What I learned starting a company in 54 hours

Posted by Jeff Schnurr on September 23, 2013 · 14 min read

Startup Weekend On Friday night, 100 developers, designers and business people came together at the Communitech Hub in Kitchener to start a company.  The event was called Startup Weekend Kitchener/Waterloo, part of the global movement of the same name that now includes over 45,000 Startup Weekend alumni, from cities around the world.  The mantra is “No talk, all action”, and the objective is to launch a Startup in 54 hours, culminating in a pitch on Sunday night to community investors and business leaders.

This was my first Startup Weekend, and in fact my first Communitech event.  Overall, I felt very fortunate to be amongst such a diverse and capable group of people - both the participants that rolled up their sleeves to build something, but also the vast network of community leaders and experts (Communitech calls them ‘Mentors’) that are freely available to help you make it happen.  It’s a beehive of brainpower, caffeine and pure focus.

Forming a Team

On Friday night, the event was opened with some inspiration from Matt Gardner and Jason Moore (Groupnotes), Ted Livingston (founder and CEO of Kik), Melissa Morgan (CEO & co-founder, uIntuition) and Ramzi Samara (MBET and Startup Weekend KW winner).  Each are successful entrepreneurs in their own right, with a lot to share for this eager young audience.

Next, the pitches started.  Anyone could pitch, and they were given a microphone and 60 seconds to sell their idea to the crowd.  The next step was voting, where each member of the audience placed sticky notes on the ideas that most captivated them - and that they would most like to work on.  When the dust settled, there were about 10 ideas selected, and the crowd self-organized around those ideas to build teams for the weekend.

SWKW

I joined a team that had merged two related ideas together - the ability to more easily find sports fields using annotated mapping, and an easier way to find pick-up games of your favorite sport nearby.  The team had started to form and was missing the “business guy” role, so they asked me to help.  I was in!

The Setup

The first few hours were all about logistics.

We introduced ourselves (we had never met before), shared a bit about our backgrounds, and determined what role each person would play.  We shuffled tables and chairs into a comfortable workspace, set up the laptops, and put there whiteboards within easy reach.

From a technology perspective, there was a rapid consensus on the technology stack.  We selected a domain & hosting provider, mobile development platform, languages, libraries, databases and interfaces.  We set up a project in Trello to organize activity, and talked about the high level milestones for the weekend.

logo2

We sketched out a bunch of wire frames in a notebook to illustrate the concept.  In all, we had 7 screens that embodied the concept, and provided the major workflows for our MVP - minimum viable product.Then, came the name.  We needed an identity - and a clear, consolidated vision of the two ideas we had formed from.  After much debate, it was decided

It was midnight Friday night, and Communitech was closing the building.  You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.  We decided a fresh start on Saturday would be best, and wrapped for the day.

The Concept

Communitech opened at 8am, and the team trickled in shortly after that.  We quickly decided our workspace was too crowded, and relocated downstairs to a more open area where we could breathe.  Breakfast was served, and then we got down to work.

We had to refine the business concept.  The wireframes gave the development team enough to chew on for a few hours, and they started to put the plumbing together.  In parallel, we began work on the brand and business model.  What business were we in?  Who were our customers?  How would we make money?

This was a very iterative process.  The core idea, and the features and the functions of the app, all came very quickly, and didn’t change much over the course of the weekend.  How to translate that into a business, however - was a much bigger challenge.

The Mentors

Throughout the weekend, we had the support and input from a number of mentors along the way.  It was great to work with such a capable and diverse set of people, all with no agenda but to advance our idea.  Their feedback, brutally honest and seasoned with reality - kept the team aligned.  It also caused turbulence, as inputs varied and conflicted.  In the end, it was on us to synthesise the inputs, make decisions and converge on a plan.

The mentors that supported us were:

The Output

After two days of intense development, strategy, branding, business planning, market research and pitch deck creation - it was time.  On Sunday night, it all came together.   This is what it sounded like, on stage in front of our fellow Startup Weekend participants, mentors, and of course - the judging panel.

Everybody wants to be healthy. We need to harness the power of technology to get people outside, and re-engage in what we would call retro-social - before Twitter and Facebook, when you would gather with your friends and get out on the pitch.

