Attending a Startup Weekend as a developer
13 min read
Last weekend I attended a startup weekend event in Orange at Chapman University.
I got there a few minutes after the scheduled 6:00 start time so when I walked in there were a lot of groups already mingling and eating. Not really sure what to do I checked in, and then went to the back of the room to grab some food. Being my introverted self, I decided well I'll be in the middle of the room, eat some food and take everything in.
When you check in you get a name tag. On your name tag you put a sticker designating what you are: developer, designer, and hustler (marketing, legal or business guy? Haven't really figured out what that meant yet). I had a yellow, and was looking around. Mostly purple (designer). I thought for sure there would be a huge turn out of developers like me. Turns out that there were only a handful of us in attendence.
This became more apparent when between bites of some El Pollo Loco I was hit up to become a CTO by 3 enthusiastic individuals without even a discussion of my skills. Was kind of funny, but they wanted a IOS developer for an existing application that had been 70% developed. This seemed to be a common problem for a lot of "idea" people.
We eventually sat down and then the pitching process began. Should I pitch my own idea? The moderator gave examples of what you needed to say when pitching. I had some notes written down, but they didn't go along the same format of what he was saying. I went back and forth but eventually scooted over to the table and threw my name into the hat.
Some people ran over their 60 seconds, some didn't, and other just had ideas that I was simply not interested in. I was initially looking for someone that I felt had good marketing skills as that's what I needed for my own project. Another thing I was looking for was someone with domain knowledge and a specific and small niche.
I went up and pitched my idea at the end of the pitches. Looking back, I wish I had said a lot more. I stuck to the suggested format of "Who are you? What's the problem? What is your solution? What do you need?" I hate wasting time and my modis operandi is efficiency. I spent 20 seconds on my pitch...which was stupid. Instead of just an idea, I had a carefully planned out spec, both on the software and marketing fronts. I knew to a great detail what I needed to do. Instead of explaining that to the listeners in the room, I stuck to the format and I think everyone came away with, "Yes you have a great idea, but how could you actually do it?" Yeah...been thinking about that for years. My project was in execution phase, which is something that later in the weekend I would see being a huge deal.
People went around the room and voted for projects. I never really went around to people, preferring instead to see if they would come to me. Honestly, I still like this approach, but for the weekend it wasn't something that was going to win me a team. A high school student did approach and told me that he'd work with me either way. I was so tempted to do it, but I wanted a new experience with a group of at least 4.
I talked with another guy about his idea. I really liked it because he was a baseball player, developing a baseball application (domain knowledge), that sounded super simple to create (something I could do that weekend). No one else wanted to join his team, so I got his contact information and said, "I love the idea, but I want an experience this weekend with a group of people." I went to another group and talked with them about joining their "replace travel brochures" team.
There was already a .NET guy on the team, he said that at most of these types of events .NET was frowned upon. I still have no idea why, other than platform fanboyism, but my skills never seemed to fail me at the event so you got me. Another developer on his team said something about PHP was great...funny microcosm I'm in now eh? If anything I expected maybe some Node.js or even Ruby on Rails talk, but I digress.
So the leader on the team after my hemming and hawing exclaims, "Will, I'd love it if you would join our team". I tell him sounds good, I want to talk to the baseball guy again really quick to make sure that he knows that I want to also do his idea, just not this weekend. I talk with him for a few and go back to the group.
"Um, bad news, we've just decided to cap it at 6 people." OK, so now I've been kicked out of the group. Too funny. Feeling the pressure, I sort of just went to the next group I found, found out that they were doing a similar idea and joined in. Again, in retrospect, as a developer I should have seen that I had a ton more power than that. I could have easily taken my time, talked with all the other teams, and tried to make a more informed decision.
Either way, we were off and running. Shit was flowing and it was pretty awesome. It seemed like we had a good idea, how we were going to do it, and even an application flow. 6 people were brainstorming up some ideas and I was feeling the flow. 10PM rolled around but we were all on a high and just still designing and planning. I was excited. The lights went off and we all called it a night. Some of the other groups were going out to have a beer, how cool.
What world have I stumbled into? I was feeling pretty awesome, mostly because no one I currently know want's to bust out of corporate life and do a start up. It was like I was affirming that I wasn't too crazy, and that there were other people out there that had similar goals. I could barely sleep.
The next day I showed up around 9:15, traffic was a bit tight. I rolled into the room expecting screen shots, prototype concepts, maybe even some data modeling, if I was lucky. No, we were debating what we were going to name the website.
Wait, wtf? Who gives a shit what the name is? The business heads had also researched a dozen other websites out there and found similarities. Ok, not looking good here. Now our fundamental idea was in jeopardy. Everyone kept looking at domain names, other people kept looking at other sites that were similar. What the hell had happened to our momentum from the night before?
Now I do understand that you want to be unique, but all of a sudden, the idea to create something that weekend was slipping away. You can't develop something if you don't know what it is. I started working on a home page and got at least a few opinions on what data we needed to collect to start to create a itinerary. I figured that as long as we had something to look at we could tailor the idea to fit.
Our group couldn't get past choosing a name. We had travel blitz, but the domain wasn't available so on to another. We then did travel baba, didn't get that name either. To make matters worse, I didn't see a unique product or clarified niche. Things are starting too look pretty bad. People are talking about adding social media and we need a facebook icon, and I'm tired. Getting frustrated.
What problem are we solving with all of this talk? I see a complete lack of focus.
