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):