Tuesday, April 19, 2011

54 hours of Rollercoaster at Startup Weekend NYC


Hi, I’m Holly, I’m a Startup Weekend Addict. I’ve attended two Startup Weekends and one and half Lean Startup Machine weekends.  I was blessed to work with some of the best people in the New York startup community. This past weekend though, was the most emotional of all.

At this past Startup Weekend New York, April 15th-17th, I wanted to pitch something related to social travel, but not sure exactly what. When I saw the amazing live coding demo by John Britton of Twilio on Friday night, a light bulb struck and I pitched a ‘Twilio for travelers’ app, where travelers can text message each other before meeting, sort of like GroupMe but for people who don’t know each other to find travel buddies. Here began the ride.

The UP:
The idea was voted as one of the most popular ones, many people came to me and said they loved the idea, and at least five designers expressed interest to join. I was pretty confident I would form another great team like previous weekends, until later, people started to disappear into breakout rooms, and I ended up with only one designer and no developer.

The DOWN:
I panicked. I ran around the room asking everyone if they were a mobile developer, or at least know a little PHP. No one. It looked like that the project was going to die. I couldn’t believe it. I thought people loved the idea! It was just me and Wilbert Gutierrez, who committed from the very beginning, and stayed with me. For this, I’m forever grateful.

Calming down, I sat down with Willy to talk through the idea. We created wireframe of what we envisioned this to be. I told myself, I’m going to get this done no matter what. At 1am, I got home and posted the project on Solvate, oDesk, and Elance and reached out to a number of developers there. Worst case scenario, I would work with an outsourcer, or I would use my horrible PHP skills learned from two Girl Develop It classes to hack something together.


The UP:
The next morning, I ran into Adam Ullman from Tokbox, who presented the OpenTok API on Friday night. After hearing my desperate plea, he took pity on me and came on board! His colleague Jonathan Mumm, who already signed up on another project, also agreed to help out part time (who later spent much more than ‘part-time’). The universe responded!

The PIVOT:
After discussing in detail the functionalities of Twilio API and Tokbox API, and the fact that we didn’t have an iOS developer, we agreed that our app should focus on smart phone users, and we would use web tools to demo the interaction. More importantly, from the user value perspective, people may feel more comfortable with both chat and video options before meeting without giving out their phone numbers. So we pivoted from ‘Twilio for Travelers’ to ‘Tokbox / ChatRoulette for Travelers’. Jon came up with the name ‘AdventureCliq’, which everyone loved.


The UP:
I couldn’t have asked for a better team. Adam was truly a world class engineer, yet so humble and gracious. Jon was a whiz with excellent user experience sense. Willy created such elegant and clear design that all I could say was ‘Wow’. I worked on customer development and got people to sign up on our LaunchRock page. By Sunday, we had a working demo! After furiously looking for logo design help and some last minute scramble with GoDaddy hosting, we were live on AdventureCliq.com! It was such an adrenaline rush the whole time.

The DOWN:
What I regret is that I didn’t spend much time to practice the final presentation. Half an hour prior to the presentation, I mumbled a general outline. I was taken aback a bit when the team scheduled ahead of us dropped out, and we rushed to the stage (yes, excuses...). Of course the video chat didn’t get connected. I wasn’t as at ease and smooth as I should have been, and what’s worse, I forgot to thank my team on stage! What could be worse than that?!

The three minute pitch and three minute Q&A went by like 30 seconds. When I got off stage, I didn’t felt the greatest. We accomplished so much these past two days: we had a functioning live demo online instead of just mockups, with a team of just four people. Everyone worked so hard, and I didn't do as good a job presenting as I wanted.

The END:
When I was still licking my wound, people came to say how much they loved the idea and the product. After a while, I made peace with myself. It’s not about what a great presentation I could have done, it’s about the journey. What four of us have gone through, the ups and downs we overcame together, is more precious than anything else. What I’ve learned over the past 54 hours and what I do with these learnings matter more than the result. The best thing I could do to make it up to my team is to move the project forward and let them see what a great product they helped start.


LEARNINGS:
  1. Tell a great story. Pitches were 60 seconds. Presentations were 3 minutes. To convince the audience, you need to relate to them. Justin Isaf is a master in this. He’s one of the best story tellers I’ve ever met. 
  2. Relax and have fun. Work hard, but when it comes to presentation time, don’t take it too seriously. Enjoy yourself on stage, look like you’re having fun, and the passion and confidence will come through.
  3. Practice your presentation. Leave at least an hour prior to the final presentation and go over the flow with all the team members, including testing the demo multiple times on different machines. The WeTrip.It team did a fantastic job on this, to the extent that one presenter forgot a word on stage and another team member completed his sentence right away.
  4. Believe in yourself. When things look doomed, don’t give up. The turnaround may be just around the corner. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will come to save you.
  5. Don’t be over ambitious. Especially in an environment like Startup Weekend, there’re limited things one can accomplish, makes sense to pitch something small enough and launch 80% than pitching a grand idea and launch 20%. I learned this from Jonathan Wegener and took it to heart this time.
  6. Proof of concept comes first. You don’t need to do serious coding from the get go. Lots of hacking can be done to test whether the idea is feasible. What matters at the beginning is how much your users and audience understand your vision, can play around with it and give feedback, rather than launching a real product. Be creative in your workaround. Sometimes this is your only option anyway.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who made the project possible: Adam Ullman, Jon Mumm, Wilbert Gutierrez, top notch talent I’ve ever met in my career. Jeff Domke, Wendy Hu, Andrew Cornett, Andrew Kirpalani for logo design help. John Britton and Isabel Summers for the advice. Volkan Unsal for your support when I most needed it. And everyone who took time to fill out our survey! Check out AdventureCliq.com, and click on 'Download' to enter your email to be notified when we launch (Yep, conversion tracking!).

Picture credits to Solvate. 

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