Monday morning

As promised – a few thoughts on StartupWeekend now that I’ve had a chance to both get over my disappointment that we didn’t release anything on Monday morning and more importantly time to think about what worked and what didn’t work last weekend. There seems to be no lack of opinion on the subject (see the comments to the “Success and Failure” post on the StartupWeekend website and the mass of comments left on the TechCrunch article about the weekend or just do a Google search for StartupWeekend).

Overall, it was a great experience. We had an outstanding group of founders from a broad cross-section of Denver/Boulder technology companies. Andrew did a great job of facilitating the weekend without being too heavy handed (although see below for some ideas on where more structure might have benefitted the ultimate goal of the project). A lot of the people involved have posted on their blogs or elsewhere online that as a “Social Experiment” StartupWeekend was a success. I think what they mean is that we had a fun time, everyone contributed, and no-one wanted to kill anyone at the end of the weekend (which says something given that many people were operating on only a few hours sleep over the 50+ hours that the project was active). That said, if StartupWeekend is only a social experiment the concept will have pretty limited value (and a limited life – it’s fun to do once, but to make it a regular occurrence, there needs to be the realistic expectation that a ‘product’ will actually be released). Don’t get me wrong – I loved the ‘social experiment’ side of the weekend, but the goal of the project was to produce something in the period of time we were together (and capitalize on the buzz generated by the excitement around the process for the benefit of the company that was created). The journey was great, but we actually needed to get somewhere. I know Andrew wants to replicate the Boulder StartupWeekend elsewhere around the country – I’d love to see this happen and think what we learned last weekend will help make the effort in other cities more productive and ultimately more successful.

That said, VoSnap will launch – and soon. The project did live beyond the weekend and, after everyone got some sleep and returned to their Monday-Friday lives, there was a great deal of interest by the group in continuing with the project. Not just to the first launch, but beyond that (and potentially building a business around the project). When it’s up and working I’ll put up a note and link to the working site. It definitely says something both about the weekend and the group of people who participated that the project will live on beyond Monday. It’s emblematic of why the weekend was such a great experience.

Here are some summary thoughts on what worked, what didn’t work and what we might do differently when we do this again:

What worked:

  • Picking the idea: We ended up with something that was realistic to do in a weekend and had the potential for legs beyond the two day project. Having a site where the founders could post ideas and doing an initial vote before we showed up on Friday night were keys to vetting the list before we even showed up (we spent around an hour picking the idea – that felt about right)
  • Group dynamics: While there were plenty of type-a personalities in attendance, the group self organized really well and it was clear that people checked their egos at the door. It helped that this was a one weekend project (at least that was the thought going into it). A lot of work was done by these groups – much of it not visible to people following along on-line. PR, business development, marketing, etc. were all on their game and came up with plans/ideas that will serve the company well beyond Sunday night.
  • Focusing on one project: When I looked around the room on Friday night I thought to myself “no way can this many people stay busy for the weekend”. Andrew held to his guns and insisted that we all work the same idea. He was right on – while a group of much more than this size probably wouldn’t work the weekend needs to be about ONE idea and the focus of the group needs to be singular in that respect.
  • Quick meetings/quick decisions: Every hour we met for 7 minutes for an update. This is an incredibly effective way to communicate with a group w/o disrupting everyone for a long period of time. A few people have actually extended this idea beyond StartupWeekend to their day jobs. We were maniacal about keeping these short and as a result there was a lot of information conveyed at regular intervals in a very short period of time. Andrew also implemented a system of “quick votes” to make decisions (VoSnap would be perfect for this!) – the idea was to lay out the options, vote and move on. Quick votes allowed us to keep moving throughout the weekend.
  • Buzz. StartupWeekend really took on a life of its own online last weekend. It started with David’s regular blog posts on www.startupweekend.com but also included the live video stream that was put up (which regularly had nearly 100 viewers), flickr photos and, of course, the TechCrunch posting. At the beginning of the weekend very few people outside of the Boulder tech community knew what StartupWeekend was and VoSnap didn’t even exist – by the end of the weekend there were hundreds of mentions online of both and tens of thousands of hits to the VoSnap site (there are more than a thousand people now on the VoSnap mailing list).

