August 11, 2015
I had absolutely zero hackathon experience when I agreed to attend the North Dallas Startup Weekend July 17-19 at North Dallas Coworking (nōd). What I did have was experience working for a startup and lots of coding experience. I thought a hackathon would be a weekend where you just code and code and code – just like college where you code your term project the weekend before it’s due, right? Not so fast! There are hackathons, and then there is Startup Weekend. One could say I still have no experience doing a hackathon because what I participated in was so much more. The goal was to formulate and launch a business, not just code. Here is a quick overview of the three-day marathon, and some cool things I learned along the way:
Mix and Mingle
First thing I learned is it’s very important to be social. As a developer, I fit in with the introverts quite nicely. I quickly learned I should step out of my comfort zone. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to form a successful team with the right mix of development, business and marketing resources. I showed up with a couple friends who were also developers, and kept I mostly to my group. This was a bad idea. Unless you show up with an already stellar group, you’ll be missing key roles.
LESSON 1: Reach out and touch someone – don’t be afraid to be social.
Pitching an Idea
After a bit of socializing it was time for everyone to pitch his or her ideas. At Startup Weekend we each had 60 seconds to pitch to the crowd. With over 30 – 40 people pitching ideas, the time constraint is a necessity so it was a requirement to practice your elevator-pitch. I noticed that the most successful pitches were not necessarily the best ideas but ones who played to the emotions of the crowd.
LESSON 2: The crowd is made up of potential teammates – woo them with an emotional pitch
Forming a Team
After everybody pitched, it was then time to form a team. This is perhaps the most pivotal moment in the weekend. Either you’ll attract others to join your team, each with different backgrounds and disciplines, or you won’t. Since I arrived with two other developers, I didn’t really want others to join my team. I didn’t know I would need them. I’m thinking “we’re three awesome developers who know how to code; We’ve got this ‘hackathon’ in the bag!” Do you see the problem with that line of thinking? We weren’t at a “plain-jane” hackathon.
We still did our due diligence. When people came to us we explained our idea in more detail and we did get enough votes to be among the finalist pitches. Unfortunately, all the attention we garnered was from other developers who could see that the technology we were working with was cool and new. We were unable to attract other disciplines and our team suffered for it. Later in the weekend, when I realized this, I recalled that I was being a developer talking about technology in a way that only other developers could relate.
LESSON 3: Balance your team with diversified skills – make sure and add marketing and business team members if you are a developer.
As a developer I don’t usually think in terms of business applications. I’m just an engineer playing with Legos – fitting pieces here and pieces there to solve the problem in front of me. Since we didn’t have anyone in the marketing role, we had to try to fill it ourselves. We did a ton of market research to find out if our idea had any staying power. You’ll need this to help answer some basic questions: “Is there a market for this product?”, “How much should it cost?” and “Who would pay for it?”
LESSON 4: Market research is essential in determining who would buy your product and how to position it.
It’s important to know whom you’ll be going up against once your product or solution is in the market. The judges want to know if you are pitching something that already exists or if you’re going up against any industry heavy hitters, like Google or Apple.
LESSON 5: Think about and analyze all competition – both direct and indirect.
I was unfamiliar with this term when it was first introduced to me by one of the advisors at North Dallas Startup Weekend but it is probably the most important part of your product pitch. Validation tries to answer the question of whether there are actual, real people who would be customers. This requires some legwork to be done. At our adviser’s behest, I personally went to the mall and asked random strangers four yes or no questions to try to gauge interest in our product. This was a difficult task for me as I had step way outside of my comfort zone.
LESSON 6: Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself to be successful.
For a team of developers this was the easy part. We put together a site and launched it. We had a name for our product and branding with a font and color palette. Luckily, one of us had some design experience! We put together a demo that we were sure would wow the judges and other teams.
LESSON 7: Work with kick ass developers!
Wrap it up
The last day is crunch time, as if the whole weekend already wasn’t! It’s time to finish the MVP and start work on your presentation. All the data you collected from market research, competitive analysis and customer validation needs to be compiled into an easily understandable format.
LESSON 8: Don’t crack under pressure.
Take the time to run through your demo and pitch. Run through it many times over. You’ll find that you’ll learn what to say more smoothly the more you go through it. Get down to the core of the pitch and remove all extraneous information. This is really just the extended pitch after the elevator pitch but it’s still pretty short. For this weekend, we had four minutes to pitch with a three-minute follow-up Q&A from the judges (this time was strictly adhered to). Be prepared to answer tough questions. The judges asked about our business model, competition, revenue streams and more. Try to cover these things in your presentation. Lacking the business sense, we mostly went over the technology and didn’t demonstrate marketability – this turned out to be our fatal flaw.
LESSON 9: Practice makes perfect.
Launch and Generate Revenue
It really helps if you can actually launch the business. Like I said before, this isn’t just a hackathon; it’s Startup Weekend. The goal here is to start a business not just build something cool. If you can launch and get people following you on social media and garnering interest that’s instant validation. The most successful pitches were ones who already had revenue. Not only did they have a revenue model, but they had actual revenue, from real customers!
LESSON 10: Get some real people using your solution – even better; get some of those to pay you!
Just like any new endeavor, you have to be able to step out of your comfort zone to start a new business. These quick hit startup teams need to be balanced with developers, business people, marketers and more. Don’t allow your limitations impede you. To start a business you likely need investment and to get that you have to have a great pitch. I hope these lessons I learned at North Dallas Startup Weekend can help you be on your way participating at the next Startup Weekend or even out there in the wild as you start a business of your own.
Image Credit: North Dallas Coworking
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