Triangle Startup Weekend 2nd place winner here!

I’ve not been to a startup weekend in at least a couple years (2009?  2008?).  The format’s similar, but the process is (mostly) more polished than it was back then.  Given that, I still wasn’t sure what to expect on Friday evening.  I had an idea I considered pitching, but held off for two reasons.  1 – there were 58 other pitches – everyone got tired towards the end.  2 – I wanted to contribute on something besides my own ideas.  That was actually harder than I thought it might be.  Let me explain…

Like many of the people there, I have ideas, some I’ve worked on, and having other people help could potentially be a big boon.  But it can also be disaster.  If someone challenges your idea, you take it personally.  It’s human nature, and few can rise above it, especially in the short time frame you’re working under.  Better, I thought, to try to be on the other side of things for a while – contributing and improving someone else’s idea for a change.

So… I listened to the pitches.  I certainly appreciate that people have interests and passions and problems, I was disappointed that so many of the pitch ideas were … somewhat lame.  Some described personal problems than someone had which a) didn’t resonate with me at all and b) just seemed petty.  These are first world problems we have, when “i can’t decide where to go on vacation” is a problem you promote to a group.  I’m over simplifying here, and reviewing the pitch list just now, I’m being a bit overly harsh, but the “first world problem” mentality just felt overwhelming to me Friday.

There were only a handful that resonated with me personally, and of those, only one seemed *doable* over a weekend (really, just Saturday) and also didn’t strike me as something where the pitcher would actually want to be in total control and micromanage the project:  Kate Lyndegaard’s pitch on “GPS Data Capture”.  Problem was, I couldn’t find Kate after the pitches to discuss further.  We almost didn’t connect, and I’d felt like going home at that point because so few team ideas felt worth pursuing.  Oh, I also didn’t want to be one person on a team of 12 – I wanted to be on a smaller team.

I met Kate, and she’d come down with her husband (Simon) and his friend (Matt), and they all wanted to work on it with someone.  I became that someone.  It was an interesting dynamic – a husband/wife team, known colleague, then unknown me.  We also had Daniel on our team for a bit, but he was splitting his design talents with another team.  Daniel also contributed a great (real) use case example video he made with Simon(?) on Saturday morning.  I think this video helped cement our pitch and explain the value proposition immensely.  As much as I’d like to think my pitching skills helped, I think the video did the trick.  😉

Back to the story.  We grouped up on Friday night, and discussed the idea in more detail  It was clear Kate had thought a lot about this.  She worked in GIS, had experience with capture/collection processes, and had developed a prototype already.  Ugh.  It was in Flex.  Double ugh.  I’m not a platform bigot as much as I used to be, but my limited experience with Flex is that it’s far more complicated for me to do some things than I expect it to be.  Classic chicken/egg, really, as if I spent years with Flex, I might be faster at it.  As it stood, Kate wasn’t a hardcore dev, and wasn’t completely tied to using the Flex app (she was ‘Flex’ible on that point).  At that point my brain wheels started spinning.

The core basic platform would be a way to assign people the task of collecting defined (yet customizable) information and associating it with a specific point on a map.  On a mobile device.  That was it.  I had 24 hours to make that happen.  In retrospect, our pitch could have been “Google Maps meets Survey Monkey”, but that trivializes it some, while also bringing the baggage of connotation of both those services with it.

However, I had to – we had to – convince Kate to let us ‘dumb it down’.  Many of the things she’s been planning relate to ‘high end’ GIS stuff: shape files, kml/kmz, extreme accuracy, etc.  The rest of us were looking at this as a consumerization play on commodity hardware, vs building a tool with professional-grade functionality.  There was a bit of pushback from Kate, but in the end we agreed as a team to explore simpler ideas for the weekend.  This was good, because that’s all I was going to be able to build anyway.

Tech stuff: I started on the ‘nm’ branch of my zfkit (preconfigured Zend Framework using Redbean) project on github, basically because it’s what I already know and have been tweaking recently.  I had considered using Grails, which in retrospect I would have done, only to make the relationship modelling even easier on the back end, BUT… I thought I might be collaborating with others, and a PHP collaborator is easier to find than a Grails one.

Tech stuff 2: I started immediately trying the Mapstraction library, because I didn’t want to tie us to one map provider’s API.  Bing/MS vs Google vs Yahoo vs etc…  I didn’t want to have to make that decision.  Turns out I wasted two hours because the one feature I wanted wasn’t implemented – having an event fire on ‘drag end’.  I wanted to be able to drag a marker/pin to allow people to fix any GPS vagaries that might happen with the device, as well as to get more accurate when you can’t get to the exact spot (if a spot is in a construction zone that’s roped off, for example).  So.. I went back to Google Maps.

And away I went.  This was only going to be a web-app – no native app in the time allotted.  This made dev time significantly faster for me.  Much of the team had iphones, so we’d go outside and test, then I’d come back in a tweak a bit.  Biggest headaches for me were dealing with the ‘viewport’ stuff on the iphone.  The layouts never looked right.  I’d used twitter bootstrap and the ‘responsive’ layer, but I was doing something wrong, as things weren’t ‘responsive’ nor did they look all that great without tons of manual tweaking.  I’m obviously missing something, but didn’t have too much time to investigate.

By Sat night we all felt pretty good – basic working demo, slide deck to pitch – use cases mapped out, etc.  We had no specific monetization model, but did have most other things in place  We left – late again – feeling ready for Sunday.  Sunday came, and we were still pretty solid.  Some issues with getting our PPT embedded videos to play on the main demo system for the pitches (freaked me out just a bit, but Simon and Matt took care of things!), and just a lot of pitch rehearsing.  I felt like I was taking over or even dominating the practice session, as I was telling people how to say things, and I ended up taking over some sections of the pitch which weren’t originally mine, but I think it worked out OK.  I did get some solid constructive feedback from the team on some of my original ad-libbing – this was *great* because it showed me they were listening, and felt comfortable challenging what I was doing, but in a positive and constructive and polite way – a pretty rare combination, in my experience, and I loved it.  Thanks team 😉

So, about 10 minutes before all the pitches started, I was *drained*.  I felt my body just switch off – very strange feeling.  I couldn’t move, couldn’t think, and panicked that I wouldn’t be able to move, let alone present.  The rush of the past 2 days had simply drained me.  It was a weird feeling, but after about 15 minutes I got energy back, got a second wind and was good.  Until about 10 minutes before *our* pitch, when I got *really* nervous.  I didn’t want to look silly (even in a pink shirt, you gotta have standards), nor did I want to reflect poorly on the team.  They’d put a lot of work in to this too – not just this weekend, but for months beforehand.  And I didn’t want to screw it up.

In the end, I think I did OK (if I can find video, I’ll post it).  I flubbed a couple things, added some nervous patter (toastmasters would have dinged me for many of these!) but overall whatever we did worked enough for second place 😉  I did get some good reaction from people later saying “good presentation” and whatnot.  Hard to know how much was politeness and how much was genuine, but there were enough that I think I and we both must have come across well.

We’re going to talk hopefully sometime this week about further plans on pursuing this project, and how we go about that.  If *nothing else*, it was a fun, if exhausting, experience, but it we can make something more out of this business opportunity, that’d be great too.  I’ll have to rely far more on the rest of the gang for the business execution side of things, but I trust them enough to think good things will happen.

Overall, great experience, and very interesting to see the progression of ideas to execution over just 48 hours.  If you can get to a Startup Weekend event, go!  You’ll have a blast!

Oh… our project –


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