What didn’t work/what to do differently:

  • The product. I guess I have to start here. On Monday we had a lot of things working, but the product wasn’t one of them (still isn’t – at least not publically). I think we should have put up whatever we had on Monday morning. On the one hand, this would have been fodder for those online who were down on the idea of creating a product over the weekend. On the other hand, it would have been true to the idea of the weekend (to create something in 2 days).
  • The development process. We had a lot of great developers, but we made a bad choice of dev environments (at least in the context of putting something out in a weekend) and as a result we ended up scrapping a lot of the initial work that was done on Saturday on the product. In retrospect, we should have appointed a dev lead ahead of time, probably had the development team meet before the weekend to review the likely top candidates (based on the pre-weekend voting) and make the choice of development platforms ahead of time. The decision wouldn’t have been rushed and it would have been more well thought out. In the end, we made some choices that might have been right for the long term success of the product, but made it difficult for us to complete the first rev in time to launch on Monday. There were also a few among us that recognized this early (David, Andrew and I had this conversation on Saturday) but we (wrongly) decided to let it go.
  • More developers. Out of 70 people we had probably 7 hard core developers. This ratio was too light. Many of our early stage companies are between 30% and 50% development staff. While on top of the 7 dev types, we had a handful of other people that would probably count as “engineering” in the numbers I just quoted, this imbalance set us up for some challenges (not the least of which was that development of the business plan, pr, marketing, etc pretty quickly got very far ahead of what we could do in a short period of time and probably contributed at least some to feature creep).
  • Communication after the fact. During the weekend we did a great job of communicating with the outside world. Through emails, blogs, streaming video, flickr, etc, we were very open about what we were up to. A surprising amount of work has taken place since Monday, but we’ve been totally mum about it beyond the founder group (to give you a sense of the volume of email traffic, I’ve created a separate inbox just for VoSnap related email so I can see it all in one place).

I’ll end with a few pictures to give you a sense of the environment we were working in (two views of the main room and one of a stand-up product meeting).

  • Great points all around

  • who says you need people to actually do the work? forget that. nothing that a few more PR flacks can’t handle.

  • fewquid

    I’ve been watching Startupweekend with interest. I think it’s a fantastic idea for several reasons, #1 being the way it builds and reinforces the local startup community.
    I wonder if some of the issues could be resolved by setting it up as a two weekend event?
    It also sounds as though a little more structure may have helped, although I would think it would be hard to know where to draw the line. Perhaps a slightly more formal management structure?
    When’s the next one??? 🙂

  • Seth’s Summary of Startup Weekend

    My partner Seth Levine has written an excellent summary of Startup Weekend. Its hard for me to fathom that it happened merely a week ago. As I sithere early this Sunday morning getting ready for a long run into town, Im …

  • Wasn’t the real goal to see if you could create a company from scratch in a weekend? Is finding out that the answer is no a failure?
    Loading up time on the front end by getting more of the work figured out before the weekend starts means recognizing that the original “from scratch” goal is undoable, right?
    Seems to me you successfully answered the question you set out to answer, even if you don’t like that the answer came back no.
    Will “success” next time mean you just changed the question to something that can be answered yes???

  • anonymous

    Starting a company is hard. Startup weeked trivialized a noble pursuit. Its something akin to saying that thousands of iron workers can build a bridge in one weekend with no plans, no right of way, and possibly no need.
    What it is is a demonstration of will and blind faith. it was fun to watch but it is not starting a company in one weekend. Its hacking some stuff in one weekend.

  • Here comes the first SW-Boulder clone…SW-Chicago. Looking forward to observing how this evolves http://startupweekendchicago.wetpaint.com

  • @anon — trivialized a noble pursuit? hog wash. It CELEBRATED entrepreneurism.
    I was an anthropology major as an undergrad way back when. I thought business was all about stiffs in blue suits with I-want-to-cut-my-throat boring jobs. I guarantee you that startup weekend made at least a few people who would never have thought about becoming an entrepreneur think: Hmmmm, that kinda looks like fun. I know because my own 25 year old daughter who is allergic to navy blue said that exact thing.

  • I agree with the sentiment behind this:
    Out of 70 people we had probably 7 hard core developers. This ratio was too light.
    but I’m going to nitpick a little bit, referring to your previous point (technology choice).
    There were actually a lot of experienced web developers there that would have been very useful resources had we chosen to go with PHP or Rails. The fact that they (we) didn’t collectively push harder for a more rapid dev environment is a shame and a good lesson for next time.

  • Dave

    Nice summary of the lessons learned.
    Funny, though — I commented on Cohen’s blog weeks before that the dev platform should be chosen early so that the dev team could be firm at the weekend. 🙂

  • I am talking with Andrew about a Startup Weekend for Atlanta and these are great tips for improving both the experience and outcome. My biggest concern has been how to keep developers engaged and productive once their platform of choice is not voted in? You have have given me some good direction on how to solve this issue.