Monday, April 30, 2012

Seattle Government Startup Weekend

This weekend was another Startup Weekend. This time, the event had a government theme. The idea was to build a company that would rely on government datasets and serve the community well.

When I arrived Friday evening, there were a few people I recognized, but many more who I didn't. I think the theme of this event drew a different group of people than I normally interact with at startup events. I was certainly pleased with the opportunity to meet and converse with new people. I was also pleasantly surprised to run into Bharat Shyam, who I had known from when I worked on Windows Azure. It turned out he was one of the judges of the event, which is fitting given his role as CTO of Washington state and his involvement with startups.

Soon enough, the idea pitches kicked off. As usual, lots of interesting ideas. I was really excited about some of them as I'd love to see more projects and services that benefit our communities. The idea I pitched was a Kickstarter for community projects where people could contribute money or volunteer hours to make something happen in their community. One of the funnier ideas, but intriguing none-the-less was a tracking system to see where someone's poo goes as it leaves the bathroom and travels through city infrastructure to processing and eventual disposal.

After the idea pitches, we had some time to mingle and vote on ideas. I walked around and talked to a few people whose ideas I liked and also to a few folks interested in my idea. Some of the ideas got votes right away, but mine was slow going. But in the end, it just barely made the cutoff in the top ideas and so it became one of the team projects.

During the mingling time, I focused my time on conversations with people who seemed collaborative. I tried to drop out of conversations quickly when people were only interested in talking about themselves (i.e. had no interest in listening), talked condescendingly of others, or seemed acerbic. This seems to have paid off because once team formation happened, I was really fortunate to have collaborative people gather around the idea, wanting to work together. Another element that made me feel particularly lucky was to have 3 designers on the team.

The first night wrapped up with brainstorming. We all gathered around, discussed the problem and the idea and hacked at the idea until we felt we had a plausible business model (using the business model canvas). This team was seriously awesome to work with. Everyone got a long really well, where several other teams seemed to be having tension as early as the first night.

Saturday was a really full day. We got feedback from mentors and I ended up spending a large portion of my time putting a survey together. This was the first time I really worked on making a survey and found it more difficult than I had thought it would be. How does one come up with questions that won't lead the answerer's responses? How does one make sure the questions surface the information needed? How does one do all this and keep the survey short enough to avoid discouraging respondents from completing it? In retrospect, I made a number of mistakes, but here's what we ended up sending out (note that we selected the name "CivicRally" for our service):

  1. Would you be interested in using a service like CivicRally?
  2. How often do you do volunteer work?
  3. When you volunteer your time, what type of organization you volunteer with most often?
  4. If you were to volunteer your time, which would your top preference be as to the community your effort supports?
  5. If it were easier to find out about community projects near your neighborhood, how likely would you be to volunteer for those?
  6. Is there a project you would like to see happen in your neighborhood?
  7. If you have a project in mind, please provide a one-sentence description.
  8. If you have a project in mind, how much funding would it require?
  9. If there was a way to create, share, and support local community projects, would you submit projects? Contribute time to projects? Contribute money to projects?
  10. Would you feel more inclined to start local community projects if it was easier to get support for the project?
  11. How would you prefer to create, discover, and sign up to support community projects?
  12. When you donate money, what type of organization you donate to most often?
  13. If you were to donate money, which would your top preference be as to the community your donation supports?
  14. If your neighborhood had a score indicating the level of community engagement, would you contribute money or volunteer time to increase the score?
  15. Now that you've thought about the other questions, do you think you'd use a service like CivicRally?
  16. Approximately what percentage of your friends and family do you think would use a service like CivicRally?
  17. Which social media networks, if any, would you use to tell friends and family about CivicRally projects?
  18. If you started a community project with CivicRally, would you ask others who had not joined CivicRally to sign up?
  19. Age?
  20. Gender?
  21. Home zip code?
  22. Please provide your email if you would like to hear more about CivicRally later.
You can find the original survey here. We sent the survey out to as many friends and family as we could as well as posting it to all of our personal social media accounts. In the end, we got 30 responses.

In addition to surveying, I hit the streets to do in-person interviews. This was my first time doing this as well. Needless to say, I felt nervous and awkward walking up to random strangers to interview them. It admittedly got easier as I went on, but I still felt uneasy whenever people would turn me down or avoid eye contact and run away as I approached. But I ended up with some great feedback and even had two videos. Unfortunately, I can't post the videos since I didn't get verifiable consent to make them public, which I should have done for educational purposes. Next time, I'll try to do so.

On the final day, we started integrating everything and getting tons of feedback from mentors. Some of the people who really helped us refine our business model as well as our pitch deck were Carter Rabasa, a developer evangelist for Twilio, and Robi Ganguly, CEO at Apptentive. Twilio and Apptentive are really cool companies, by the way.

