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June 7, 2011

Start Up a Business Website over a Weekend

capabilities covered
Amazon Web Services

Start up a business over a weekend.  That was the premise behind this weekend long event that was hosted in Durham, North Carolina.

Nancy Jin, a co-worker of mine, and I attended the Start Up Weekend.  Over the weekend, participants met the challenge created by the Start Up Weekend committee and outputted prototype Facebook applications, Mobile applications and websites that encapsulated an idea that was created and pitched by a participant.

Here is a quick summarization of Nancy Jin’s experience at Start Up Weekend:

Friday night, out of over 100 participants (evangelists and hackers – basically marketing specialists and developers), 54 people each had 60 seconds to pitch an idea. We then voted and picked which ones we wanted to work on. I landed a team of 2 other designers, two ruby developers, and three marketing specialists, with an idea of urban farming. We were then up till midnight figuring out what our plan was the next day.

8:30am – 12pm Saturday was spent surveying real people, defining problems, coming up with a solution and a base model for the business. Wireframing started at 2:00pm. By 4:00pm we had a logo and by 6:00pm we had a homepage. By 8:00pm we had a working site where people could log in and sign up, and by 11:00pm the rest of the pages were designed, functioning, and the homepage sliced out. Then I went and got some sleep.

The website was completed at 1:00pm the next day, and we had 5 minutes to pitch the idea against 17 other teams in front of everyone including a panel of judges.

We won.

Here’s the site: yardsprout.heroku.com

We addressed that local food is important for economic, environmental, and health reasons. Urban farming is important because we are utilizing fertile spaces that are otherwisewasted. People can grow their own gardens but for most people the toughest part is getting started. We wanted to first establish a business model where novices can seek master farmers to help them plant something,  to eventually have the company provide people with gardening kits, which is where yardsprout could team up with brands like Lowes and Home Depot.

Some other cool stuff I got to do was working with github, some ruby on rails (it was like what? I think where I’m sticking my HTML makes sense), and a lot of SASS (my first time).

Here is a quick summarization of my experience at Start Up Weekend:

Friday – I did not plan on making a pitch but one of the hosts came by everyone’s tables and urged us to make a pitch, so I motivated myself to bounce ideas off of random people around me.  I decided to pow wow with two random students from NCSU about business concepts.  First one that we came up with was struck down by our very own Nancy Jin who saved me the embarassment of pitching a product that pretty much existed in the wild.

I considered the 5-10 minute pow wow over a great idea and being shown the thriving product by my coworker next to me my first “failure” of the night.

 
Then, I started thinking about Atlantic BT and how businesses hear about us.  That’s when I brought up another concept which was Business-2-Business Reviews.com.  A site where a business owner or business decision maker can read reviews (should be testimonials).  Needless to say, I had 15 minutes to come up with something to say in a crowd of 100 people for 60 seconds.  I took the plunge and *cues drumroll* did not get voted as a top 10 concept.

I considered the pitch my second “failure” of the night.

 
I ended up being asked to join one of the winning teams, namely “Carpoolicious”!  The idea was created by Sam Gong who is currently studying for his PhD in Theoretical Physics at Duke University.  Our plan was to use a complex algorithm to determine best travel patterns and travel partners during your commute.
I was not swayed by the fact that Sam had came up with this concept during his drive to the event.  In fact, I felt it really interesting to break down a concept, analyze potential failure points, doing the research and pivoting the product to something we both believed in.
“Pivoting” is when you change a fundamental part of the business model. It can be as simple as recognizing that your product was priced incorrectly. It can be more complex if you find the your target customer or users need to change or the feature set is wrong or you need to “repackage” a monolithic product into a family of products or you chose the wrong sales channel or your customer acquisition programs were ineffective.
Unfortunately, we did not win the final pitch.
Although it was not my original concept, I felt that the resulting concept was very much something I was a part of.

Therefore, I considered not winning my third “failure” of the night.

 
But, with all those fails – I learned a lot.
 

What I learned and did over the weekend:

 
  • Learned how difficult it was to tell a team member they were holding back discussions and need to re-evaluate what they aimed to get out of the weekend.
  • Learned that your product needs a solid customer acquisition strategy & financial forecast model.
  • Came up with the following short-term customer acquisition strategies adopted by the Carpool team
  • Deals along the way (think Groupon deals for long point to point trips)
  • Concert and Sporting Events (which led to more focused growth strategies by my teammates)
  • Other ideas by my teammates.
  • Work with TicketMaster, StubHub & Political Campaign managers to push individuals to Carpool to events.
  • A spinoff website called “Designated Driver Roulette”… basically utilizing the carpooling engine to determine who gets the job of DD when going out with a group of friends in a car.  Unfortunately, that got nixed.. but it would’ve been fun.
  • Loved the idea pitched by the Mentor for our concept which was
    • Creating a white label Carpool tool for corporations to reduce carbon emissions by their employees for gov’t tax breaks and clean tech PR.
  • Learned how to create a Features/Benefits vs. Ease of Use graph from our teammate who used to work for Accenture for 12 years.  This was a great way of showing competitor analysis in one graph.
  • Created a survey to figure out customer validation.  I found out at 8:00 am on Sunday that it is important to have some sort of customer validation.  A bit late for me to generate survey results.  But, I managed to finagle ~100 responses via the following methods:
    • Facebook Survey
    • Tweeted SurveyMonkey link to individuals at the event
  • Visited United Kingdom chat rooms to post the SurveyMonkey link.  It was approximately 2:00 pm in the UK when these individuals saw my link.  United Kingdom was a good target market for us because of their interest in cleantech.
This most recent study comes on the back of an earlier survey E&Y carried out between between August and October 2010 found that 76 per cent of UK businesses questioned believe urgent and decisive action is needed or the UK will fall behind other countries that are prioritising cleantech as a sector of national strategic importance.

The survey I created was this:

  1. Do you carpool to work? (97% responded no)
  2. Would you carpool to work with a coworker? (85.2% responded yes)
  3. Do you know about company incentives for carpooling?  (77.8% responded no)
From the above results, we determined a potential market size.  If given more time, we would have added more questions that focused on customer validation.

It was definitely a memorable weekend and I plan on attending this event again next year.

capabilities covered
Amazon Web Services

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The Ultimate Guide To Planning A Complex Web Project

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