in Travel/Experience

Startup Weekend San Diego Summary

I attended Startup Weekend San Diego last weekend, not knowing what to expect beyond hoping to connect with the small local tech scene. Indeed it was, although the crowd was more diverse than I expected, with only a few developers and far more people from unrelated fields excited to try their hand at banging together a startup. Here’s my impressions of the weekend.

Startup Weekend is an international organization that facilitates 54 hours weekend events during which teams pitch ideas, scrape together a Minimum Viable Product, and demo their work at the end. It tries to pull in even numbers of developers, graphic designers, and businessmen in order to be able to actually create something in that narrow time window. The whole thing reminded me of LAN parties I used to go to in high school, with dozens of people crammed in a small space staring intently at computer screens for hours on end. Except here we were actually creating something instead of shooting each other.

Our event had only 7 or so developers to go around, which meant the teams who couldn’t build an actual app had to use online wireframing software or focus on customer validation, which turned out to be more important to the judges anyway. The judge panel was composed of a few local venture capitalists and mentors, who used every chance they had to pound in the importance of Customer Validation, Market Feasibility, and Monetization. Seriously, those were part of just about every sentence they uttered.

It made me wonder how companies like Snapchat and Instagram get funding without any visible plans of monetization, because if somebody had pitched those ideas at this weekend the judges would certainly have shot them down due to a lack of the above. Seems to me that a concrete breakdown above doesn’t matter if you make something users want – once you have millions of users to leverage, all the above is secondary. I know Silicon Valley is infamous for investing in companies without monetization plans, but I was left with sour taste in my mouth to have the profit driven model thrown at us so many times over this weekend. I understand that money makes the world go round, but so do free frivolities like the above.

Anyway, after a fevered Friday pitch session where 22 people threw out ideas varying from some they had made up on the ride there and others who had planned for months, the event coalesced into 8 teams, chosen by the crowd, and you could join whichever team you wanted. This led to some teams lacking key personnel for their execution, which  led to two of them dropping out of the event without a trace (they didn’t show up on Saturday onward). A shame, but on the other hand, if you forced people to help with ideas they didn’t care about then Startup Weekend would undeniably fail. You’re pulling in serious hours here, over the weekend, no less, and nothing was stopping you from leaving other than your own will. The most important thing was that you cared about your team.

I settled on a well constructed pitch given by a developer who wanted to make it easier for people to build simple websites without coding knowledge. Our team was a diverse group, including a naval officer, a Mexican businessman who had flown in for the event, and a Korean accountant, among others. Friday night flew by in a storm of optimism, brainstorming, and hashing out execution possibilities.

Saturday went slowly, and we ended up pivoting around 4 times after finding powerful competitors, issues with our plan, and overall feasibility. We settled on a web app that would generate a bare bones website along with the code that would let you prototype your ideas – something many of the people who had pitched could use, since they were looking for developers. With that settled, the next 24 hours consisted of some heavy coding on the part of our developers and extensive customer validation surveys by the rest of us. By Sunday afternoon we were basically ready to go, along with a fresh new name of Yototype (your prototype).

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By Sunday I was less involved, since our 6 man team already had enough manpower to complete the tasks required, and me jumping in to help on the demo powerpoint would  be too many cooks in the kitchen. It reminded me the anecdotes about startups with too many founders who flounder – every member of the team needs to be either incredibly driven or have an applied skill set if they  hope to succeed. Since I was doing general marketing like the other 3 non developers on the team, I got edged out as my will to debate about the final vision faded by the end. Proves the point that you need to bring unique skills to the table or else you will get edged out by someone else. Nevertheless, I felt very useful during Friday and most of Saturday, during the brainstorming, researching, and feature list phase.

Finally the big moment came, and we all gathered in the main room (which used to be the American center for anti-Japanese intelligence during WW2, interestingly enough) for the MVP demos. Every team had something worth showing, even if some of them were nothing more than visual mockups of their design, or just drawings that showed how buttons would work (Which PopApp can simulate for you!). The judges came down hard in the Q and A sessions with (you guessed it) customer validation and market feasibility – the monetization angle was covered as long as you said ‘oh, and it’s $.99’.

When the dust finally settled, (website that lets you hire movers, caterers, and so forth all from one dashboard) won first, followed by Fitcast (lets  you listen to your music and workout prompts like P90X simultaneously) in second, and LooperLink (app/service that connects local caddies with golfers) in third. Yototype didn’t even place, since the judges thought our market had too many competitors. Bummer.

The process felt like class presentations, where you must hew closely to the exact prompt given for the assignment. Except now it wasn’t for a grade, but for time in coworking spaces and mentor hours. It differed in that only a few things really mattered to the judges (as mentioned above), whereas in school they’ll dock you for any straying from the guidelines. For instance, Fitcast had a messy presentation that went over the time limit and had little more than some mockup pictures to show, but they had done solid customer validation and had a good chance at a sizable market, which was all that mattered.

The weekend format was fun, in that there was no time to rest or really test out your product – just scrape together what you could as fast as possible. It meant you couldn’t burn out on your concept, since even if it didn’t work out you weren’t investing your livelihood in it. And you couldn’t waste time or dilly dally, with that imminent deadline looming overhead. I learned  lessons on product feasibility, was exposed to numerous  services that help make products out of ideas, and the concept of JAFT (Just Another F*cking Technology – nobody wants it, but its cool and exists). I didn’t meet very many San Diego techies, since most people were ideamen from other fields (which makes sense, as if they were actual techies they would be working on their own startup rather than someone else’s), but I did meet a diverse cast of characters who were passionate enough to devote their whole weekend to an ideal.

I’d recommend Startup Weekend to anybody with a product idea floating around in the back of their head – if nothing else, it is a great ‘in the trenches’ experience that shows you exactly what it takes to make an idea into reality. They truly are global, so you have no excuse!