Chapel Hill Startup Weekend: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly…

It’s done.  I’ve had some sleep.  Now it’s time for a review…

For those of you that weren’t following the weekend, we voted to build Workperch, a service that matches people or groups that need temporary space with businesses that have space available. 

A lot of folks have an occasional need for a conference room, office or other venue; but they only need it for an hour or two and aren’t ready to commit to leasing a full office.  We fill the space between a coffee shop and an executive suite.  In the future, we could see getting in to other kinds of spaces, like church halls and other venues.

The business model was simple:  we charge a referral fee to customers (Workperchers) when they book a space, we take a slice off the top and the rest goes to the person offering the space (the Host).  They are nominally inviting the Workpercher into their space as a guest, and accepting a small fee to cover their
administrative costs i.e. they are not sub-leasing or renting the space itself.

So if I need a real office for 2 hours to take a meeting with my advisors, I’d book a space through Workperch for $20-40 or so.  If I had an office with a conference room that’s empty 3 days a week, I could generate a little revenue from referral fees.

It’s not a $B-number business, but it can be a tidy profit maker.  It also does a lot to help out the local small business community.  Last, but not least, part of our mandate was to put some of our profits back into sponsoring local business community events, like Open Coffee Clubs, Noonhat, BarCamp etc.

On with the review.

The Good

A big shout out to Andrew Hyde.  He’s been running Startup Weekends pretty much non-stop since the first one.  His management style is informal but effective and he has a good nose for trouble and how to resolve it.  Any kind of short intense project is always brutal and Andrew handles it well.  I’d be more than happy to work with him again in the future.

I’m too lazy to go through a long list of individual shout-outs, but hopefully the folks that impressed me know who they are. 

I do think some highlights are in order just to give you an idea of how willing some people were to just get on and do something they had never done before.  In no particular order, here are some examples:

_____Day Job________________At Startup Weekend I worked on…_____

Motherboard designer………….User experience, biz dev and market research
Soon-to-be-Attorney……………Biz Dev, copy writer & tag line guru
Java Engineer………………….Ruby on Rails server setup genius
Network Engineer………………User experience and PR guy
Web/technology consultant…….SEO keyword man, biz dev and market research
CTO…………………………….All round GSD — like GTD, but different 😉

Emily deserves a shout-out too — she would have been in the list above, but I don’t remember what her day job encompasses…  And last but not least, thanks to the folks that voted for other ideas but jumped all over this one anyway.  Nice work.

As for me, I mostly stayed in/around biz dev, PR, marketing and the other seven levels of corporate damnation…  I even managed not to add to the feature creep list, and any engineer knows that biz dev guys are drawn to feature creep like moths to a flame…

To me, the point of Startup Weekend is to build a community (something I’ve talked about previously).  Unlike a BarCamp, there is more (and closer) interaction with a broad cross-section of people because you are trying to achieve a concrete goal.  Within that context, I think the weekend was great.

The Bad

We don’t have a finished product. 

Again, for me that wasn’t the real goal of the weekend, it was about the team.

In my misspent past, I ran a 3D animation studio.  There were more short and intense projects than I care to recall e.g. go from a standing start to deliver 19 minutes of animation in 6 weeks, with 19 more due every two weeks thereafter; or complete a sizzle piece for a major client from basically nothing in 24-48 hours (my former colleague Tony is unbelievably skilled at that).  I’ve also been actively involved in shipping 20+ products and a lot of small dev projects (internal tools etc).

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s simplify, simplify, simplify…  Projects always expand to fill the time and resources available.  This gets exponentially more true as the timeline gets shorter.

For a Startup Weekend to launch a product by Sunday night, the idea and execution needs to be simple and _something_ has to be ready for feedback by Saturday night. 

Let me be clear, I am not slamming the efforts of the dev team.  They worked their butts off.  But from my terribly-jaded-from-too-many-scars perspective, we should probably have relied a lot more on off-the-shelf code with a nice wrapper, rather than creating something wholly new.

I know that’s not as fun in some ways, and it’s a different kind of challenge.  But then many of us were effectively doing the same thing — building on the work of others or things we’d done previously.

And of course, with dev work there is always a _ton_ of foundational stuff that has to happen before you see anything pretty on the surface.  So what you see part way through is really not representative of all the work that’s been completed.

Moving on…  My other disappointment early on was that some folks simply didn’t want to work on (a) any of the ideas, or (b) the idea that was voted for.  To me, the point was to come together and do something, it didn’t matter what the "something" was.  While I was happy to defend my idea, I would have worked just as hard on any of the other ideas suggested if those had been chosen by the group.

However, the folks that weren’t happy were a very small minority, and some of them simply voted with their feet (which is fair enough).  For the most part, even the staunch defenders of other ideas jumped in and GSD’d with the best of them — Katie the Recipe Lady being a great example.

The Ugly

Well, right now the baby is pretty ugly.  We’ll see what the next few weeks bring. 

Most of us probably have minor cases of laptop thigh burn too.

And last, but not least, for me it was tough to see even less of my wife and daughter than usual.  Fortunately they sent me a steady stream of photos and text messages to keep me entertained…

Thoughts for other Startup Weekends…

If you’re thinking about setting up or attending a Startup Weekend near you, here’s my $0.02:

  1. Respect the Hyde.  The Hyde is law 🙂
  2. Come ready to work on anything
  3. Defend your ideas, but be open to criticism
  4. If you have an idea or concern, speak up.
  5. When the group makes a decision, the decision has been made.  Move on.  No circling back.
  6. Get a list of your top line deliverables as soon as possible
  7. Try to give anyone a shot at a task, regardless of their experience.  They may surprise you.
  8. Big buckets of sugary bubble gum are your friend.  Seriously.  I learned this from creative sessions at Hasbro.
  9. Consider the potential repercussions of 34 people eating burritos when there’s only one bathroom (nothing bad happened, but the plumbing equivalent of Chernobyl was surely near at hand).
  10. It’s about the experience far more than it is about the product.

And that, as they say, is that.  Workperchers of the world unite!

1 comment for “Chapel Hill Startup Weekend: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly…

  1. November 5, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks for the great summary, Nick. I thought it was a ton of fun and meeting people was by far the best part. I agree with your assessment of the weekend and your advice for future SW’s. I would emphasize # 2, 4, and 5. Of course #5 works best if there’s plenty of #4. You were a rockstar and made a lot of things happen. That knack for non-confontational leadership is a special skill. Thanks for the gum and keeping the energy positive!

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