Our slide deck came together along with the prototype. Even on our highly collaborative team, there was a small amount of tension as the deadline drew close, but nothing tumultuous. Other teams, on the other hand had been blowing up all over the place. Some teams disbanded and didn't return after Saturday. Some teams were loudly arguing throughout the weekend. I was really glad about the great group of people I was working with.

Finally, we wrapped things up and pitches started. I was presenting our project, so had been rehearsing and getting feedback all afternoon. In the end, getting the feedback on the dry runs was key. The pitch went really well, and we all felt relieved and proud of our accomplishment. As the judges started asking questions, we were completely shocked when one said we had "accomplished more in a single weekend than what Code for America had in a year," which was followed by applause from the the entire audience. I didn't really know what to say, so I just replied with something that had been on my mind all weekend, "it was entirely because of this great team."

After a long deliberation, the judges came back and announced the winners. We came in third. While we were happy to have ranked, we were most excited about how well we had all worked together, all the learning we did, and what we had accomplished in a short time.

While I will not be continuing this project, several teammates expressed interest in continuing to work on it. You can check out the result here (only a prototype as of writing, but hopefully something more later):

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What Comes First, the Team or the Idea?

In the context of entrepreneurship, an idea is a set of assumptions that appear to have the potential to be turned into a successful business. Recently, several colleagues and I were discussing whether coming up with a great idea or assembling a great team is the first step in starting a company. Personally, I believe deeply in the power of teamwork and the concept of getting the right people on the bus first (and making sure they're sitting in the right seats). And yet, the question of whether the idea or the team comes first presents something of a catch-22. If we start with an idea, it's incredibly difficult to find the perfect team for that idea. In fact, we might not even have a place on the perfect team. But if we don't have an idea, it can be incredibly difficult to recruit teammates.

The various popular sayings about the (lack of) value of business ideas hold some merit even though they aren't axiomatic truths. For example: ideas are a dime-a-dozen and don't fall in love with your idea. Although there may be some cases of people who change the world through stubborn resolve, I think they are rare. I believe it is much more effective and productive to seek feedback and apply it to your situation in an intelligent way. We might analogize putting all of our energy into a single, immutable idea with putting all of our money on a single horse in a race with a million horses. If the rules of the race allowed us to change our bet as the race progresses, why wouldn't we take advantage of that?

There are also varying opinions about keeping our ideas locked up so no one steals them. Annecdotally, the general recommendation from those with experience seems to be to share our idea with as many people as we can. That's how we get feedback and identify issues we might otherwise miss as individuals. There is a saying about keeping equity to one's self that I think applies very well to the concept of ideas: "Equity is (ideas are) like shit. Hoard it and you'll end up with a great big pile of shit. Spread it around and amazing things happen."

This brings us to consideration of the relationships between ideas. How do we define the boundaries between ideas? There are numerous elements of a business idea, which from a high level are well-captured in the business model canvas, and there are innumerable details. Clearly, any two ideas are connected by an infinite number of paths paved with consecutive tweaks to the details of the ideas. Defining the distinction between ideas, then, is like the old philosophical question that asks, "at what point does a boat become a different boat if we gradually replace each plank, one-by-one?" This brings us back to the cautionary note on not falling in love with our idea. If one of the planks is rotting, we have to be willing to replace it or risk sinking the entire boat. Sometimes this happens repeatedly until the boat is quite different from what we started with.

So how does the team fit into all of this? Teammates contribute to making prudent judgments about when to bet on which horse, keeping the boat in good repair, and making sure we don't end up with a pile of shit. The question remains of how we assemble the team.

Given that change is a certainty, it's important to keep our destination in mind. Focusing only on the immediate path causes us to get stuck when we hit a road block. Having a team with an eye on the goal is having a team that will adapt to change, while continuing to move in the right direction. It means having a team that will not fall apart when we inevitably hit rough patches.

What all of this leads up to is that we need to change the way we think. Let's stop focusing on "killer ideas" and instead start talking about our goals and how we're going to change the world. When we tell someone about our vision for the future, they're likely to offer up ideas about how to make it a reality. If they do, that's great - we've found a potential partner. Of course, we need to make sure that our team's values are aligned and that our personalities mesh, but focusing on goals is good way to find one another in the first place.

Now back to ideas. Ideas are hypotheses. They are just assumptions about how we might achieve our goals. They are meant to be tested and modified as we learn. A solid team with strong leadership will generate good ideas and go through the necessary steps to test and refine them. In the end, I suppose the question of whether the team or the idea comes first is misgiving. The answer is that goals come first, then, if possible, the team, then numerous iterations of ideas.