Sunday, January 22, 2012

Startup Weekend: Lessons and Tools

There are innumerable lessons to be learned through the course of any Startup Weekend. Here are the key take-aways from my first experience:
  1. People first: You're going to spend 54 hours working closely and under high pressure with a group of people you (probably) haven't met before. Make sure you pick people you'll enjoy working with. A great idea is exciting, but choosing the right people will make or break your weekend. This also means you should try to find people who are looking to get the same thing out of the weekend as yourself.
  2. Bring your own skills: You don't need to be an expert in everything, but don't set your project up such that it will fail if you don't have access to specific talent. Several teams didn't have any prototype whatsoever when demo time came around and this hurt them in the judging. If you have no technical background, dabble in HTML, which in many cases will be enough for you to mock something up. Or familiarize yourself with the process of off-loading the work to others through oDesk or your personal rolodex. If you are technical, but have no business skills, have some resources prepared that can guide you through the steps needed to assemble a pitch deck. For Startup Weekend, things don't need to be perfect - they just need to be done.
  3. Leave your ego at the door: A big ego has no place at Startup Weekend. This will drive people away from your team. Let someone else be the expert. One of the devs I worked with was less experienced than myself and preferred to use a technology I hadn't used in the past, but we went ahead and chose that. I felt that it would make the experience more enjoyable for the group and that it would be an opportunity for me to learn something new. Throughout the weekend, I probably asked him questions every thirty minutes, but I didn't have a choice since we were in a time crunch. In the end, I felt that even though I was slower, we were fairly productive as a team. Plus I learned a lot from him.
  4. Also, leave your way of doing things at the door: Remember that you're working with new people and each of them are used to doing things in their own way. Everyone needs to be flexible and coalesce around a common approach. No one has to agree about whether any ways is right or wrong, but everyone has to be willing to go with one approach during the next 54 hours.
  5. Don't wait: Make sure that throughout the weekend, you keep the time limit in mind. You might feel like you need to hammer out the monetization scheme before going out and getting feedback, before giving the devs implementation tasks, etc. This is a mistake that will lead to a missed deadline. Devs can and should get started on something. The same for designers and business people. Don't worry about whether any of it will be thrown away. Try to work smart so that there are re-usable pieces that can be applied after your customers tell you your idea sucks and you have to change it. Remember that you're just hacking together a rough prototype.
  6. Relentless focus: It's unbelievably easy to get caught up in getting to know your teammates better, pontificating about the virtues of different approaches to the project, etc. Everyone needs to be incredibly focused on whatever they're responsible for. It even goes as far as (politely!) turning away mentors when you have to. Trust me, they'll understand.
  7. You can call a turd sacred, but it's still just a ball of poo: You're in prototype mode the entire weekend. 85% or more of what you create during the weekend will be thrown out if you even continue with the idea at all afterwards. Don't treat anything as sacred. You built a sweet app, but the target customers don't have iPhones? Throw it out. You came up with a brilliant way to trigger viral marketing, but you can't get the viral coefficient to be greater than 1? Throw it out. This doesn't literally mean let the ideas fall off the face of the Earth entirely, but for the weekend, focus on what works. You can come back to all the other ideas later.
  8. Remember, it's only a weekend: Startup Weekend takes place during the weekend and lasts only 54 hours. This means you're not missing work, you're not making any career commitments, you're not taking financial risk, etc. This is a great environment in which to experiment, learn new things, and meet some great people. On Monday, you'll get to return to your day job, where you report to your manager, have health insurance, and have a steady paycheck. Or maybe you won't... by your own choice. ;)
  9. Bring water: This pointer is simply related to the fact that you probably aren't familiar with the facilities you'll be working in, so be sure to bring some extra supplies. There wasn't enough water to go around during my first Startup Weekend, so everyone was a bit parched. Perhaps you'll find that you need an extra jacket because the heater isn't working. Just be sure to bring what you need to be comfortable and focused.
The tools and services we ended up using during the weekend included the following:
  • Lot's of sticky notes and pens: We used these to brainstorm and track ideas as well as tasks.
  • github: Online code repository for source control.
  • php fog: PHP host that helps you get your service up and running in minutes.
  • CodeIgniter: PHP framework to help build web apps.
  • MySQL: Database.
  • HTML5, JavaScript, CSS: Standard technologies for building web clients.
  • jQuery: A JavaScript library that helps make your JavaScript coding more productive.
  • Google Maps JavaScript API: Useful for presenting location-based information.
  • Dropbox: We used this extensively to share documents and other miscellaneous files.
  • SurveyMonkey: We sent a survey out to poll potential customers about our idea.
  • iPhone Camera: We used phone cameras a few times to capture information, including to record the product demo that was included in our presentation.
  • Business Model Canvas: The business model canvas helps map out the elements of a business model and identifies areas in which assumptions need to be validated.
  • The design team also used a variety of tools, though I'm not sure what.

Follow my Startup Weekend Seattle experience through the following progression of posts:
  1. Initial thoughts
  2. Pre-Startup Weekend bootcamp (Jan. 12, 2012)
  3. My pitch idea
  4. Day 1 of Startup Weekend Seattle (Jan. 13, 2012)
  5. Day 2 of Startup Weekend Seattle (Jan. 14, 2012)
  6. Day 3 of Startup Weekend Seattle (Jan. 15, 2012)
  7. Post-Startup Weekend lesson summary