If you’re a follower of @phuseca on Twitter, you likely already know that I attended Startup Weekend 2011 in Toronto this past weekend. What you may not know, however, is how profound an experience it was.

But I’ve got to be honest – I’d never attended a conference quite like Startup Weekend. In fact, what I initially thought was a conference that would be all talk and less action, was completely opposite. You see, I’d never heard of Startup Weekend before. What I thought when I first signed up was that I’d be attending 3 days in Toronto with tons of speakers talking about what it means to be a startup, and how to be a successful one.

This was perfect! At Phuse we love working with startups, and at this event I was excited to network and get to meet a ton of people with big ideas that were looking for teams to help them execute their vision.

But my initial thoughts were a bit (alright, a ton) off.

What’s a Startup Weekend?

Startup Weekend is a three-day event that spans over roughly 54 hours that is all about action. On Friday you’re greeted by dinner and tons of people ready to network and meet you. Then, anyone who has any idea for a product they want to build over the weekend gets to go up and give a quick elevator pitch (60 seconds, folks!) to everyone. After the pitches (we had roughly 70), there is another networking opportunity for people to ask pitchers for more information on their idea and participants vote on ideas they’d like to work on.

After voting, the organizers announce the ideas with the most votes (we had 20 that filtered down to 15 after some decided to merge similar ideas) and let everyone create teams around those ideas. At this point, the newly-formed teams spread out across the venue to literally build their idea in the weekend. By Sunday afternoon everyone re-pitches their ideas with prototypes and share what they discovered over the weekend. A panel of judges vote on the ideas they think are most viable, and winners of the weekend receive prizes from a myriad of awesome sponsors.

What’d you build?

We initially formed around our team leader’s (Ronan) idea about creating a mobile application that allowed you to find ice cream trucks in your proximity. Pretty kickass idea, am I right? We figured that people love the novelty behind ice cream trucks and would love to be able to find them more often. Hell – we even thought ice cream truck drivers would be excited to have a new way to market their business. Apparently the folks at EighteenEighty also thought our idea and team was pretty rad because they filmed us all weekend (think Jersey Shore with less Snooki and more cowbell).

But we were a bit off-target with what our customers wanted.

We officially hate ice cream

You see, what we didn’t realize was that the majority of ice cream truck drivers were 80-year-old Greek men who wanted to marry Liza, and didn’t know how to use mobile phones more than calling and texting. In fact, their business was highly competitive and they don’t make as much of a margin as they used to. That, and people in our target demographic didn’t know that they would use the app too often since most people bought their own ice cream.

We realized all of this after talking to our customers and potential clients at 9:30PM on Saturday night. Funny enough, by 10PM we had come up with a new idea that built upon our initial idea (what we called a “super pivot”) and brought it to a new level. We quickly got to work rebuilding our business model, designs, prototypes, and came up with our final product idea: Delirious App.

What’s Delirious?

Well, we were probably a little Delirious Saturday night running around getting things done as quickly as possible. Our idea, though, built upon the essential principle of our ice cream truck finder application. Essentially, Delirious App allows it’s users to track cool things they see. Say you see “another #rudesmoker blowing smoke” – you can tag the exact location you saw the person/place/thing, and let all your friends know by means of social media. We then thought to gamify (that is, create a game-like mentality around) the application and give users points for tracking things. You could also create as many categories as you’d like to track things – so you could spot things like gangstas or celebrities, cars or (obviously) ice cream trucks.

We then built an awesome business model around the idea that showed value towards brands who would like to see where and when their brands are being used, and be able to give their customers potential deals for being so loyal. Sunday morning we went out and found people in our niche and asked them what they thought about the idea. Not so surprisingly, everyone seemed to love the idea and thought of using it for inside jokes and even brought up the idea of allowing users to create a scrapbook around their findings.

In addition to the landing page we put together, here’s a set of mockups we put together (click for a larger version):

So did you win?

While initially we may have all come into the weekend wanting to win so we could have a product we could all make some money off of and put on our resume, by Sunday we were proud of ourselves for pulling together all that we did. (In fact, some of us were so exhausted that after the first beer we may have been a little drunkenly excited.)

