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No dream too big, or Startup Weekend Taipei 2

Despite that I haven’t started myself any project yet, I’m a big fan of startup events. Startupbus, Entrepreneurship Challenge, Startup Weekend Taipei, they were all really amazing. Because of this, normally I wouldn’t have thought twice about signing up for Startup Weekend 2. Too bad, that it wasn’t normal situation, last weekend it was in the same time as Ignite Taipei #4, which I was co-organizing (and speaking in Chinese, oh the horror!), and wasn’t sure if I can do the two things in the same time. My friend and team member from last time, Pandey, was pushing me quite a bit, and couldn’t show fear or uncertainty – signed up anyway. Thought I will figure out what to do once we get there. As with many things in life, every issue worked out, probably even better than I could have planned, and I had a great (no matter how busy) weekend.

Beginning

It started on Friday, we all been checked in to Taipei 101, through tight security, changing elevators and lots of access cards to the 77th floor to Google Taiwan. It’s a nice place, and a view to kill for, though I wonder if I could work there for a long time.

As at other such events, it started with snacks, exchanging of business cards, trying to gauge each other, who would be a good team mate, what to expect. There were some presentations, introduction, t-shirts and badges of course.

StartupWeekend Taipei 2 badge
Badge for StartupWeekend

After about 2 hours the time came for pitching. From the 60 participants I think at least 20, maybe even more were sharing their ideas. The two language (English and Chinese) made it quite rough to sometimes understand what’s going on, though the 30/90 second time limit for single/dual language pitches is pretty tight as well.

I usually decide by following my intuition, and for the first 10 or so, I haven’t heard anything that ticked my interest really. Then there was one guy who was pitching a subscription based wine discovery service (something like sending people each month some new selection, with a guide, and help them understand those better while discovering new tastes). I thought for a moment of Cerealize (that took home 1st place at this year’s StartupBus), Candy Japan (that just looks such a simple and brilliant idea, and seems to work extremely well), ShoeDazzle (subscription clothes)…… (Semi)-custom food and such service sounds just such a brilliant idea, and wine is very well suited for that. Also, recently I had more exposure to wine and wine tasting, just wanted to use this myself and would know plenty of other people who would too.

I got to say, I pretty much stopped listening to all the other pitches, already been planning this, because I felt this would so easily win the competition – and turning profit by Sunday. Went and talked to the guy, and at the idea voting stage (where people could select the most interesting pitches, so the 11 most voted one will be allowed to build a team) I was canvasing for that anyway. Should have had some feeling, when the idea guy was saying that “good that you are interested, but it’s not sure you can be on the team” – sure, why not, no problem.

In the end the idea was selected, team started to build and we had 7 people altogether. I was really psyched. Since due to Taipei 101 regulations we had to get out of the building in 1 hour, got to work right away. Got the team members emails together, set up organization doc, the others were working on the name (Advintage), once they had one they liked the Facebook page was already set up, sent email to someone I know to know lots of wine-tasting people so we could get good info about what are the good ones to choose and maybe help to write the promotion material. Seen a couple of mentors idling around, and went to talk to them a little before they they kicked us out – running the idea with them, get some feedback, get pretty much a first customer, very interesting info and some thoughts I haven’t considered before.

5 minutes before we had to get out the building, I got back to the team and started to update the idea guy:

“Hey, talked to the mentors and just a quick summary, they said (this and that)”.

“Ah, wait. Wait. Greg, we don’t have much synergy here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“While everyone was working on the things, you didn’t help just went and talked to other people before asking us that we should do that.”

“Come on, we have very short time, we had to talk to them to get feedback. You don’t need me to choose a name ….”

“I’m sorry. We don’t have much synergy here. I don’t want you on the team.”

“Okay, I understand.”

So this is the story of me being fired for the first time. It’s interesting feeling, quite illuminating as well, I haven’t felt a lot of feelings like that before. So 5 minutes after I talked to the mentors, run into them again, and when they told me a couple of things, my only answer could be – sorry, I’m not on that team anymore. “What? They fired you?” “What, they fired him, why?” “Because he did something without asking permission.” “You are probably better off.”

Thus instead of going home to work on the project more, I carried on with the preparation for Ignite the next day. Oh, I needed that.