At one point, I almost quit the team. A voice inside of mine though says to stick it out and just see what happens. Turns out it was a great learning experience of how not to fail. The hours ticked by and I was still hit up by product placement, and user experience tailored to their location. Things that I would think any normal user wouldn't give two shits about. This was still new to me, so just relaxed and went with the flow.
At one point I thought I had found a niche. Instead of targeting the entire world of travel, which it seems is a gigantic market that is flooded with products, I wanted to hone it down and focus on last minute extreme vacations only in the LA area. I was thinking Vegas would also be a good target for this. Something that would be like a bro's weekend. Where you shot gun the trip, go to Vegas, shoot some guns, jump out of a plane, go to a kick ass party, and gamble a bit.
I was reaching in on my own experience. Sure I can get a plane ticket, I can book a hotel, shit I can find a place to eat and where to get a massage already with existing well established offerings already out there. But where the hell can I tailor a last minute trip all about me and my crazy buds?
No, no, we're leaving out all the women out there. They are the ones that buy shit off the internet. And what about all those other categories? We aren't going to be able to tailor anything to them. I was rebuffed constantly and consistently. And that's when I knew we were going to fail.
Our idea wasn't unique and it was lathered in a layer of bull shit screaming that it was in fact unique. This was a great learning experience in the sense that sometimes people have no idea what they are talking about even though they really think they do. It was too late at this point to change groups. I wanted to. I could see the impending fail, but decided what the heck, been here this long, lets see what happens. Maybe someone else will bring their A game and change things around.
Instead I kept seeing a reoccurring theme. Most of the group members seemed to be looking for the get rich quick ideas. There was a lot of talk about how certain startups had been bought in just a few months, or how much money this other startup was making. I started to think about my own idea, and how if I had a million bucks, I would keep making it. I think it's going to improve the world, and I think it would be my way of helping people. Why would a million dollars matter? I never would want to sell it. In fact, all I really want is a way to work on it full time. That's my goal. What the hell would more money get you? Bigger house and better ride? Sure, but I'm more concerned about what I'm working on and how I'm making a difference.
On the last day I was just letting it ride. The application that was now relegated to a mock up was finished, our final pitch wasn't though. I figured...not my problem. I had devoted a ton of time 9AM-1AM and some more in the morning to creating it and now there was just a few graphical changes that everyone could push to me.
I saw the high school kid that wanted to join my team just sitting all alone. Pretty high on a coffee buzz I went over and asked what was up. His team had received negative feedback, and instead of "pivoting" and finding the niche the team leader had gotten fed up, thought everyone should just agree, and then eventually quitting the team while calling his team "free laborers" and essentially stupid for not getting it. Too funny. He had actually done some hustling for the defunct group and got some potential customers. Crap, maybe I should have worked with him...
In the meantime he came up with another idea for a iphone app. Too cool. This kid was in high school and already I saw a A+ guy. Guy wouldn't give up and going for a new idea. He was even going to pitch his idea solo. Nice.
The other teams were buzzing and focused. Our team was still hung up on what domain name we should get. The logo didn't look exactly right, or the name of our business wasn't good enough. I still kept wondering how we could even have a start up with a great domain, super name, and great logo with no actual product. This never seemed to enter the equation with anyone else.
Ever been in a game where your team was being beaten so badly you were just looking at the clock to hope it was stop so you could stop the beating? Yeah, happens to me every once in awhile in soccer, the team just has a bad day. This was exactly how I was feeling. With a few hours left, I really wanted to start pitching my own idea again and talking with the "mentors".
I found out that my own idea was actually really good. I had traction. I had people that wanted to talk with me more about it. I now had more contact information. Thinking on it, I reached into my own social network and call my bud up that had some fire and some "hustling" experience. Shit, now a week later, I'm still calling people and dealing the startup dream train is moving again, and I have a fire up my own ass to get my product out the door. Solid!
Meanwhile, the pitching preparations were starting. I heard a lot of business speak. Sounded again like a frothy layer of bullshit. Were the judges going to buy this shit? Its a train wreck about to happen but I can't turn my eyes. Could this actually work?
I had to keep myself from laughing at the marketing mumbo jumbo in the actual presentation. We had 5 minutes and I was amazed at the different ways our presenters were trying to make travel exciting. It all seemed like a marketing pitch of some kind, and our judges couldn't look more bored. We did get to see the mock up I had created, and then at the end the 5 minutes was over. We had had 3 slides left. We didn't get to talk about our awesome money making ideas or super awesome itinerary plans.
The thing is, in normal corporate life I think this would just be another day at the office. Busy work to be busy, creating ideas that never get completed.
The judges asked a few questions and we were off. I didn't get to see the rest because as a reward for the weekend I had sideline tickets to see the galaxy lose to San Jose. I can't win this weekend!
And no our team didn't win anything. The take away from this weekend:
As a developer I have no pressure to join any team As a developer I was doing most, if not all of the heavy lifting I need to join a team with someone that has skills in the other two areas equal to my own Development and design are super hard to do concurrently. This was really evident under a tight deadline If I have a feeling that it's bullshit, it's bullshit Quitting a team doesn't mean failure, and when talking to some mentors, quitting early is a really good thing. Pitch my own ideas with some of the passion that I actually have Smaller teams might work better, 6 was too many. A lot of times members of the team were just surfing the net watching youtube videos. Find a niche beforehand or join someone that has one Find a group that actually has some prototypes, or even better, a spec Focus intently on solving the problem, everything else is a complete waste of time Make sure the solution can make money, or you have a plan about how to do so If one person on the team isn't passionate about what you are all doing or is unclear about the direction: you're in big trouble