The last 7 days were a complete whirlwind of entrepreneurship, team building, game design, mentorship, networking, emotional highs, and of course, no sleep. What began with my friend, Jonathan Fung, coaxing me to cancel my flight home and instead participate in Startup Weekend, ended with one of the best entrepreneurial experiences/exercises I’ve had in my life. What was most different about this one than all the others was the level of camaraderie and synergy that we had amongst our team. It’s great to work with people that work as hard as you do and care just as much about the success of a project/company/idea. In this post I hope to take you through the roller coaster that was the last 7 days and some of my lessons learned.
Startup Weekend (SW):
SW is a 54-hour event where developers, artists, entrepreneurs and marketers combine their talents to pitch ideas for startup companies, form teams around those ideas, build prototypes/demos, and finally pitch it as a business on Sunday evening. Our event was called MEGA Startup Weekend because of the 120 cities they host the event in, this one was the biggest. Over 300 people signed up for 3 different verticals: Gaming, Mobile, and Robotics. Even despite how cool it sounds I can honestly say I had no idea what to expect going in. And I would not have signed up if my friends hadn’t pushed me. I’m going to go into a lot of detail about each step of the whole process so if it gets a little dry, feel free to skip to the next section.
The first day of the event was Friday which is where we all divided up into our verticals and got the opportunity to pitch an idea to try and build a team. In the gaming vertical there were probably over 30 game ideas pitched ranging from a Code Battle (learn to code by battling against your friends), Bet on anything with friends, Pirate Booty (pirate game with a mario type view), Productivity games, Zombie game (a play on zombie games where instead you are the zombies attacking the people) and an Eskimo game (kinda like angry birds but multiplayer and you launch eskimos instead of birds). Nathan, my roommate, pitched an idea for apples-to-apples on the phone which didn’t get any fan fare. And my idea for a game similar to Joust which featured music instead of visuals also got voted out. When it came time for everyone to form teams around the winning ideas, there were many which I was interested in trying, but none really jumped out as being amazing. Charles, a guy whose idea also got voted out, approached Nathan about developing the apples-to-apples idea. I soon joined and we began to work through the idea. We soon realized we needed more development help so we began looking for any developers that hadn’t yet been taken. Fortunately we were able to poach our fourth and final teammate, Nikola, from another team. The founding team was now born!
We quickly got to work figuring out what we wanted to get done in next 48 hours. After all, we had to create a business/vision, build an app, and pitch it by Sunday evening. We began looking at each our skill sets and strengths to divide up tasks. Charles had a computer science degree from Berkeley and tons of coding experience so he was our lead developer / product manager. Nikola had a computer engineer with back-end experience so he was to build the architecture and back-end of the game. Nathan had experience in IT consulting and a background in finance so he was the project manager. I had experience building my own web design/marketing company so I took a business and UI/UX/design role. After we decided on roles it was now time to actually get started!
On Saturday we showed up nice and early to get started. Charles even brought an extra monitor to help boost productivity. To do mockups/wireframes of our app I used balsamiq which was an easy way to create designs/frame for the developers and designers to use in collaboration. Charles began pounding away at coding the android app and Nikola started on the back-end. Nathan began to plan our the pitch and started collaborating with mentors. We kept pounding away every hour and to my amazement, we made significant progress.
It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that I realized what we had was pretty special. Not only did we have a pretty cool idea, but our team had more synergy than any I had worked on before. We all knew our roles and we since we were all working so hard at them, it seemed like things were getting done very quickly. I finished the wireframes and design elements (buttons, backgrounds) and built our website by the end of the afternoon. Charles had most of the front-end functionality done by the evening. And we had received amazing advice from probably a dozen or so mentors that came by our table. Almost all the mentors had direct experience in building games, investing in games, or some other computer/gaming field. Those small tidbits of advice we got early on Saturday were no doubt essential parts of our eventual success. One of the mentors Adeo Ressi, advised us on some monetization strategies based on consumables/power-ups and also on making sure that we all dressed up as a team. Tony Parisi, Scott Foe, and Aaron Cammarata helped to work through our business model, go-to-market strategy, and presentation form.
Despite all of our hard work we were still no where near finished by the time they kicked us our of the Microsoft Campus at midnight. We decided to keep coding away at Charles’s place and it wasn’t till 5am that we were finally able to get the app working and get some much needed sleep.
By Sunday we came onto the Campus looking more like zombies than people. Nathan’s contacts were glued to his eyes and I was growing a beard. But alas, this was the final stretch. As the day went on our team began to realize that while our game was awesome, it was still not quite awesome enough to win. It needed a bigger vision/idea. It needed a business and a company behind it. It wasn’t till we started preparing to do our pitch that Charles came up with the game changer. The platform on top of the game. A vision for a new way of photo sharing. Completely unexplored.
Then came time to actually pitch. There were about 15 teams in our category and 5 judges with experience building gaming companies and investing in them. Nathan and Charles led the pitch and I led the demo of the app. Overall it went off very well and the judges couldn’t poke any large holes into our plan, given that we’d only had 48 hours to work it. When it came time to announce the winners our team had a very strong feeling that we had a chance to win. So I got our lucky hats that we had presented with ready. With our category they announced that it was a toss up between two teams so the brief excitement with our team being announced was quickly thrown off because we weren’t sure if we had one. Luckily, they called out our name “Stinky da Vinci” and the rest is history! Thank you to all the folks that put on Startup Weekend!
