Startup Weekend Postmortem: A Developers Perspective

A couple weekends ago I took part in Startup Weekend Okanagan at the Kelowna Innovation Center. It’s a full, catered, weekend of building a product from scratch, intending to build a business around that product, and pitching it to a panel of judges. I was lucky enough to be one of 6 attendees from Vernon who were fully sponsored by way of entrance fee (thank you Vernon UPS Store & Bold Media) as well as 2 nights in a hotel (thank you City of Vernon). While it’s all still relatively fresh in my mind, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what went right, what went wrong, and what I’d do differently next time.

What Went Right

Similar but not-so-popular groups merged into one · Initially there were 12 groups who gathered enough votes to move on to the recruitment round (before the planning/development round ~ rest of the weekend). I was one of the 12 (lucky) but only had one person interested in helping me. After joining my team, and wandering the floor, he actually found other groups with little enough individual interest but with similar enough ideas that we all merged into one group. 12 groups boiled down to 7, and our group ended up with 9 members with well rounded skills.

Building an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) · You only have a single weekend to piece together the group’s collective ideas to form an end product. We built our product around WordPress, customizing it with pre-built plugins where necessary. We used WordPress to express how the product would work rather than wasting time building a functional prototype from the ground up. When the weekend is over, and presentations begin, you only have 5 minutes to pitch your business and product. At least half of which is a presentation on the business plan of your product. There’s not much time left to show off the actual product. So we took our customized WordPress site and made it look pretty with a dummy profile page, pre-filled meals and static calendar feature. Enough to be able to quickly click through the main features to help express to the judges how the product would be used.

Picking a product name early · As soon as the name was decided, the rest of the team (marketing/business) could get to work on the social branding pages, including Twitter and Facebook. A logo was born, promotional video was shot. The team really felt like they had something to build around.

Ignoring everyone while they picked a name · From a developer perspective, work had to get done. We already knew we were building around WordPress but had no idea what the url of the site would be. So I set to work configuring my hosts file and apache vhosts with a dummy domain, installing WordPress, and starting on my piece of the project.

Focus on a limited feature set · We were 5 teams that merged together. 3 of our individual team ideas were very similar. We wanted to provide a service around sharing specific items. “Professional skills” was one idea, I wanted to do a co-operative advertisement service. The other idea was to share meals. Obviously cooking is a very specific “professional skill” which we could use to drive focus toward our product. We could have chosen lawn mowing. We could have chosen painting. We could have tried to tackle “all odd jobs” but we focused on this vertical slice, limiting the features and helping us make the most of the limited time we had.

What Went Wrong

I did not prepare my pitch · You get 60 seconds to pitch your idea. They are strict when it comes to those 60 seconds. I was just about to get to the good part when the buzzer rang and I was ushered off the floor. Without maximizing the use of my 60 seconds I failed to gain enough interest from my peers and barely gained enough votes to bring my idea it into the team building round.

Spending time creating features never shown · As previously stated, your time is limited. Part of my responsibilities early in the weekend were to work on the customer-facing interface. This had me researching how to customize the WordPress user profile page and installing and configuring the Adminimize plugin to limit what dashboard features the non-admin users would get to see. This was time wasted since during the final presentation we were never going to walk through the process of 1) signing up, 2) creating meals, and 3) “purchasing” other people’s meals.

Picking a product name early · You’ll notice this is in “what went right” as well. Most of the team was involved in this, while myself and the other programmer tried our best to start building something without first knowing the brand. It seemed like a whole hour (of our precious 50 or so) was dedicated to what we should call ourselves. It’s a necessary activity but most of the team was doing nothing else but this for the hour.

What I’d Do Differently

I’m guilty of this myself in that I did not do this, and had the project I’d pitched had support behind it I’d have wasted time, too: Already have a list of potential product names before the group meets for the first time. Having the brand figured out before-hand will help everyone hit the ground running. The community/social brand manager could then get to work right away creating the social profiles used to generate buzz. The project manager can get started securing a domain which in turn allows the developers to set up the site and their workspaces.

Next time I will not eat so much. There’s more food than anyone can eat in a weekend. Drinks included. I brought my own “snacks” (chocolate covered coffee beans and chocolate covered raisins) and I barely had an opportunity to eat them. I spent the weekend half focused on how uncomfortable I was from all of the food and drink in me. My own fault, a lesson learned.

While I didn’t see it as an issue, the other developer had said he wished everyone communicated a little better. I can see where he’s coming from but I was actually impressed with how well everyone worked together. Given that he thought that was an area for improvement, imagine how much we’d have accomplished if we did all communicate a little more. We didn’t really have an acting “project manager”. Rather, we had “the guy whose idea we were working on” and we all approached him when we had a specific question. If I’m responsible for that role next time, taking this lesson learned, I’ll make an effort to circle the room every so often to ensure 1) no one is working on duplicate tasks unless required and 2) there are no unasked questions from those who may not like to ask questions. All in all, we as a team didn’t suffer from 1) or 2) but a little more communication may have led to a better finished product.

Conclusion

Startup Weekend is a fantastic experience. Not only do you meet many people, making it a great networking event, but you’ll learn a thing or two as well. I know of an applications developer who learned MySQL for the first time. A Joomla developer who’s now eager to try his hand with WordPress. Myself, I was ready to build the MVP from scratch, account management system and all, before someone suggested we use WordPress instead. Brilliant.

Go for the comforts of food and drink and the company of like-minded individuals. Stay for the challenge. Take away a wealth of knowledge and industry contacts. And just maybe you’ll take first place.

*Note: We didn’t take first place. Our project, ChefShuffle.com, took the “biggest social impact” award. Coo Coo, a parking space service, took runner-up. Arkitektor took first place.

One Response to “Startup Weekend Postmortem: A Developers Perspective”

  1. Great post Kyle! A lot of the experience seems to center around “working well as a team” which is super valuable!

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