Drimmit

In the evening I was thinking what other team to join – since I basically didn’t hear anyone else’s pitch, but there was Pandey and his group where I knew a couple of them, maybe will join that team if they want me. For a short while I was thinking of getting the teams try to woo me, but that was just silly. I realized that I was doing the “I’m here to win not to make friends” routine that I previously laughed a lot at, so instead just followed my heart and went with the team where I wanted to know the people more.

And how well that was – I learned a lot of interesting things with them that I wouldn’t have otherwise. So here it is, Drimmit:

The Drimmit team at StartupWeekend Taipei 2
Meet the Drimmit team

It’s more or less a site to collaboratively help you achieve your dreams, give advice to each other, and find and manage milestones along the way to give you a clearer path and higher probablity of succes.

It was weird not to be the tech lead, but good to let some things go. Instead of that I was trying to take care of the front-end, while half the team was working on the model and product pitch for the finals.

So, some lessons learned along the way:

  • We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the model, everything had some problem, nothing was completely logical. Pretty much more than a day went buy, where we had ideas how things would look, what’s the flow, but then had to scrap that. One cannot really develop like that.
  • I overestimated my front-end skills, though it’s usually quite tough to turn a Photoshop mock-up into a working site. Also had to get used to the terminology that when someone asked: “Do we have this page” and the team replied “It’s done!” it meant there’s a picture of it, not at all that it works.
  • For a while I was annoyed by this, but it also gave the spark: for the pitch we don’t have to code down everything, just make a show-and-click: things look like they work, but the functionality doesn’t have to be created. That means we could just scrap (or rather: abandon) the work so far (that’s about Sunday noon, for 5pm start of the finals) and concentrate on looking good. This gave us a demo better than others
  • Learned about coding some more, though I haven’t had to do much this time. One lesson is to practice a lot beforehand. Another is to prepare some tools to make development easier. And of course: do whatever it takes.
  • Because I didn’t do much and I was too cocky in the beginning, I hereby revoke my “hacker” badge until the next time I build something. No problem, I have just the project on my mind I want to do next.
  • One of the strength I seem to have is asking questions, and that way at least I could help. It can be pretty annoying, to also very useful, I could see the gaps in thinking, asking the details, figuring out where we are not good yet. Does that mean that I would be a better mentor or consultant than creator?
  • It’s fun to work with people I know and like, the team is very very important. Also important not to take anything personally, too much stress of the 54 hours drives people to the edge.
  • If I were to start a team outside of such events, I would probably do it with 2-3 people instead of 6-7, it’s easier to get on the same page. On the other hand, much fewer ideas as well, so it might not be a good call.
  • Would have to think how to replicate the pressure of a Startup Weekend outside of it. Amazing how much one can get done when he/she has to.

The guys were practicing a lot our pitch and here’s the result:

Also, there’s a rehearsal video, also good to see the progress (and the tension) people had before we went in.

The results of the finals

Advintage won – which is pretty much making me happy, because I predicted that. It helps that they had about 50x the revenue over the weekend (30 subscriptions at 2000NT) than any other team. They have won on the product, clearly. On the other hand, it also made me happy that I realized I still wouldn’t like to work for the guy. “Work for”, that was my impression, he wanted employees, instead of co-founders out of this weekend. Fair enough.

On the other hand, Drimmit came 2nd. We clearly won on presentation, the energy, the preparation, the polish (as much as you can get in a day) worked. We had the team to pull it off. I was very proud of them, and glad to help no matter how much. Also, the presentation worked since many other people keep asking whether we’ll continue working on it, because they’d like to use such a service.

It was a great time and let’s see where does it take us later. I was wrong enough times and right enough time this weekend to learn plenty.

Future

Among the most inspiring picture, though, came from another team, posting (literally) their first revenue, regardless of the value:

Another team posting 100TWD revenue at StartupWeekend Taipei
Another team posting their revenue (100TWD = 3.4USD = 2.1GBP)

Also, I’m thinking that next time I would try to pitch as well, been developing enough, now it’s time to see if I could sell my ideas to others, whether I can get them excited about something. You know, it’s not the ideator but the first follower that counts.