Our target market is active, young professionals.  While they play in organized leagues too, 67% of the potential customers we surveyed prefer to join a pick-up game when they have some free time.  Most of those games are organized ad-hoc by a small number of people with the initiative to book the field, spam their friends, and try to pull a game together.

So what is the problem exactly?

Home Screen

It turns out that organizing a pick-up game is hard, so there aren’t as many organizers as there should be. And as a player, finding a quick local pick-up game is a hassle. You want to play with your friends, but according to 82% of our survey respondents, they want to include others as well - people they don’t know yet, but share their passion for the sport and play at the same skill level as themselves.

Our product is a software platform and mobile app that simplifies the whole process. Effortlessly organize games, and have players discover & join them in a single integrated experience. For that one game, you’re a team - share, communicate, trash talk, all on the platform. And after the game, keep the conversation going, or even set a re-match. When it’s over, the team dissolves and you do it again next time.

Search Screen

We will monetize through advertising partnerships with local sports retailers, who can deliver advertising to a qualified and captive audience, right in the app. Imagine the power of an ad for soccer gear that is delivered to someone that is fully engaged in a process to sign up for a soccer game.

After the game, you’ll find promotions from local hospitality vendors that will help you take this new retro-social group down the street for a beer.

As for a ramp plan, this is all about market capture to start.  The app is free, and we will go city to city to work with community game organizers to help them adopt the platform, with a goal of launching in one Canadian city per week for the first 3 months. Once each city hits critical mass, we will engage sponsors to increase reach and drive revenue.  We estimate this method will drive the virility required to reach millions of users within a year.

View Game

In the future, we have a bigger vision - we’ll help get people outside, get healthy, and remember what social used to mean. We think that individuals, brands, sponsors, sports fields and even government programs like Participaction align to this ideal. Once we hit critical mass, we envision a pro version with a monthly fee, and more value added services like managed games, or even managed leagues, that remove the organizer role altogether.

We want a healthier Canada, and we want to help  20 million Canadians make pick-up games as effortless as ordering a pizza. We all know it would be a much better choice.

gameIt - take it outside.

What I Learned

First off, I have to say that the entire experience was wonderful.  Some of the key lessons I took away were:

  • Manage your time.  We ran into crunch time at the end, with key elements of our pitch and the associated slides coming together way too late on Sunday.  As a regular speaker, I know the level of quality I can deliver - and this one wasn’t my best.  Another 2 hours of prep time would have made a world of difference.
  • Have an elevator pitch.  As the weekend progressed, we had to introduce the concept to many people who had no idea what we were up to.  They wanted to “get it” immediately.  They needed to understand the target market, value proposition & business model in 15 seconds, so they could quickly categorize us and make an assessment.  It had to be a strong hook that invited more exploration and discussion.
  • Talk about the business, not the app.  Not surprisingly, the technical people loved to talk about stacks & features.  However, there was zero interest in that from the big players - they wanted to see a competent team, a great business plan, and a vision that would create a company, not an app.
  • Get lots of input, but then make your own decisions.  With so much smart feedback from billiant and accomplished people, it’s tempting to try and wedge it all into your solution.  However, you risk creating a Frankenstein solution that is a little bit of everything, and a whole lot of nothing.  The team needs to have a clear vision, understand their market, and produce a great business plan, and then lean on advisors to improve it - but don’t take a hard left turn on a whim.

In Summary

Unfortunately, we didn’t win the competition, but the weekend was a huge win.  We made some new friends, sharpened our skills, and had an opportunity to learn what’s really possible in 54 short hours when a team has a vision & the commitment to make it happen.

Will we take gameIt to market?  Well, the team sure seems eager to continue the work, and we have a huge head start.  We decided to take a few days to decompress and then talk about it.

Team gameIt Photo

Many thanks to Communitech, University of Waterloo, BDC & the other sponsors of the event, the mentors, and Briton Dowhaniuk, Andrea Harding and Chelsea Prescod who made it all happen.  We are truly fortunate to have such a strong community supporting innovation in Kitchener/Waterloo.

And last but not least, thanks to Team gameIt - Charles Desouza, Turgut Jabbarli, Farhan Hossain, Sunaal Mathew, NV Bhargava & Michael Luubert - for a truly unique weekend!  These brilliant young people will surely go on to do tremendous things.

Check out our b-roll action shots from The National on CBC

Hope you enjoyed the post.  Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!