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Startup Weekend Cal Poly 2015

Posted January 28, 2015

If you have never been to a Startup Weekend, I recommend you add it to your bucket list. It’s a 54 hour event held over a weekend with the purpose of pitching an idea, building a team, and prototyping a business before 5pm on Sunday. To say it is intense is a bit of an understatement. Cal Poly hosted the event this weekend and it started with about 120 really smart people pitching ideas.

The first phase are the pitches and we probably had about 35 that emerged from the crowd. Each person had an opportunity to do a 60 second pitch to the group. The ideas were wide ranging, some were thought out and others just burst into the room.

I pitched an idea for business intelligence but it got crushed by the other ideas in the room. To put this in perspective I had six votes, three of which were mine, and the top ideas had votes in the 20+ range. Since it looked like I did not have enough to create my own team I joined one that would later be named “Clock’d.” The process on the floor is interesting because the teams form based on people’s interest in the idea and belief in what the team is setting out to do.

This is followed by an election process to select the top ideas, which is an exercise in crowd planning. Each person gets three post-it notes that serve as votes and people wander around to vote on the ideas they liked best. Somehow out of this emerged 13 ideas that served as the base of group formation. After that, people attach themselves to the top ideas they like resulting in groups of five to 15. The net result was 13 groups and all the members wanted to work on that idea.

The groups went off and found space to talk and get to know each other. The goal was to get team buy-in before shutting down around midnight. Our group met in the library and talked about our strengths and weaknesses, which would prove to be extremely valuable over the weekend.

During that first evening the team went around the table introducing themselves and it turned out to be a very balanced team. We had four business people, three developers, one designer, and one TOG (Token Old Guy – that’s me). If I had carefully planned and interviewed people I do not think I could have selected a better team. I am always amazed how such good teams emerge from what appears to be total chaos. As the event evolved over the weekend another developer joined our team because he was a friend of the designer. Over the course of the evening the team divided itself into development and business and agreed to the idea details.

The idea was a time clock based on mobile technology that solves many of the problems with time and attendance recordkeeping. I have been involved with software development for over 35 years and it amazes me how these teams can agree on specs and be writing code within a few hours. In the business world, developing the specs before coding starts would be months, yet these teams do it in hours. As the code emerges there is this rapid iteration of the specs and code that happens in a continual improvement loop that would impress any project manager. With no leader, no written specs, and violating every best practice on the planet, this team had a working prototype that they ran live on stage Sunday night and it came off flawlessly. It takes real guts to go live on-stage with no safety net but they did it.

Saturday morning the event opened back up at about 8am but in reality it was about 9am before the team had enough coffee in them to get the creative minds moving again. By midday on Saturday the tech teams were focused on the product prototype and the business teams were out talking to potential customers. In our team, the product is the next generation of clocking in/out. The team had people out validating the viability of the idea while the techs were coding the prototype. By 11am the tech team had gotten an iPhone working as the location host to talk with and trigger the arrival event within about a 100 foot range of the base.

It was lunch on Saturday and the tech/design team had a basic prototype up and running. Then as the market research team returned there was discussion of a huge pivot and a reset of the goals. Needless to say, this caused some conversation within the tech team. Ultimately they decided to stay the course and keep the basic concept but they adjusted the target market. As the development went on during the day I started writing down the words emerging from the tech team. These were just tidbits of the conversation:

…it almost worked

…it half worked

…it 80% worked

…that should never happen

…how can the error always be on line 15?

…we are 95% done (unfortunately the last 5% takes 19 times longer to finish than the first 95%)

The startup evaluation includes market validation and they encourage the teams to get out and talk to people about their idea. Our business team (Nick, Katie, Eli, and Austin) talked to a wide range of businesses in downtown SLO. After the first cycle of validating their idea they returned rather down because they got some negative input. They eventually figured out that not all products fit for all businesses and that people saying ‘no’ is not necessarily a bad thing. This caused them to start talking about pivoting on the idea but the reality is they simply talked to the wrong people. They went back out two more times after taking input and adjusting their research. After that we wrote an email to the local CEO Roundtable group and got input from five local CEO’s that were much better matches for their idea. The problem they discovered is that their idea needs a certain amount of employees to create leverage and value. The CEO Roundtable group input really helped them refocus and understand that you have to pitch your idea to the right people and not everyone is the right one. I would like to thank Ty Safreno, Brent Kostiw, Sandy Lubin, Marci Imes, and Dave Cox from the CEO Roundtables for their input.

After lots of work by the team, at noon on Sunday the prep for the presentation was in full swing. This process is one that the team really did a great job on but the first time through was way past ugly. It was great to watch them evolve the presentation and work out each of the hiccups in the conversational flow. What would emerge after a few hours was a strong presentation that the entire team supported. This process continued up to the last second and the team energy just got higher and higher as time closed in on them. This team really went for the hoop doing a live presentation of the software and to my amazement it all worked.

I was very proud of the work that the team did and I did very little. I did not write code, validate the market, or create the presentation, but I did watch as they did all the heavy lifting. Clearly what finally made it to the stage was the work of the others in the group. I thought they were the overall winners but the judges disagreed and they placed second. The competition was fierce and there was not one single weak group there – truly an environment where only the strong survive.

One funny thing happened on Sunday night when the groups presented. My idea, which got crushed in the election process, was picked up by a group of engineers. They created what I think might be the best commercial value of the night. It was a technology to monitor video feeds to extract crowd movement data for traffic or marketing study. Not at all what I had in mind when I pitched the idea but it was brilliant and I was really glad they shared the connection to my pitch. They took it in a direction that I never thought of and I would like to thank Daren Davoux and his team for picking up the idea and developing it.

This was my sixth Startup Weekend and each one has had its own personality which I am sure is based on the work done by the organizers. The events have not been better or worse but they are certainly different and I have enjoyed all the ones I have been involved with. I cannot write about an event like this without giving these thought leaders a huge shout out. So to Luke, Allyson, Cam, and Jared here is a big SHOUT out for doing a great job! All I can say is “Simply Amazing”.

This event was well organized and had fewer overall group meetings than most. There were also fewer mentors and I am not sure if that was good or bad. On the good side it gave the teams more time to work and few distractions. On the other hand they got less input than other events. Again this is different, not good or bad.

Here is the team I worked with over the weekend. Bob, Katie, Rishab, Cameron, Colton, Tyler, Austin, Eli, Nick.

In closing it was a great event with lots of energy, ideas, and fun. I hope to see some of these ideas as businesses in our community in the near future. I know the Clock’d group is talking about continuing the idea as are many of the others. This is the beginning of the startup ecosystem in SLO and Softec hopes to see more of these at the Tech Pitch in October.

By: Bob Dumouchel – Softec Past President

Original blog post here.