The rest of the pictures are in this album, click to see, CC-BY to reuse if liked.

 

Startup Weekend Taipei

I really should have started to write this up about two weeks ago, just after StartupWeekend Taipei really happened. Better late than never (if there was ever a good excuse then this is), so taking some time out on this typhoon weekend, here’s my experience of that good 54 hours.

Board with the StartupWeekend Taipei logo
StartupWeekend Taipei #1 logo

Start

After StartupBus and the Taiwan Enterpreneurship Challenge, I cannot deny that I have a lot of fun at these kinds of events. So I signed up for Startup Weekend Taipei quite a long time ago, especially since I had a free StartupWeekend voucher from Microsoft BizSpark.

I kept recommending the event to more and more people and it seems there were quite a few of my friends who wanted to come but couldn’t because it was all sold out. “Sold out” in this case is 150 participants. That’s probably about the same number of people as on all the Busses, though this time stationary and all in one place. I wasn’t sure what mixture of people will come, just that it will be quite different as Taiwan still seems to have less of a hacker culture.

It turned out that more than 2/3 of the people were Taiwanese and much smaller proportion of foreigners than I expected. This is great – for Taiwan. For me it was a bit of a roadblock.

25 people went up to the stage to pitch their ideas in the hope of getting a team. Of those, only 5 were in English. After the pitching everyone got their three pieces of voting post-it notes and could mark which ideas they liked the most. Based on the votes, only the most popular 12 pitches were kept and only those people could carry on their ideas. Well, since Taiwanese were really not voting for ideas pitched in English, there were in the end 2 ideas that I could join up with… This time it worked out well (oops, is this a spoiler?), but next time probably the organizers should look at this whether the procedure of setting up teams worked or not.

12 teams for 150 people also meant that every team was huge… At the Bus our team had 8 people and I felt it was pretty big. Certainly if I want to start my own company I would probably get going with less then that.

Actually, that large team count is good for getting things done once we agreed on what’s to be done, but it’s pretty bad for reaching such agreement.

Our team had 7 people: 3 coders, 1 designer, 3 marketing/business planning. One (two) sentence pitch: Restaurant search engine for menu items. Tell us what you wanna eat, we show you where are the restaurants serving that in the neighbourhood.

Whiteboard planning for FoodJing at StartupWeekend Taipei
Whiteboard planning for FoodJing interface and functionality

Simple idea, but with our team we had quite a bit of back and forth when discussing the focus of execution. I tend to get very involved once I’m sold on an idea, maybe a little bit too involved. After a bit of discussion I had the role of back-end designer, creating the infrastructure on which all of the user-facing services can be built. I choose that one, because I felt that’s the part of the architecture where I can add the most in terms of making something that other people can rely on and can build on relatively easily. I do feel that without a good back-end no amount a front-end glitter can save things….

Of course in part I chose this role because on the Bus I worked with a great team who taught me a lot about that and wanted to try myself out.

Exercise for the first evening (Friday night): A long, long discussion about a name. Next up is getting some ideas of the feature set then simplify, cut, reduce and then reduce some more. It’s great, I recommend it to everyone. I think I was a bit too combative at that time (sorry, Dobes!), but at least I realized that and tone back quite a bit. Since at 11pm they closed the venue we went home till the morning. I wanted to get something little done by that time so I can show that off for the team. Of course I slept like a log instead.

Next morning (Saturday) I woke up quite early, earlier than usually on a weekday. That’s a very good sign. At the venue they already had some breakfast prepared for everyone. I was too nervous and excited to eat in the beginning. Then when I tried my bagel an hour later, it was amazing! Run back to the table to get another one, but obviously everyone is enjoyed them a lot and were less nervous. All of them were grabbed up.