Why our team did so well:
As cliche as it sounds, synergy. I grew a much better understanding of the word after this weekend. First, our team had a very solid vision of what we wanted to build and the components that would make it compelling. This can’t be fabricated. If our idea had been less novel / interesting / value-adding, the vision would’ve been aimed much lower and therefore less powerful. Second, we all knew what roles we needed to play and since we were such a small team, there weren’t any politics. I’m now convinced that team/office politics are one of the worst poisons out there. Hard to fix and lethal to a productive/positive culture. Third, openness. All of us knew that we all wanted to build the best product possible and a company that could actually succeed whether or not we won the competition. Because of this, we weren’t afraid to lower our pride if a better idea or suggestion came about. Fourth, hard work. We all slaved away on the project and burned through the midnight oil as a team. Even if you don’t totally like someone you’re working with, it’s much easier to respect them if you know that they work their ass off and create good work. All of us created good work and added to what ultimately became the game and company.
After 54 hours of sleep deprivation we found out we would not be getting much sleep for another 72-96 hours because we had to pitch at the DEMO conference. I had initially expected to be done with Startup Weekend on Sunday and fly back to Seattle Monday at 7am but now I had to once again cancel the flight! Though this one wasn’t too hard of a decision to make. If you’re wondering what DEMO is, it’s a very well known launchpad for emerging technologies. Some of the famous successes include E-Trade, Salesforce.com, TiVo, VMware and WebEx. Companies that get selected to pitch have 6 minutes to show off their latest/greatest technology in front of an audience of angel/venture capital investors and press from around the globe. Though we weren’t looking for funding it was still an amazing opportunity to network with investors/press and just to be in the middle of so many innovations!
One of the standout technologies was a company called TourWrist which is basically an iPad app that gives you a 360 view of picture. Almost as if you’re reliving that moment in time. It’s amazing stitching technology and solid UI made it really stand out. I believe it’s free so I would urge anyone with an iPad or iPhone to check it out. You won’t be disappointed. Over the last two days I must have watched pitches from over 60 companies with a wide range of coolness and potential. Here are a some of my thoughts:
- Great presentation skills can make all the difference. Toopher was a company which allowed for secure authentication to your mobile phone. Doesn’t sound like the most interesting topic right? However the Founder/Speaker did a great job of adding in tons of humor, self-deprecation and ended by grinding up competitors products in a blender (literally). Needless to say he fully engaged the audience and made themfeel his message.
- While there were tons of breakout technologies, there were also tons of companies that seemed to solve a problem that didn’t exist. Or identified a problem that existed and built an irrelevant tool. One such example was a website which helped job seekers find jobs based on semantically understanding their resume and matching their Myers-Briggs with that of the job. First of all, job hunting is a pain in the ass and sucks not because companies don’t get enough resumes, but because companies don’t have the people that they want to hire in their immediate network. Most companies would always prefer to hire someone based on a recommendation from an employee or friend. It’s validation. And it stands on the integrity of the person making the recommendation. Second, the Myers-Briggs while in principle might be nice, is a pretty crude way to match people up for a job.
- Many companies, especially in the consumer space identified a problem and made a decent solution, but didn’t focus on the true business problem with consumer focused technology which distribution and adoption. One such example made a new DVR blending high quality, high storage capacity and a kitchen sink. To me, this is the typical “new” technology which has a bunch of new features, faster, cooler/sleeker, etc. But especially in this industry, the question is how are you going to distribute? Does the consumer actually want cooler, faster, more storage? Tons of companies flood into the TV/DVR space and few have had any success because they can’t get the consumer to actually adopt it. Google TV is going to make a run at the TV space as well.
- In this era, beautiful design/UI is essential. In fact, if your product is designed well enough, with solid aesthetics, and a simple UI, the product can do all the marketing for you. While Instagram isn’t exactly a business model, this was at the core of their success. Many companies had beautiful UI’s such as TourWrist, NotesCloud, DealAngel and Edamam.
These were some of the key areas that I thought separated the companies that had potential from the rest of the herd. And this is only a critique on their 6 minute presentation, I’m sure all of the companies could go more in depth on how they plan to approach their weaknesses. Here is a brief list of my favorites:
- TourWrist – 360 imaging for iPad and iPhone. It’s really slick.
- ZBoard – World’s first, weight-sensing electric skateboard. Basically Segway meets skateboard, it’s pretty sweet.
- Toopher – Location based authentication to mobile phone
- Dozuki – Easily create and share instructions / documentation
- Fusion-io – Extremely efficient and cost effective new hardware innovations
The other half of DEMO was about the networking! After the sessions investors and press were able to network with all the companies. Our booth was setup on the wall by the entrance and we had the pleasure to meet investors, press, and tons of entrepreneurs from around the globe. DEMO did a great job producing the whole event with nothing really going wrong. And plenty of open bars =)
Thank you to the Startup Weekend team, Ahmed, Aaron, Marc, Franck, Claire and anyone else who I missed. Also, thanks to the DEMO team for putting on a great show!