporters: The Maastricht Centre for Entrepreneurship, LIOF and the City of Maastricht. Without their significant contributions over the past five years we would not have been able to create such a great event and to continue to inspire young people to take control of their future and become entrepreneurs.
A big thank you from MeWeek organizing team!