Filled table with good breakfast and drinks
Breakfast time at StartupWeekend, these were totally yummy

After some more discussion we got working on an actual thing. The technology used:

  • Bottle, a Python micro-framework, it’s a single file. I like it a lot, have to check it out more later, especially because there are a swarm of Python micro-frameworks so good to know the strength and weaknesses of each.
  • MongoDB, through MongoLab, wanted to use for our database and geolocation “nearest place” lookup, but run into some weird Unicode bugs that I couldn’t solve in about an hour. Scratch that, will check it when there’s time
  • Google AppEngine, hosting and database. Perfect for this kind of thing. Had some problem with data export and import (“list” datatypes are not imported back correctly) so I wrote some custom remote imports and all fine at this level. Oh, and Geomodel, that’s useful.
  • lots and lots of Javascript (jQuery, Mustache, something for the instant search,…) for the front-end. That wasn’t me, so not exactly sure what else was going on there. I was checking with the front-end people only as much as it affected the schema of the API response.
Most of the day was spent on setting up an API, working out data lookup with the chosen database and structure, making a data input interface, some helper pages, and fixing a lot of bugs. Saturday evening we had basically everything down conceptually that we needed to have working. Going home at night again was a bit of bug fixing (let’s call it The Time of Duh).

Home stretch

Sunday morning getting up pretty early again, I love this kind of inspired work when I just cannot stop myself. All the way to the venue I was thinking how to use this experience to improve my day job (though it is pretty inspired already, so I guess I’m lucky).

Most of the day was spent by fixing more and more bugs, getting the front-end right (not me, fortunately, I have no real sense of design), getting some real data, real restaurants and menus into the database, figuring out and polishing the pitch, working on the feedback from the surveys our marketing people were doing since Friday evening, do some Facebook page based hyping….. This sort of StartupWeekend stuff.

FoodJing team working
FoodJing team working last minute

I was hoping that we could get an Android app in the end as well, but the person who was working on that I felt over-complicated the thing. Yeah, because I don’t know how much the others must have thought that I’m over-complicating my job… Anyway, I haven’t been writing Android code since the Bus, but actually in about 2.5 hours there it was, an map interface showing real data from our real database. Slap on a search bar and you are golden. There wasn’t any time for finishing that up, but still I was satisfied – it was possible because of a good back-end. (okay, enough of this patting myself on the back, dude)

Then it was finally time to pitch. The panel of judges was impressive. Real investors and business people from Taiwan, US and China, about a dozen of them, maybe more. All very experienced people.

Pandey is introducing FoodJing
FoodJing team pitching for Judges at StartupWeekend

Our presentation was quite good, because the team really prepared for the questions, really answered the concerns an investor would have and covered all our bases. Many of the other presentations were more emphasizing “fun”, had “pie in the sky” models, or had something that some of the judges already gave them feedback in the development phase and they didn’t fix it. It’s probably mostly down to experience. I haven’t pitched before, so I guess I’m not the most reliable source of useful information about this.

Anyway, the punchline: we got first prize.

Foodjing team posing for photo after their win
A winning team and cheque

Of course it feels pretty good. Some non-monetary things (mostly services by the sponsors), but there was a last minute donation of NT$60.000 (about US$2000) from the judges. That comes handy, my share will run that server I’m renting and pay for some domain names for future projects….

Postscript

The event has been covered on TechOrange and Penn-Olson So two people from the team will actually continue Foodjing. They are based in a different city, and there are some other, administrative issues why I wouldn’t be able to take part in that, but it’s all fine. When they get it done, I’m sure I’ll be an user. And I have plenty of lessons to take home:

  • I really can get excited about a lot of different ideas. Most ideas do have a useful core that can be developed, so on an event like this, the idea that one chooses almost makes no difference. Choose the team instead of the pitch.
  • One weekend is perfectly fine to get something done. In the end we had a working (albeit ugly) prototype. If it was done now, can be done any time. Got to use my weekends better.
  • Talk more to people who can and willing to help. Had a lot of mentors who had great feedback on everything.
  • This is not a hackathon. I took it as it was one, and my goal was getting something working. Talking to some of the organizers it took me by surprise that this is really business and by real I mean real. That these things we are making are as real as it gets. I was just thinking in terms of fun, have to take things more seriously, but without losing the ability of having a good time.
  • This time we succeeded. This cannot make me risk-averse that I don’t try anything unless I’m sure to win, cannot go to the next StartupWeekend with the mindset that I have to win again.
  • There will always be more ideas. For every one of them that fails, or succeeds but goes on without me, there will be 10 more that can be taken up. So where’s my next 10?

All in all, it was a great time and looking forward to the next event like this.