So did we? Technically, yes. Two of our team members (Josh and Cam) won a Blackberry Playbook and Torch, respectively (which they quickly traded). Seriously, though – I think we did, despite not placing in the top 3. The reason for this is that we all took a lot out of the weekend, and made an amazing team. Here’re some things I learned this weekend:

  • Business development is excruciatingly important. Our team was mildly stacked on the business development side of things as we initially only had one developer (Emerson) and one designer (myself). While I thought this was a little nerve-wracking initially, I didn’t realize how important business development is in product development. From analyzing the key features of the application and developing business models around them, to doing customer development and finding out whether or not the idea is viable – there’s a lot more to a business than just creating a cool-looking application that works.
  • Always, always, always listen to your customers. We listened to our customers which is why we changed what we were doing more than halfway through the weekend. Unfortunately due to the fact that we were in a sprint we had to do some assuming in our work, but in normal situations you should be doing customer development throughout the process – especially initially when your idea doesn’t have a face yet. Customer validation is equally as important as you complete things so that you make sure you’re moving in the right direction!
  • Use breaks to your advantage. For example, by the end of all the pitches Friday night, the entire team was exhausted. While we were all excited to work and had tons of ideas in our heads, we needed to get some rest, let the ideas simmer, and bring it all in Saturday morning with fresh minds. Throughout the day we did the same thing – when we realized our idea needed to shift into something more viable to our target audience, we joined all the other teams in listening to some talks, and made a point to walk around a bit.
  • Take a step back and look at your idea from a high-level. Similar to taking breaks, make sure when you initially scope out the work needed to be done and what you’re building, make sure you take a step back and write down all of your ideas. While it can be tempting to jump right into things when you have the motivation, you can easily get lost and forget things. Having a board that people can manipulate throughout the day with ideas and thoughts is equally as important.
  • Timebox the hell out of your work. Nothing needs to be perfect, especially when you’re working in a 54-hour sprint. Create a list of tasks that need to be completed and estimate time you’d like to allocate towards each task. Then, assign people to tasks and get them to work within the time provisioned to get something done. Even if it’s not perfect, you’ll have something to build upon when you have more time later.
  • Always have business cards handy at conferences. While I was definitely there to network and let people know about The Phuse, I often found myself so into what I was doing that I didn’t have my business cards on hand and had to rifle around my backpack to find them (which can be pretty embarrassing when your backpack includes all your clothes that you brought to wear throughout the weekend).
  • Be ready to sit back and learn. Teams are interesting and exciting because everyone has different skill sets and talents they bring to the table, and you need to know when to let people shine. While I came in there thinking I knew how everything was going to go, there were times for all of us where we needed to learn to sit back and listen to others (whether it be people standing up to lead, people expressing opinions, et cetera).

What now?

Now that the weekend is over, a lot of us have to decide and see how this all is going to pan out in our crazy work schedules and lives. Statistically, 80% of teams formed at Startup Weekends across the world go on to working together in the future, and I have a slight inkling that we’ll all be seeing each other again to keep working.

Hip, hip!

This past weekend was great. I mean, I’m suffering from an amazing hangover/cold from this weekend almost 48 hours later and I’ve not a single complaint. I’d like to thank the event organizers Chris and the Startup Weekend family for putting together such a great event, and The Working Group for letting us use their space. And of course, I’d really like to thank the team who made this weekend as amazing as it was (note: no children were harmed in the making of this picture):

From left to right:

  • Ted – Business and customer development genius!
  • Emerson – Crazy developer of… (wait for it) Java!
  • Me – Definitely need a better photo.
  • Brennan – PR and marketer who got us banned on Twitter. *sigh*
  • Josh – Wicked developer who doesn’t realize how counterproductive running Windows on a Mac is.
  • Cameron – Cool, calm, and collected leader who made sure the troops were on track.
  • Ronan – The team leader that can sue you if you step out of line. (And our new lawyer!)
  • Liza – Kickass business and customer development guru, and chief-cleaner-upper.
  • Frank – Crazy smart business and customer development specialist who came out knowing that much more about Twitter!
  • Love it man, great post… this’ll definitely help set expectations for future newbies. See you at the next SW Toronto!

    • Thanks for all the hard work, Adam – love seeing this sort of thing going on in the Startup community and if there’s ever any way The Phuse can help, we’re here for ya!

  • Lon

    Hey awesome post. I was with team reputate.. you guys definitely look like you had the best time while teaming! great work.

    • Hey Lon, thanks so much! We definitely had a blast. Congrats on placing!

  • Fantastic overview of the weekend! I’m going to send this to all of my friends because my explanation of the weekend is being met with blank stares.. “On Friday I had a View Master with my idea, on Saturday 8 magicians created wonderful things, and on Sunday we won 2nd place!”

    • So glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, I tried to go a bit more in depth about it than elsewhere. I remember initially trying to find information on it and having to read through most of the FAQ section on the main site.

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  • That was very insightful, I just watched the “documentary” as well.
    I know a few guys going to the startup weekend in Toronto this weekend, Nov/9, and hope they get this much out of it.

    Thanks for the article James.

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