Tuesday, April 7, 2009

How to build a company in one weekend

Last weekend I attend the San Francisco Startup Weekend.  The concept was founded in 2007 by Andrew Hyde, as a conference focusing on learning by creating - from their website: Startup Weekend recruits a motivated group of developers, business managers, startup enthusiasts, marketing gurus, graphic artists and more to a 54 hour event that builds communities, companies and projects.

I arrived on Friday night at 6pm, not knowing what to expect - the event was held at the Microsoft office in San Francisco (thanks Microsoft!), and would estimate around 300 people in attendance.  We started with a discussion panel from a series of VCs who focus on seed funding early stage companies. The take away from this panel was when pitching:


Everyone in the room then was given an opportunity to pitch (in 5 minutes) their company idea/concept.  The VCs kindly helped coach many of the pitches - Dave McClure in particular was very blunt and helpful to a number of the presenters (and funny).  After the pitches, everyone assembled into teams based on the ideas that were pitched - I sought out anyone who had pitched an email idea (mine was around solutions to email overload).  I was very lucky to meet Al Abut who had pitched an idea of "Snoozing email", and he ended the night with a list of everyone interested in email.

At 9:00am the next day we all assembled, and started texting, tweeting, and emailing those who were interested from the previous night.  One of the takeaways from Startup Weekend is that you need to get out and sell your idea to assemble the needed team - there is a lot of competition, and I was extremely impressed by how Al brought us together.

We ended up with a core team of five people and a very good mix of skills - Al was a user experience designer, Allan, Peter & Stig were all developers - but with slightly different skills.  We had occasional help from others in the room when needed.

The first thing that we did as a team was sit down, get to know each other, and define the problem.  Given that we had to be completed in less than 48 hours, we agreed to constrain the problem to Al's original idea of email snoozing.  This was a key reason behind our success - we took the time to properly define the problem, constrain to something solvable, and ensured the team was in alignment.  This was written down for constant reference, and we continually checked that we were heading in the right direction.

There was an intense period of brainstorming of different approaches - client based, Google Gadgets, Greasemonkey, server based etc.  After some time we settled on building a web service and interacting with email clients using standard folders/labels.  This makes the basic design completely universal and platform independent, but for time's sake we limited ourselves to Gmail.  The programmer guys decided to implement the web service using Ruby on Rails for rapid development, and reuse of existing code. As we used IMAP there was no need for us to store email, making the service highly scalable.

Al did a really great job throughout the project of assigning tasks and keeping everyone focused. We all trusted each other to get their pieces done (no time for micro management).  While people were coding I focused on putting a founder agreement together, helping Al on the web UI, and then working with Stig on a long term and short term roadmap.  We put together a wiki of ideas, 
and I contributed some marketing and business development ideas.  Every now and again the team stopped to sync that we were on the right path.

Come Sunday, Peter and Allan had not slept, but our service was up and running!  It even worked from an iPhone.  Al had the web site together, and it was now a matter of integrating all the pieces.  During this time I worked on the 5 minute project pitch, and from about 5pm Al and I started rehearsals - we must have gone over the pitch ten times - prior preparation is an important thing in any presentation.

Come 7:00pm (after a panic when the service lost it's IP address) we were fully functional and Al gave a flawless pitch.  We had done it - planned, built, launched, and presented a cool, complete and useful product and basis of a company.  Whilst it may be more of a feature right now (albeit a very useful one), we have a strategic roadmap for the future involving some very cool ideas to manage email overload and automate getting to a zero inbox.  

What I got out of the weekend:
  1. A huge amount of fun, creativity, and learning
  2. Meeting great new friends
  3. Learning a plethora of new open source and social networking tools - e.g. I had never used Twitter before, I saw other people's Moo cards and order my own, learnt about Rails, and wiki tools like basecamp.
  4. An insight into how young entreprenurs think, the tools they use, and how they are changing the world.  Seriously.
Mark Templeton, the Citrix CEO, used to talk about the Echo Generation and how they were changing the world and would not put up with how IT systems worked in a traditional company - after this weekend I really understand what he meant. Every technology executive should attend a Startup Camp, just to see what is possible with the right people, tools, and attitudes. 

We had a fully functional product in TWO days, and people have been signing up like crazy at gosnoozemail.com.  My eyes are open to what is possible.
As for Snoozemail - who knows where it will go next, but we're already collaborating over the web, and meeting in San Fran tomorrow night to decide if we want to proceed.  But we're already all winners, considering how much fun we had.  

A special thanks to Andrew, Tyler and all the other organizers, without whom there would be no weekend's like this - great job guys and we really appreciate your time and efforts.

If you'd like to check out the presentations from all the teams, the full 2+ hour video is here:

So the takeaway is clear - go to startupweekend.com, and look out for one in your area.

1 comment:

  1. Phil, I can't believe how lucky we all were to find each other! And you specifically, you really kept us going in so many ways:

    1) kept the product focused and goal-oriented
    2) kept the team focused on the demo, yet still captured long term goals on our wiki
    3) were about as funny as every other Australian I've ever met

    I'm looking forward to working together!