The first Startup Weekend Baghdad: working against time to create miracles!

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I woke up to the sound of an e-mail notification on my phone. It was 10:30AM on May 24, and I had slept in late after returning from a three-week-long trip that amounted for little sleep. The email was coming from Sheikh, the Regional Operations Manager at Startup Weekend, with the subject line “Event on June 28th?” I was still half asleep as I opened the message and read in the body that he was suggesting hosting a Startup Weekend in Baghdad on June 28 because a narrow window for full sponsorship of the event just opened up and that we would have to host it by the end of June to get that deal. I closed the email without responding and went back to sleep, acknowledging the offer to be tempting, but dismissing it as totally unreasonable, especially since the situation in Baghdad had been quickly deteriorating during that month. I was still in Vancouver at the time and only a few days from returning to Baghdad, but some friends had been suggesting that I postpone my trip until things were more stable.

 

By the time Sheikh sent that email, we, the organizing team, had been discussing the prospect of Startup Weekend Baghdad for a couple months, and we went back and forth about when to host the event. However, one option we completely ruled out was hosting an event before August, mainly due to the fact that there is not enough time to plan an event this quickly, given how slow things move in Iraq and the unavoidable bureaucracy introduced for any process that involves sponsors, vendors and other third parties. So to host a Startup Weekend in Baghdad within a month and a few days seemed like something that would require a miracle; I responded to the email expressing that, and Sheikh wrote back noting that to pull it off “would be a miracle indeed, but could work if we’re committed.”

 

After a few conversations, we decided to go for it agreeing that we should set our expectations to be pretty low for the amount of interest we would be able to get for an event happening so soon in the future and during a fragile Iraqi situation. We talked about not being able to find speakers, mentors or judges with such short notice, and discussed the possibility of spreading ourselves thin throughout the event to fill these roles, suggesting that one of us could probably put together a speech, a few could mentor, and another could act as a judge. We even agreed that we would settle for a total of 30 participants and a less accessible venue in Baghdad if those things meant the realization of the event.

 

Once we were done with the discussions about whether we should proceed with an event on June 28, things started moving faster than ever. The organizing members started shooting emails, text messages and phone calls to everyone they knew who could possibly help with making this happen. Registration was set up right away, and the link to the Eventbrite page was bouncing around Facebook and emails as people shared and forwarded it among each other.

Within several hours of opening registration, more than 60 tickets were ordered for the event, which was getting close to maxing out the initial limit of 80 people we set up in the system (80 was already a number that seemed so high). We pushed the limit to 120, which was almost reached within a day and a half. Eventually we decided to set a hard limit of 200 tickets, which was hit within less than three days. We were mind-blown by the incredible interest and popularity of the event, especially given how limited our promotions were; by the time registration closed, we hadn’t even gotten the chance to print a single poster or brochure about Startup Weekend Baghdad.

 

Our efforts to reach out to judges, coaches and speakers for the event received just as much enthusiasm from the people we contacted. Emails and Facebook notifications were piling up about all the people who confirmed their availability and interest in filling one of the three roles we were recruiting for. Things were moving faster than I could keep up with at the time; a few days after I had returned to Baghdad, and while still fighting the jetlag, I had taken a nap throughout the day and woke up to 15 emails and 20 notifications from the Facebook group we used for communicating about our planning.

 

Within just 10 days of actual planning, Startup Weekend Baghdad is now well on its way to deliver a promising first event. Our line-up of judges, coaches and speakers is looking more impressive than we ever imagined. Although the last 10 days felt intense, it still seems that it wasn’t a lot of work and that much of the success the event has met so far is a result of the energy and support coming from the community; at this point, the event has received so much enthusiasm that it almost feels like if the organizing team completely and suddenly abandons the planning process, some of the participants will just take it upon themselves to finish it off and ensure a successful first Startup Weekend Baghdad!

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