Sunday, May 20, 2012

Startup Weekend Seattle Day 3

Today was the final day of Startup Weekend and we dove right in, furiously researching our competition and doing market sizing analysis. The site was coming together very nicely and much of the day was spent working out bugs. Because the site was so far along, we had time to get some feedback from a designer on another team, which helped improve the look.

Since we had to prepare for pitches we ended up spending a lot of time putting the pitch deck together. This was a major challenge. Everyone had a different idea of what it should look like and the truth was that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. As the deck went back and forth and became more and more discontinuous, I became more and more frustrated with the direction things were going. Finally, I took a step back and said just one of us needs to own the deck and the others should be constrained to only giving feedback. The owner would be in charge of deciding whether and how to integrate feedback and would have the option of leaving it out. I didn't care whether this person would be me or someone else. I just wanted us to have the right information and to present a consistent story that flowed well. Cy took the lead on this and the rest of us continued working on gathering supporting data to include as well as giving feedback as the various slides came together.

I had a pleasant surprise about halfway through the day when I was talking with someone from another team. The team had started out building "a network for the 1%" and had pivoted into the exact idea I had pitched on the first night. I was glad to see someone working on this problem.

As pitches and judging kicked off, things got started with a great pitch from a 6-year-old for washable stickers. It's amazing how confident he was. When I was that age, I was incredibly shy. I still am, to be honest, but have gradually developed my confidence over time. I was super impressed and excited to see this future superstar entrepreneur.

Our pitch went great. The anti-climatic conclusion is that we didn't place in the top three. However, we did get great feedback from the judges afterwards. They liked the idea, but felt that there were technical challenges that were critical to the success of the business that we didn't solve. They admitted that it probably wouldn't have been possible to have solved them in the course of a weekend, but that's just how judging these kinds of things goes. Something else they felt came up short was that others had attempted to do what we were doing in the past and had failed. They felt we hadn't made a big enough leap to have a shot at escaping the same fate.

All in all, another great weekend of learning! While I'm sure I'll attend more Startup Weekends in the future, I'm really itching to do something over a longer duration where I can get more depth of experience and see the project through to growth or termination.

Startup Weekend Seattle Day 2

Today I got a shotgun lesson in surveying potential customers. Last startup weekend, my team and I blasted friends and family with requests for survey responses. This resulted in around 40 responses. My goal this time around was to increase the number of responses by a significant amount, do a better job validating the assumptions in our business model, and avoid spamming friends.

To start out, we took a close look at the various elements of our business model and identified the key assumptions that enabled the business. Based on these, we clarified what we wanted to learn from our study, came up with a set of questions, and created a Google Form to capture the information. As we went back over our initial set of questions, we felt they were too complicated and that the amount of mental energy spent answering them would cause participants to disengage before completing the survey.

After modifying the surveys, we got feedback from the Startup Weekend mentors. We spent some one-on-one time with them walking through the survey and looking for feedback on the questions that were being asked. Interestingly, it was difficult to get this kind of feedback because we found that once someone started reading through the survey, they'd jump into responding to it and it took significant focus to keep the conversation on track and ferret out opinions of the positives and negatives about the questions and structure of the survey itself.

Here's a big lesson we learned. Every mentor we spoke with gave different opinions, frequently with advice that was contradictory to what other mentors had advised. It seems so simple and obvious to say that everyone has a unique opinion, but it's different to actually experience receiving contrary suggestions from smart, experienced practitioners who are trying to help you. As has been said many times elsewhere, it's important to apply the right advice to the right situation and to make one's own decisions. Aside from our own revisions, we additionally revised our survey 3 times based on mentor feedback. After the third time, we took a step back and realized that we had just been churning without making much real progress. What is really important is to understand the feedback mentors are offering and the reasoning behind it. This knowledge can then be applied to the task at hand.

After this realization, we tweaked the survey one last time, and were satisfied that it would help gather the knowledge we sought. Once finally ready, we sent the survey out using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. This was highly effective and at about 5 cents per question, we filled our initial round of 100 responses in about 30 minutes. At this speed, we realized that we had overpaid, but all-in-all it wasn't too expensive anyways. We sought an additional 100 responses and tried pricing them at about 3 cents per question. This worked as well, but took somewhere between 6x and 8x the amount of time to get the same number of responses.

While all of this survey-related learning was going on, two teammates did an amazing job hacking together a prototype through the course of the day using Twitter Bootstrap and CodeIgniter. They actually got a functional site up an running before we wrapped up for the night.

With all our feedback and a functional prototype, things are looking promising!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Startup Weekend Seattle Day 1

I'm back at Startup Weekend again! This is my third event and as always, I'm super excited.

Having been to a few events in the past and being moderately well tuned into the startup community, I came into this event seeing a lot of familiar faces. As I got to meet a number of the participants, I was surprised to find that perhaps up to 50% of them work at Microsoft. In general, this wouldn't be a surprise around the Puget Sounds area, but when it comes to startup events, including the last two Startup Weekends I attended, I typically feel like the number is closer to somewhere between 10% and 20%. There probably isn't a lot to read into in that, but who knows.

As usual, I pitched and idea, but this time I only got two votes, one of which was mine. The problem I wanted to solve was the difficulty in determining whether a group of people are likely to work well together. My initial idea was to create a tool that could tell a person how well they'd fit in a particular team and for the team, how well the incoming person would fit them. It's just too hard to tell what it's like working with a group of people until you've actually worked with them. In general, the ideas that got most votes seemed to be the ones that addressed problems a lot of people in the room faced, were using exciting new technologies, built off of popular trends, or where the presenter had some wacky idea and did a great job presenting it.

After my idea was removed from the selection process, I connected with team whose idea was "10pictures," a product that showed 10 pictures from a person in the highest definition possible and as large as possible. I felt like there was a lot of potential in the possibility of it becoming a social platform and with the Twitter and Facebook overload was excited about the constraint on content. Aside from that, the team lead was a pretty cool guy, who seemed like he'd be fun to work with.

As the team filled out, it grew to over 10 people. The team members generally had strong opinions of how the product should look, overconfidence in what they could achieve in the course of the weekend, and were completely focused on the product vision rather than the business. I imagine they'll build something cool over the course of the weekend, but it's not the experience I'm looking for. It largely reminded me of my experience at the first Startup Weekend I attended. I learned a lot from that experience, but wouldn't repeat it.

As I grew increasingly concerned with my fit on the team, I decided to go check out some of the other teams around the room. I decided to focus on finding out what some of the smaller teams were working on. I quickly synced up with a team of four, comprised of people I had already been interested in collaborating with. As I talked with them, I become really comfortable and found that I meshed really well with them. The idea they were working on was pitched as a site where people could submit startup ideas and vote on them. Based on the pitch and the large amount of potential competition in the space, I wasn't terribly excited about the idea at first. What really sold me though was the awesome team. These guys were really easy to talk to, were already learning from one another, and had already started making some progress on the idea. Regardless of whether the the idea turns into something that might work as a business, I figured it would probably be a fun thing to work on.

After discussing the business model a bit, I felt like the ideas was more interesting and had some potential. I'm really looking forward to getting to know the people on this team better and building something with them this weekend!